Wednesday, September 13, 2006


"Tradition with a twist." It was a marketing slogan for Apple Computers for quite some time. In the ad campaign, which was launced approximately ten years ago, "tradition with a twist" was superimposed on photographs of some of the world's greatest minds: Pablo Picasso, Miles Davis, Gandhi, and several other thinkers who have made our planet and its history a better, more conscious place.

As a teacher in training during this time, I was drawn to "tradition with a twist" for good reason. Having received an undergraduate liberal arts education at Fordham University, I was entrenched in the Jesuit philosophy of education: wisdom and knowledge are essential for learning, essential to becoming human, and learning HOW to think is far more important than learning WHAT to think. This philosophy emphasized that studying the great texts, ideas, sciences, religions, arts, languages, and histories of our world were essential to becoming more educated, more enlightened, and more humane. The end goal: a well-rounded, thoughtful person will hopefully contribute to the fabric of humanity, making the world a better, safer place.

To me, "tradition with a twist" means fusing the old with the new; examining the past while keeping an eye on the future; going outside of yourself to learn but demonstrating a willingness to introspect to mature; and, last but not least, learning from as many different sources as possible to give back to the world that has offered you so much. A bit convoluted? A bit idealistic? Perhaps. But that's my philosophy on life, and my philosophy on education.

Since entering public education ten years ago, I have been rather stunned by how the word "academic" has become, on some level, the soucre of the new Scarlet Letter A. Every now and again, I am reminded of this by how many of my colleagues frown upon the word. When I had my first teaching job, many teachers considered the word "academic" to be elitist and snobby. Interestingly, I often found the same people to be the ones who thought the students to be to too "dumb" and unworthy of canonical texts like "The Scarlet Letter" itself. How these same critics could deem students not worthy of reading great literature was always beyond me, especially considering that some of the loudest had read very few classics themselves.

Fast forward to last year. A colleague of mine and I were heavily criticized by one of our very own for using the word academic in suggeting improving a particular course. In sum, we, the proponents of "academic," were simply stating that ninth grade students needed to be exposed to more traditional writing assignments that were "academic" and less "authentic" in nature. Note: for those of you who don't know what "authentic" means, the educational jargon translates to "real life application."

What was simply a concern for students and their needs quickly became an ideological (and in many instances) a personal battle that turned severly ugly at times. It was like we stepped aboard the death star. Seismic eruptions occurred; the silent treatment toward me and my "academic" ally went on for months; and to this day, the scab on this symbolic wound has barely transmogrified toward healing. I never fully understood why this individual took issue with us advocating for academic rigor within the confines of an academic institution. Go figure.

Recently, in a meeting with colleagues, in response to a discussion I had with one of my superiors, I discussed the importance of academic rigor in teaching reading and writing. I was trying to point out that it's important to expose all students to academic rigor, not just the honors and advanced placement kids. Part of ascribing to "tradition with a twist" involves the inherent belief that all students should have the same educational opportunities, especially in a public school, especially in a democratic society. It's sort of insane to suggest that "A great education is meant for you...but not for you. Just get on the right side of the tracks." It's even more insane to convey: "You're not worthy of these classic stories or challenging writing assignments because, well, we have deemed that you're not. Damn it--go read your young adult novel." Well, if I could've harnessed the energy emanating from the dirty looks on some my colleagues' faces, I could've easily created an IED--that's an improvised, explosive device. Obviously, some were deeply offended and it is unclear why.

Back to "tradition with a twist." Why is that in education once one fad, concept or theory comes along we "knee-jerk" to reject what we've done in the past? Why is it that we to tend to disdain anything that has to do with tradition in favor of innovation just because it is "new"? Have we educators become solely addicted to new, "out-of-the-box" approaches to teaching or learning without truthfully considering what these approaches have to offer, especially to our students? Why is that so many teachers and college professors have ignored or discarded some of the world's classic texts, when so many of our contemporary writers have beared witness to how these works have come to shape their craft? Why can't we accept what would perhaps practically work best: balance, tradition with a twist of the new. Combining the best of the old with the best of the new makes a lot of sense. We can't ignore modernity; the wave of the future moves too fast. But we do no justice to our students or ourselves when we neglect from where this wave comes. Call me crazy, but I appreicate the minds of Picasso, Davis and Gandhi, and I believe my students can as well. The world is a better place because of these thinkers, not because of their absence.

And why have we enshrouded the word "academic" with shame? Or, more importantly, why has the "a' in academic become the new scarlet letter a? Can we, like that chic Hester, transform the meaning of the word to mean great things instead of...shame?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Your wife is right; you should make this a book or, at the very least, a column. As one of those colleagues that could feel the hot, burning, seething anger in the room the other day, I agree with you 100%. I mean are't we here for the kids?
Keep up the good fight. Peace