‘Scholarism’? Is it edible?

Posted on Sat 01 Sep 2012 @ 3.02pm UTC

“I know you’re smart. But I hope you didn’t make
the classic smart person’s mistake of thinking
you’re smarter than everybody.”

— Carl Van Loon to Eddie Morra in the movie Limitless (2011)

IF there’s one thing worse than seeing our best and brightest go off at a tangent and waste their precious youth on the brainlessness of fighting city hall, it is to see them choosing the worst-possible name to represent their political activities.

A quick primer. In 2011, a group of secondary students in Hong Kong formed (what the local news media termed) ‘a social concern group’ (i.e. an activist lobby) to lobby the government against introducing new measures into the current primary and secondary curricula here. Basically, they’re a student protest group (not even an activist lobby) and their beef is with the new civic education curriculum that many inside and outside the education sector see as pro-Beijing nationalistic propaganda rebadged with the name ‘national curriculum.’ We’ll skip the politics of it all because it’s irrelevant to our interest.


The wrong word

Have you heard of the joke about a Thai man’s name? He can’t figure out why people snigger at him whenever he says, “I’m Damrong.”

What doesn’t surprise me, but does surprise others, was the English-language name this student activist body called itself: Scholarism (學民思潮).

That’s a seriously flawed choice of name. That’s just not appealing to anyone. Seriously.

We would have thought a dozen or so of the crème de la crème of our homegrown straight-A students would have taken the trouble to look up the word in a dictionary first.

The last time this word scholarism actually appeared as a dictionary entry was in the Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edition (1989). That’s fully 23 years ago. It isn’t generally found in any of the online or paper dictionaries since then.

The current (2011) OED defines the word as:

scholarism [scholar + ism] (uncountable noun) [Archaic, rare] Scholastic.

The OED is in factual error.

The OED itself in 1989 defined scholarism as pedantic learning. And those of us who actually spent our formative years anytime prior to the 1980s have come to know that word to mean pedantic learning through the phrase creeping scholarism.

Indeed, my 1974 edition of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary actually includes the phrase creeping scholarism in the definition itself.

Creeping scholarism is the pejorative term (as is also scholarism) to mean using scholarly methods to disguise plagiarism in order to advance one’s academic standing.

You can get a far better idea of what creeping scholarism is about from an article by New York radio host Wes Richards. The way he shows it is far, far better than I could possibly hope to do.

Hendrik Joubert wrote a two-page essay titled Scholarism (PDF) that’s entirely in keeping with the original meaning of the word.

You can see why the lexicographers and academics at the OED decided to remove the word and the phrase from the dictionary. If you’re a secondhand car salesman selling defective secondhand cars, would you want to be described as a used-car salesman?


What possessed them to use this name?

It’s not too hard to fathom why our crème de la crème named their group Scholarism. They were clearly thinking of scholar + -ism to mean the ‘-ism of knowledgeable people (scholars).’

Trouble is, they’re using the word scholar with a Chinese meaning (學者, xué zhě in Mandarin, hok tseh in Cantonese: a man of learning, a learned man). A natural-born/native English speaker uses scholar to mean a researcher at least higher than at master’s degree level.

In UK academic circles, scholar is also a term of art to mean a person who receives either a scholarship or a bursary.

So add -ism into the equation, ergo, the Scholarism members think they have 煩瑣哲學 (scholasticism) — which they messed up as scholarism.

Interestingly, scholasticism is otherwise known as routinism, a meaning that’s still within living memory even in non-English-speaking places.


The proper word

The word they are looking for is scholasticism.

One teacher on Facebook associated with an American medical school put it correctly:

“I am teaching Western Civilization in South Korea. One of my students used this word in answering a question on Thomas Aquinas. This student wrote that Thomas Aquinas was ‘the king of Scholarism.’ I am not quite sure this is correct. Did she mean ‘scholasticism’?”

Indeed her student was.

To cut a long story short, scholasticism is basically critical thought through academic knowledge and academic teaching methods. The word originally relates to European universities in mediaeval times (around 1100s to 1500s) and denotes the methods employed to articulate and defend orthodoxy (particularly religious orthodoxy).


Why both words are highly unsuitable

Scholarism clearly is unsuitable. You’ve got to be brain-damaged to use that word, especially as a name for a grassroots student protest group. Another unfailing transmutation of English using Chinese ideals of language gentrification (高檔化).

Scholasticism is also unsuitable, mainly because it gives off the wrong kind of smell. How so? One supporter describes Scholarism’s activities in this way:—

“A group of secondary students in Hong Kong [has] formed a social concern group named ‘Scholarism” last year. They organized have been organising students to voice their opposition oppose to the introduction of the National Curriculum in primary and secondary schools in HK here. They [have] also organised [student] mass rally rallies [twice] to fighting fight for social justice and the condemnation condemn of the June 4th massacre with students on 1st July in HK twice.”

(Amendments mine *eyeroll*)

We’re talking about a bunch of students (albeit high straight-As, but students nonetheless) who are lobbying the government not to put in new curricular requirements and to hold rallies to commemorate certain political events.

Scholasticism is not some philosophy or sociocultural dynamic. Scholasticism is to the humanities as molecular biology is to biology — both are tools of the trade. Molecular biology isn’t a specialised branch of biology: it’s actually a set of tools used in biology. In the same way, scholasticism is a set of tools used in academic articulation and defence.

The activities of the group Scholarism are essentially unrelated to scholasticism (or even scholarism!). The fact that scholars may or may not partake in its activities has no bearing. The whole ambit of their activities is more connected with straight populist politics. It’s pretty stupid to say the least to use words that (in flavour as well as in definition) are restricted to academic pursuits.

Hong Kong’s flagship English-language broadsheet, South China Morning Post, wrote a piece about the student group under the headline “No Thought Control” (31 July 2012) — a double entendre that clearly went right over these kids’ heads. The rest of us look on and laugh our heads off, albeit in a tragic-comic sort of way.

Of all possible words, why ever would you want to put yourself across as a stuffed shirt?


The right way of going about things

You’re a student protest group. You’re straight-A students, but that doesn’t make you scholars. You’re not even part of academia. Take a leaf from student protest groups in other countries.

The first port of call should have been to look up a dictionary. Failing that, ask an older (preferably much older) person to check if the English name means what you think it means. (Or not, as the case now turns out.) In law, that’s called due diligence — a person could land in gaol (jail) for failing to do that in strictly legal matters.

If you don’t mind too much about copycatting, then just call yourselves OccupyEducation or something similar.

It’s no shame to do that. The Occupy movement has become extremely good ‘branding’ and readily recognised worldwide. No one is going to think any less of you boys and girls had you done that. Calling yourselves Scholarism is just plain stupidness.

Otherwise, a reasonable workaround would be to name yourselves Denationalise Education! or something like that.

All you guys are against this ‘national’ curriculum thing — the government to stop importing what you see as political propaganda into Hong Kong schools.

Fine, WE GET THAT. Get out there and get direct! Get direct with your name first! Stop behaving like a bitch with stupid, beat-around-the-bush, faggoty names like Scholarism. A name like that embarrasses the rest of us here. Did you not learn anything at all in school?

A name like “Denationalise [whatever]” is a good, strong, vibrant name that cuts through the bullshit and shows exactly what your group is about at first sight. You are against this ‘national’ thing, so you’re asking to denationalise. Simple as cake, easy as pie, easy peasy lemony squeasy.

Look at the London students in 2010 and 2011 who went into a full-blown riot with the police protesting against massive increases in tuition fees and across-the-board reductions in student subsidies, grants and loans. They didn’t even have a name for themselves at first but eventually organised into the Uncut UK movement. That’s how it’s done.



I personally have been getting a lot of shtick (albeit non-personal) from my overseas people because of the stupidity of this group’s name. I’m pretty sure others who live in or come from Hong Kong are finding things a little hard to live down.

So here’s my message to Scholarism:—

Seeing that you yourselves have an English name for your group, at least have the abject courtesy of including an English-language version of your manifesto somewhere on your website. Hong Kong is billed as “Asia’s World City” so, to be perfectly honest, you ARE obliged to put in something in English. Learn politics, or starve.

And for pete’ sakes, clean up your organisation’s logotype because it looks like it’s straight out of some goddamn extreme right-wing, white-supremacist political party. Learn corporate identity graphic design, or starve.

Amen to that.


“The illiterates of the 21st century will not be those
who cannot read and write, but those who
cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.”

— Alvin Toffler (b. 1928), American author, futurist and philosopher


© Learn English or Starve, 2012. (B12277) Updated 22 Nov 2012 (typo fixes).

Images: Scholarism organisational logotype via Scholarism’s Facebook Page | Scholasticism triangle via Hegel.net | Four causes via Telic Thoughts | Gentile monk by da Fabriano via Absolute Astronomy.

Posted in: Street of Shame