I dislike mission statements. They presuppose that we, as employees, don’t know basic values, so the boss has to preach them to us. Add to that the fact that these statements are camels.

You know about camels. They are horses designed by committee. The result is an odd and ugly animal indeed. So it goes with mission statements. Committees put them together, and that means the product is clunky, ungainly, lengthy and generally not very useful. Camels, at least, are useful.

So I was surprised and pleased when I heard the mission statement for the proposed Franklin STEM Academy.

Let’s not get into what STEM is all about. The point here is that Janesville’s Franklin Middle School is applying for a state grant to turn itself into a charter school, so of course the grant-giving bureaucracy requires a mission statement.

Someone at Franklin came across a quote from the school’s namesake, Benjamin Franklin: “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.”

What a great mission statement, officials thought. I agree. Or at least, I don’t hate it. It’s a wise saying, to be sure, and Franklin, at least for some of his life, was a wise man and clever writer. But did he say it? I have to admit that I am more skeptical about such quotes than ever before because of Facebook and the phenomenon called “memes.”

A meme (pronounced “meem”) on Facebook generally is a rectangle, sometimes with a picture of the quoted person, and the quote or some funny saying. Many people love to post memes, but sometimes, the quote is someone’s invention, not the words of the famous person at all. One of my favorite memes features Abraham Lincoln saying “You shouldn’t always trust quotes on the Internet!”

I especially thought “involve me and I learn” didn’t sound very Ben-Franklinish, or very 18th century. So I did a little poking around. I found out that while the quote is generally believed to have come from Franklin, it might actually have originated with Xun Kuang, a Chinese philosopher who lived from 312-230 B.C.

Another source said the quote also has been attributed to Confucius or Lao-zi.

Xun Kuang’s works were collected into a set of 32 books called the Xunzi, in about 818 AD. The Franklin/Xun Kuang quote is said to be derived from this Xunzi passage:

“Not having heard something is not as good as having heard it; having heard it is not as good as having seen it; having seen it is not as good as knowing it; knowing it is not as good as putting it into practice.”

No matter where the quote comes from, it’s an enormous improvement on the school’s originally proposed mission statement: “Developing excellence and equity through community, social responsibility, critical thinking, collaboration, intrinsic motivation and innovation.”

Ugh. You can almost hear the bells ringing for each abstract education fad phrase.

Thank you, Ben Franklin. Or Xun Kuang. You’ve saved us from pulling out our hair by the time we get to “intrinsic motivation.”

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