The word “academic” seems to be undergoing a change of late. There was a time when practically minded people thought of academics as somewhat quaint, muddleheaded souls that wasted a great deal of their own time and the public’s resources in pursuit of arcane truths. The more enlightened among these practical folks recognized that an arcane truth could occasionally be very profitable, which justified the entire enterprise in the manner of venture capital. Academics were essentially micro-financed intellectual entrepreneurs whose day-to-day processes didn’t necessarily have to make sense because their products could be evaluated independently.
The pejorative sense of “academic”, i.e., what we mean when say that some question is merely academic, really just indicates that the question is still part of the academic process, which has not yet produced a tangible result. Academia is somewhat thankless work in the sense that as soon as you do actually discover something useful it is converted into “intellectual property” and its value is no longer associated with the long process that went into figuring out how something works. To add insult to injury, our practical peers describe this appropriation of academic output as a “real-world” application. As if up until the moment of discovery the idea existed only in some kind of fantasy land.
Or that, like I say, is how it used to be. These days “academic” has also taken on an honorific sense. It’s always had this sense too, of course, but it seems to be moving into the foreground. Academics are now being seen as experts who can be drawn on for their expertise. Journalists are referring to people as “academics” in order to bolster their credibility. I don’t think this is incidentally related to the increasingly stressful image of the academic, as someone who has too much to think about and too little time to get their work done. As academia plays an increasingly important role in culture, academics are feeling the strain of their responsibilities.
I want to add a sense of “academic” that seems to be forgotten. Academics are people who subject their ideas to critical discourse. Practically minded people sometimes get impatient with this seemingly inexhaustible ability to talk about things, raise new questions, explore further details, open other cans of worms. But what this really means is that the ideas that academics hold are also constantly open to the criticism of people who are qualified to evaluate them. The apparent waffling and uncertainty of academics stems from the very deliberate practice of presenting their beliefs along with their reasons for holding them. Our implicit faith (or at least trust) in academics comes from this ongoing “peer review” of their work.
I’ll have to develop these ideas in another post. I will end this one by pointing out that these conceptions of academic work are somewhat at odds with each other. We are asking a great deal of our academics these days, and it’s not hard to understand why they are feeling uncomfortable with those demands. I’m genuinely worried about the quality of the ideas that can be expected to emerge from this tension.
Picture credit: Martinus Rørbye, Scene Near Sorrento Overlooking the Sea, 1835. Source: