Academic has become an increasingly important and complex term in the decades since Keywords was first published in 1976, caught up in shifts within higher education, in the nature of academia, and in the role of the intellectual. In Keywords, Williams did not discuss academic but instead educated and knowledge, alongside a number of other words with a less direct connection with education such as dialectic and intellectual.
Academic comes into English from medieval Latin acadēmic-us and French académique, which themselves are ultimately derived from Greek Ἀςάδημς, the name of the man after whom the garden in which Plato taught had been named. Two senses that reflect this etymological origin are listed in OED: one is the adjectival sense ‘belonging to the Academy, the school or philosophy of Plato; sceptical’; the other is the nominal sense, ‘An ancient philosopher of the Academy, an adherent of the philosophical school of Plato; a Platonist’. Both senses are attested from late 16c and 17c, though both are obsolete in present day English. However the related noun academy is still used historically to mean the Platonic school of philosophy.
The most frequent sense in present day English is a generalized sense also attested around the same time, ‘Of or belonging to an academy or institution for higher learning; hence, collegiate, scholarly’. Evidence from recent synchronic dictionaries suggests that this sense has generalized still further to relate broadly to education and scholarship at any level (see, for example, definitions in NODE and Collins Cobuild English Dictionary). When used absolutely (as a noun), on the other hand, the word usually still appears to be restricted to people working in higher education. OED also records academic in less common (though overlapping) use with reference to learned societies in science and the arts. This sense can be used absolutely to refer to a person working in or involved with this kind of body or institution. The final senses, attested only from late 19c onwards, emerge from the least positive conceptions of academic thought and practice: academic can mean entirely or overly theoretical and unpractical, often with reference to a question or debate that cannot be resolved in practice. The word can also have a more technical sense, especially in artistic discussion, of ‘Conforming too rigidly to the principles… of an academy, excessively formal’.
Academic in this way embodies a tension between, on the one hand, a perceived prestige and value associated with scholarly activity and higher learning and, on the other, a view of non-vocational learning as indulgent and lacking practical use, including of academic institutions as therefore irrelevant ‘ivory towers’, cut off from real life.
The pejorated sense of academic in current general use, defined in OALD as ‘not connected to a real or practical situation and therefore not important’, develops from the distinction made between abstract, philosophical thought and skills-based knowledge which is directly practical in nature. By implication, what is academic cannot be practical and therefore lacks usefulness. (A parallel might be made with theoretical in such uses as, “The question is purely theoretical”.) This sense of academic tends to be found in particular contexts, such as when the adjective is collocated with nouns such as question and point, and/or particular descriptive adverbs such as purely, merely, simply, only and entirely. However, the sense is not separate from other meanings of academic, and the context-specific connotations of such uses may differ from hearer to hearer. Less ambiguous are the related words academicize and academicalism, which are rare but nearly always have negative connotations, referring to rigid adherence to a canon or to a ‘dry’ approach in creative or performing arts.
In its most frequent sense within education, in British English academic is often contrasted with vocational. It is not uncommon to find discussion of an academic-vocational divide in educational writings. In US English, educational is often used in similar contexts. However, as participation in British higher education increases, and institutions such as technical colleges are rebranded as universities, the line traditionally drawn between ‘academic’ and ‘vocational’ teaching and research becomes increasingly blurred. Current debates about the role of higher education tend to focus on how far the purpose of universities should be to train students for employment. Many institutions accordingly market themselves on the basis of their involvement with industrial and professional organizations, some using the expressions ‘real world’ university or ‘real world research’. There is also evidence that this emphasis in collaboration significantly affects the behavior of researchers. Government initiatives and funding bodies encourage such engagement between academic work and wider society, particularly with business.
The widened educational sense of academic that is not restricted to higher learning and scholarship appears to reflect the range of senses that academy has developed in recent decades. From 16c onwards, academy is attested in OED with the following sense (3a):
A place where the arts and science are taught; an institution for the study of higher learning; in the general sense including a university, but in popular usage restricted to an educational institution claiming to hold a rank between a university or college and a school. In England the word has been abused, and is now in discredit in this sense. Since the 18th cent. (chiefly Sc.), an institution of higher secondary education; more recently in Scotland, applied to many state secondary schools.
Academy cannot now be used to refer to a university as a countable noun, although in non-count use The Academy survives as a less common synonym for academia (though use of this expression is typically confined to academic discourse). Scottish use shows interesting parallels with pervasive recent use of academy in British English to mean a secondary school with links to external funding (originally a city academy, now usually called an academy school). It is uncertain, however, whether there is continuity between these senses. An 1868 document quoted in the Dictionary of the Scots Language, the Report of the Schools Enquiry Commission, suggests that early Scottish academies might have provided a model for modern academies:
[academy] is a term which has apparently a peculiar force in Scotland, and seems frequently to imply that at some period a proprietary element has been added to the ancient burgh institution. The object of this proceeding has been generally the revival of the burgh school, which had fallen into a low condition and especially the furnishing of means for the erection of new buildings; and it seems that this combination of a proprietary with an endowed element in a school is one which has frequently been very successful in Scotland.
On the other hand, it is possible that contemporary use of academy in apparent contrast with the abstraction or cloistering of learning apart from societymay have picked up the sense ‘a place of training’ (OED sense 5) and the narrowed sense ‘A place of training in some special art’ (sense 6) such as a military academy, so suggesting a more vocational emphasis within education. Academy in this sense may also (or alternatively) seek to draw on the connotation of prestige that academic retains in some uses, even where the values and implications being proposed are very different.