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 Akádēmos, the name of the mythical figure 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 “Of or relating to the Academy, the school or philosophy of Plato and his followers; philosophically sceptical”; the other is the nominal sense, “An ancient philosopher of the Academy, the school of Plato and his followers; an adherent of the philosophical school of Plato; a Platonist.” Both senses are attested from lC16 and C17, 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 1600, “Of, relating to, or characteristic of an educational institution or environment; concerned with the pursuit of research, education, and scholarship; scholarly, educational, intellectual.” Evidence from recent synchronic dictionaries suggests that this sense has generalized still further to relate broadly to education and scholarship at any level though used absolutely (as a noun) 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, and this sense can be used absolutely to refer to a person working or involved with this kind of body or institution. The final senses, attested only from lC19 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 to the principles of an academy of arts, esp. painting, often too rigidly; conventional, esp. in an excessively formal way.”
Academic in this way embodies the 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, and of academic institutions as therefore irrelevant ‘ivory towers,’ cut off from real life.
The sense of academic which has become pejorativein current general use, defined in the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (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, for instance when the adjective modifies nouns such as question and point, and/or is modified by 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, and it is not uncommon to find discussion of the academic-vocational divide in educational writings. In US English, it appears that educational is often used in similar contexts. However, as participation in higher education increases, and institutions such as technical colleges are rebranded as universities, the line that has traditionally been drawn between academic and vocational teaching and research becomes increasingly blurred. Current debates about the role of higher education often focus on the extent to which 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.” Government initiatives and funding bodies encourage this kind of 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. In part these build on well-established uses in Scottish and American English where academy can refer to a secondary school. Scottish use shows interesting parallels with recent use of academy in British English to mean a secondary school with links to external funding (originally a city academy, now sometimes called an academy school), although it is uncertain whether there is continuity between these senses.
It is also possible that contemporary use of academy in apparent contrast with the abstraction or cloistering of learning apart from societymay have picked up the sense, which begins C17, of “an institution or establishment for training in a special skill or field” such as a military academy (first cited in mC18), so suggesting a more vocational emphasis within education. For instance the US Military Academy was the first school in the United States to offer education in engineering. 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.