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What is Academia?

By Alan Rankin
Updated Mar 02, 2024
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Academia is a term used to describe the students and faculty involved in higher education, or even the university system itself. It distinguishes academic professionals from their counterparts in corporate or government positions. Commentators often use “academia” in general public discourse to describe the highly educated, intellectual elite, whether in a positive or negative sense. They sometimes use the term in a dismissive way to describe academics as having little sense of the “real world.”

The word academy originated with the ancient Greek philosopher Plato, who instructed his students in an area outside of Athens called the Academy. Later scholars based their systems on Plato’s and retained the word academy to convey a similar purpose. In recent centuries, the term academia came into general use to describe the university system and anyone associated with it. Within the academic system, however, it refers only to faculty and students, not support staff such as administrative or clerical personnel.

The college and university system was established in the Middle Ages and has become an essential part of modern society. Entry into many professions requires educational degrees that are only available through the academic system. Academia sets the standard for how knowledge is found, studied, verified and disseminated. Universities conduct ongoing research in numerous fields of study, including medicine, technology, science and social research.

Academia since Plato’s time has traditionally separated itself from the non-academic world. Academia's tenure system safeguards the jobs of established academic professionals and means they cannot be ousted for expressing unpopular opinions, at least in theory. This was intended to protect academia from being influenced by current politics or cultural whims. Some observers believe this system has been compromised by private funding for academic research projects.

One drawback of such academic isolation is that critics sometimes accuse academics of having little sense of the challenges of day-to-day life. The metaphorical phrase ivory tower describes academics as protected from harsh realities and ignorant of the possible consequences of their research. There once may have been some truth to that belief, but many academics today are also employed in the private sector or otherwise involved outside academia.

Some critics of academia use the word to negatively describe academic professionals as pretentious intellectuals who don't understand life outside the protected walls of their research labs and libraries. The attempt can backfire, though, leaving the critics at risk of sounding like pretentious, out-of-touch intellectuals themselves.

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Discussion Comments

By anon1003632 — On Aug 05, 2020

Thanks for the well-researched content of the blog. I really admire well-written content. I must say the facts in the blog is pretty much convincing.

By amysamp — On Dec 04, 2011

There are always two sides to every story, but this does not mean either side or both sides are always right.

The worker feels rightfully be mad at some academia for things they have witnessed first hand, like maybe some of the academia feeling like since they have book smarts that they are more important/valuable.

The academia feels rightfully mad at the worker because the worker thinks less of them or thinks their street smarts makes them more important/valuable.

The fact of the matter is that they both can feel anyway they want. But just because we can feel anyway we want, doesn’t mean our feelings and/or opinions are right or accurate.

You see, when you judge a whole group by one or a few members, that is called being prejudiced. Prejudices are not accurate. I don’t care if there are one thousand people in a group that treated you poorly, if there was one who treated you good, or if you didn’t get to know the whole group, you can not say the whole group treated you bad.

For example, if you buy a bag of apples and half of the bag is rotten, should you assume the other half is rotten too? No. The other have could quite possibly be the best apples you have ever tasted.

Why when it comes to matters of the stomach and/or the pocketbook do we not assume one way or another, but when it comes to people and/or groups of people we quickly assume one way or another? Let us be quick to listen, and slow to speak about others, as was said somewhere in the Holy Bible.

We should build each other up, instead of tear each other down.

By Tomislav — On Dec 03, 2011

I am glad I went to college, as I love to learn. That is just a part of who I am. I never have and never will think I am better than anyone, so it is quite sad that people view some college students and professors that way just because they learn and teach for a living. In a lot of people’s jobs and careers, similar to college, people have things to learn and/or teach.

It is also sad, on the other hand, that some academia members see non-academic people in a negative light as well. In the end most people have to earn a living one way or another, so we really start to have more things in common as we grow. Also, we should embrace our differences, not look down on each other’s differences.

Going to college taught me a lot about life. So did working while I was in college and after college as well. I met a lot of inspiring fellow students and teachers whom I will never forget. I also met a lot of inspiring people who did not attend college, whom I will never forget either.

I try not to judge people, especially about stuff that is neither right or wrong, like the amount of education a person has. I think it is kind of sad that the academia and the non-academic sometimes go back and forth at each other, hurling insults, as both sides are wrong and ignorant for negatively judging others on no real basis.

By aLFredo — On Dec 03, 2011

When I attended college, there were quite a few of my high school friends who acted as though I had sold out on them by going to college. When they would talk about work, they would make jabs like, "oh, this is foreign to you, you wouldn't understand...unless maybe if it was written out in a book for you to study!"

That really hurt me back in the days when I didn’t realize that a true friend didn’t constantly put you down. I am glad they were honest with me about how they truly felt though, so I could move on and make real, lasting friends. Going to college right away taught me that in “the real world” some people your life is better with in your life, and others your life is better without them in your life.

This goes both ways though. There are some people I went to school with that I wasn’t friends with because they judged people who solely worked for a living. This is just as bad and wrong as judging someone who goes to school for a living and/or works at a school for a living.

By julies — On Dec 02, 2011

Although I have respect for the professors and teachers in higher education, I always treat their opinions as just that - opinions.

I realize they are in their position because of the knowledge and education they have received, but that doesn't always make it completely right.

In most fields of study, you will be presented with the facts that are undisputed, but in many areas there is a lot of room for opinion and further learning.

I think it is beneficial to learn from the people in academia, but to also always keep an open mind.

By Mykol — On Dec 02, 2011

There is a private business college in our community that has been here for many years and has a very good reputation.

Many of the professors of this college also have jobs within the community. For example, when I took a Business Law course, the professor was a practicing attorney in town.

I know this is not the case for many colleges and universities, but is common for this one. I like taking a course like this from someone who not only has the academic knowledge, but also has real life experience.

By JaneAir — On Dec 01, 2011

I really hate when people talk about academia in a condescending way. I went to college and I actually have a friend who teaches at a college now. Trust me, people in academia still have the same real world concerns as everyone else does!

When I was a student, I worked my whole way through college. If that isn't being involved in the real world, I don't know what is! Not only did I have to worry about my classes, I had to worry about making money and paying my living expenses, as well as my tuition.

Also, a lot of people who are involved in academia as teachers don't actually have tenure! My friend who works at a college is adjunct faculty, which means she's only part-time. She doesn't make that much money and she can definitely be fired at any time!

By ceilingcat — On Dec 01, 2011

@SZapper - I understand why support staff isn't included by the term "academia." I don't think it's because students and faculty feel the support staff is beneath them or something. But the simple fact is that support staff isn't really involved in academic stuff-they do administrative work, which is vital but not the same thing.

Also, you could hardly accuse an administrative assistant at a university of being "in an ivory tower" and not involved in the real world! An administrative assistant doesn't just get to say whatever they think like a tenured professor does. Also, support staff members typically make a lot less than professors, so I assume they have a lot more "real world" concerns than an academic does.

By SZapper — On Nov 30, 2011

I think it's very interesting that the term academia originated in the Plato's time. When I was in college I heard the term a lot, but no one ever bothered to mention where it came from!

I do have to say that I think the term is rather pretentious. I also think it's a little ridiculous that it only refers to students and faculty members. I can't think of any college or university that could function without its support staff! But I suppose the support staff isn't educated enough to be considered part of academia?

By Bhutan — On Nov 30, 2011

@Suntan12 -I have to disagree. I think that academia is a special place for scholars and professors have to be able to exercise their free speech and points of view because the school is paying for their knowledge.

No one has to agree with everything that they say, but there has to be a certain level of respect afforded to these people because many of them spend almost a decade to earn their PhD and the degree should be respected.

I don’t know too many people that could withstand that type of academic setting for that long. They should never fear losing their jobs because of a position they took on an issue. They actually should be above that. I don’t disagree that there may be a few bad apples, but I don’t know a profession where that doesn’t exist.

By suntan12 — On Nov 30, 2011

@Comfyshoes- You are right and I think that a lot of professors don’t care what other think because they have been elevated to tenure status which means that nothing could happen to them which is why so many speak their mind the way they do.

I understand the reason behind tenure in academia, but I think it should be revoked. In the private sector you are not guaranteed job and often the fact that you may lose your job gives people the motivation to do their best.

I think that we should do the same in academia. Professors should have yearly contracts based on their performance. I mean you just have to look at the news and read about the story involving the Massachusetts law professor that said it was shameful that the school was put together a drive to donate care packages to American soldiers.

The school is standing by the professor’s comments and saying that he has a right to express his own opinion. I guess the professor does have a right to express this opinion, but I wonder if he would have been so outspoken if he did not have tenure.

By comfyshoes — On Nov 29, 2011

I think that many in academia do have viewpoints that might be common and sometimes their outspokenness might offend many of their students. I remember when I was in college; I took a course on Cuban history.

While the perspective that the professor used was markedly different than that of my Cuban relatives it did help me understand how Castro got into power. I just would have liked a more balanced dialogue because the course was taught with a very pro-Castro stance that really turned off a lot of students.

At least I knew that there was another side to what he was teaching because my family experienced it. I think that is what is wrong with academia. In many of these institutions there is only one point of view and the experience in many college classrooms could be enriched by offering various points of view, not just the one the professor espouses.

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