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Plato is credited with the inception of academia: the body of knowledge, its development and transmission across generations.

Academia is a collective term for the scientific and cultural community engaged in higher education and peer-reviewed research, taken as a whole. The word comes from the akademeia just outside ancient Athens, where the gymnasium was made famous by Plato as a center of learning. The sacred space had formerly been an olive grove, hence the expression "the groves of Academe". By extension Academia has come to connote the cultural accumulation of knowledge, its development and transmission across generations and its practitioners and transmitters. In the 17th century, English and French religious scholars popularized the term to describe certain types of institutions of higher learning. The English adopted the form academy while the French adopted the forms acadème and académie.

An academic is a person who works as a researcher (and usually teacher) at a university or similar institution in post-secondary (or tertiary) education. He or she is nearly always an advanced degree holder who does peer-reviewed research. In the United States, the term academic is approximately synonymous with that of the job title professor. In the United Kingdom, various titles are used, typically fellow, lecturer, reader and professor, though the loose term don is often popularly substituted. The term scholar is sometimes used with equivalent meaning to that of "academic" and describes in general those who attain mastery in a research discipline. It has wider application in its being also used to describe those whose occupation was scientific or pseudo-scientific research prior to mass organised higher education.

Some sociologists have divided, but not limited, academia into four basic historical types: ancient academia, early academia, academic societies and the modern university. There are at least two models of academia: a European model developed since ancient times, as well as an American model developed by Benjamin Franklin in the mid-18th century and Thomas Jefferson in the early 19th century.


Academia is usually conceived of as divided into disciplines or fields of study. These have their roots in the subjects of the ancient trivium and quadrivium, which provided the model for Scholastic thought in the first universities in medieval Europe.

The disciplines have been much revised, and many new disciplines have formed since medieval times; in general, academic fields have probably become more and more specialized since the Enlightenment, dividing their research into smaller and smaller areas. Because of this, interdisciplinary research is often prized in today's academy, though it can also be made difficult by practical matters of administration and funding. In fact, many new fields of study have initially been conceived as interdisciplinary, and later become specialized disciplines in their own right (cognitive science is one recent example). In short, there is an ongoing historical process behind the internal differentiation of the academy.

Most academic institutions reflect the divide of the disciplines in their administrative structure, being divided internally into departments or programs in various fields of study. Each department is typically administered and funded separately by the academic institution, though there may be some overlap and faculty members, research and administrative staff may in some cases be shared among departments. In addition, academic institutions generally have an overall administrative structure (usually including a president and several deans) which is controlled by no single department, discipline, or field of thought. Also, the tenure system, a major component of academic employment and research, serves to ensure that academia is relatively protected from political and financial pressures on thought.


The degree awarded for completed study is the primary academic qualification. Typically these are, in order of completion, bachelor's degree (awarded for completion of undergraduate study), master's degree, and doctorate (awarded after graduate or postgraduate study). These are only currently being standardized in Europe as part of the Bologna process, as many different degrees and standards of time to reach each are currently awarded in different countries in Europe. In most fields the majority of academic researchers and teachers have doctorates or other terminal degrees, though in some professional and creative fields it is common for scholars and teachers to have only master's degrees.

Academic conferences[]

Closely related to academic publishing is the practice of bringing a number of intellectuals in a field to give talks on a paper they have written at an academic conference, often allowing for a wider audience to be exposed to their ideas. The papers are usually refereed first and only a smaller number of authors are invited to speak about their writing. The chance to speak can allow fuller explanation of points that may not have been clearly written or fully expanded upon in writing. The greater interactivity that is inherent in the conference format can allow for quicker feedback and criticism on the ideas discussed. Since papers are typically submitted ahead of time, conference attendees have had time to read the paper and be prepared with insightful questions if they wish.

Conflicting goals[]

Within academia, diverse constituent groups have diverse, and sometimes conflicting, goals. In the contemporary academy several of these conflicts are widely distributed and common. A salient example of conflict is that between the goal to increase services and the goal to reduce costs. The conflicting goals of professional education programs and general education advocates currently are playing out in the negotiation over accreditation standards.

Practice and theory[]

Academia is sometimes contrasted pejoratively with "practice", such as daily living, employment, and business. Critics of academia say that academic theory is insulated from the 'real world', and thus does not have to take into account the real effects, results, and risks of actually performing the actions which academics study. Academic insularity is sometimes referred to as the ivory tower. This often leads to a real or perceived tension between academics and practitioners in many fields of knowledge, particularly when an academic is critical of the actions of a practitioner. Depending on the degree of criticism, the practitioner's critique of academia could also be seen as anti-intellectualism. The balance to the view from the practitioner is that even if academia is insulated from practice in the real world, that does not mean academic study is valueless. In fact it is often seen that many academic developments turn out only much later to have great practical results. However, given that among practitioners there is a perception of academic insularity, it may increase the value and impact of the academician's studies and or opinion if she takes that insularity into account when discussing or offering criticism of a practitioner or a practice in general.

Rather than seeing the relationship between practice and theory as a dichotomy, there is a growing body of practice research academics across a number of disciplines who use practice as part of their research methodology. For example the practice-based research network (PBRN) within clinical medical research. Within arts and humanities departments, particularly in the UK, there are ongoing debates about how to define this emerging research phenomenon, and there are a variety of contested models of practice research (practice-as-research, practice-based and practice through research), see for example screen media practice research.

Commerce and scholarship[]

The goals of research for profit and for the sake of knowledge often conflict to some degree.


Ancient times[]

Academia takes its name from the Academy, a sanctuary outside the city walls of ancient Athens. It was dedicated to the legendary hero Akademos and contained several olive groves, a gymnasium and an area suited for intimate gatherings. In these gardens, largely planted and enchanced with statuary by its previous owner Cimon, the philosopher Plato conversed with followers who believed Plato would enlighten them. These informal sessions came to be known as the Academy. Plato later further developed his sessions into a method of teaching philosophy and in 387 BC, established what is known today as the Old Academy.

Plato's colleagues and pupils developed spin-offs of his method. Arcesilaus, a Greek student of Plato established the Middle Academy. Carneades, another student, established the New Academy. In 335 BC, Aristotle refined the method with his own theories and established the Lyceum in another gymnasium.

Early development[]

In China there was a higher education institution called Shangyang founded by Shun in Youyu era before 21st century BC. The Imperial Central Academy at Nanjing founded in 258 was a result of the evolution of Shangyang and it became the first comprehensive institution combining education and research and was divided into five faculties in 470 which later becomes Nanjing University. In 8th century there emerged another kind of institutions of learning named Shuyuan which were generally privately owned. There were thousands of Shuyuan recorded in ancient times. The degree of them varied from one to another and those advanced Shuyuan such as Bailudong Shuyuan and Yuelu Shuyuan can be classified as higher institutions of learning. The first universities founded in ancient India were Taxila (Takshashila University) and Nalanda (Nalanda University) in the 7th century BC and 5th century BC respectively, followed by Byzantium in the 5th century (in Constantinopolis and Athens). The first university in the Islamic world was founded in Cairo (Al-Azhar University) in the 10th century, while in western Europe, universities were founded in the 12th and 13th centuries. As with other professions, teaching in universities was only carried out by people who were properly qualified. In the same way that a carpenter would attain the status of master carpenter when fully qualified by his guild, a teacher would become a master when he had been licensed by his profession, the teaching guild.

Academia as a modern institution began to take shape in the Middle Ages (AD 350 to 1450). At this time, the Roman Empire had crumbled and new regimes were beginning to take shape throughout Western Europe. Europe had just come out of the Dark Ages, a period of mass illiteracy and loss of information. The only repositories of ancient knowledge were the Roman Catholic monasteries with hermits, monks and priests compiling all the world's knowledge into elaborate hand written books. The earliest precursors of the colleges and universities were just being developed at these monasteries in order to redistribute the knowledge they had saved through the Dark Ages.

One had to go to a monastery to learn about ancient Greece and Rome and the wealth of information created in those societies. Being schooled at a monastery meant academia was effectively restricted to men who wanted to become monks and priests. But by the 11th century, some Roman Catholic church leaders began a revolutionary campaign to proliferate the knowledge they had to the greater society of early Europe. They believed that Plato, Aristotle, Euclid, Homer, Sophocles and the others belonged to the people and not just for the religious. The monks and priests moved out of the monasteries and went to the city cathedrals where they opened the first schools dedicated to advanced study.

Most notable of these schools were in Bologna, Paris, Oxford and Cambridge, though others were opened throughout Europe. Studying at these schools, now called universities, meant sitting through a method of education called the lecture. In a lecture, the master read aloud from manuscripts written by monks and priests while students sat at their pews reading along from their own handwritten copies of the massive amounts of texts. Only the master could determine if a student had achieved enough knowledge to graduate and organize lectures of their own. By the end of the 13th century, there were over 80 universities in Europe.

Early methods[]

Seven liberal arts[]

The seven liberal arts became codified in late antiquity through textbooks by Varro and Martianus Capella, who offered the standardized structure through which men (and it was men, by and large, for women were excluded) could visualize the world of learning. The Liberal Arts consisted of the Trivium, the basic "three ways" of Grammar, Rhetoric and Logic, and the Quadrivium, the "four ways" of Arithmetic, Geometry, Music and Astronomy. Philosophy and Theology were the all-embracing studies that encompassed the Liberal Arts, but philosophy in the early Middle Ages was largely a matter of dialectic. The didactic allegory of the 5th-century pagan Martianus Capella's De nuptiis philologiæ et Mercurii ("The wedding of philology and Mercury") was of stupendous importance in fixing the unchanging formulas of Academia for the Latin West, from the Christianized Roman Empire of the 5th century until newly available Arabic texts and the works of Aristotle became available in Western Europe in the 12th century.

The conceptual scheme established by Martianus Capella, given Christian readings and interpretations, remained largely in effect in western Academia, even after the new scholasticism of the School of Chartres and the encyclopedic work of Thomas Aquinas, until the humanism of the 15th and 16th centuries opened new studies of arts and sciences.


Three medieval writers attempted to encompass the whole of Academia, the entire world of learning: Isidore of Seville, Bernard of Clairvaux and Thomas Aquinas.


In the 12th century, French philosopher Peter Abelard instituted his own revolution in the world of academia with the 1123 publication of his book, Sic et Non. He did away with the master reading from a text aloud in lectures and instead sat his students at desks in front of two separate texts contradicting each other. Instead of telling them which method was correct and which was wrong, he required his students to ask each other questions and come up with their own conclusions. Soon, almost all universities experimented with the use of the Abelard method.


In the early 13th century, Saint Thomas Aquinas revolutionized academia once again with his popularization of scholasticism. Scholasticism employed the Abelard method of education but went further. Masters offered their students long, involved resolutions in examining two opposing texts and asked them to consider religious faith in their reasoning. The resolutions were based on newly rediscovered philosophies of Aristotle which tried to balance out reason with faith in God.

Rise of academic societies[]

Academic societies or learned societies began as groups of academics who worked together or presented their work to each other. These informal groups later became organized and in many cases state-approved. Membership was restricted, usually requiring approval of the current members and often total membership was limited to a specific number. The Royal Society founded in 1660 was the first such academy. The American Academy of Arts and Sciences was begun in 1780 by many of the same people prominent in the American Revolution. Academic societies served both as a forum to present and publish academic work, the role now served by academic publishing, and as a means to sponsor research and support academics, a role they still serve. Membership in academic societies is still a matter of prestige in modern academia.

Eighteenth and nineteenth centuries[]

Academia began to splinter from its Christian roots in 18th-century colonial America. In 1753, Benjamin Franklin established the Academy and Charitable School of the Province of Pennsylvania. In 1755, it was renamed the College and Academy and Charitable School of Philadelphia. Today, it is known as the University of Pennsylvania. For the first time, academia was established as a secular institution. For the most part, church-based dogmatic points of view were no longer thrust upon students in the examination of their subjects of study. Points of view became more varied as students were free to wander in thought without having to add religious dimensions to their conclusions.

In 1819, Thomas Jefferson founded the University of Virginia and developed the standards used today in organizing colleges and universities across the globe. The curriculum was taken from the traditional liberal arts, classical humanism and the values introduced with the Protestant Reformation. Jefferson offered his students something new: the freedom to chart their own courses of study rather than mandate a fixed curriculum for all students. Religious colleges and universities followed suit.

The Academy movement in the U.S. in the early 19th century arose from a public sense that education in the classic disciplines needed to be extended into the new territories and states that were being formed in the Old Northwest, in western New York State, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana and Illinois. Dozens of academies were founded in the area, supported by private donations.

During the Age of Enlightenment in 18th-century Europe, the academy started to change in Europe. In the beginning of the 19th century Wilhelm von Humboldt not only published his philosophical paper On the Limits of State Action, but also directed the educational system in Prussia for a short time. He introduced an academic system that was much more accessible to the lower classes. Humboldt's Ideal was an education based on individuality, creativity, wholeness, and versatility. Many continental European universities are still rooted in these ideas (or at least pay lip-service to them). They are, however, in contradiction to today's massive trend of specialization in academia.

Recent economic changes[]

In the 1980s and 1990s significant changes in the economics of academic life began to be felt, identified by some as a catastrophe in the making and by others as a new era with potentially huge gains for the university. Some critics identified the changes as a new "corporatization of the university." Academic jobs have been traditionally viewed by many intellectuals as desirable, because of the autonomy and intellectual freedom they allow (especially because of the tenure system), despite their low pay compared to other professions requiring extensive education. And until the mid-1970s, when federal expenditures for higher education fell sharply, there were routinely more tenure-track jobs than Ph.D.'s.

Now, by contrast, despite rising tuition rates and growing university revenues (especially in the U.S.) well-paid professorial positions are rarer, replaced with poorly paid adjunct positions and graduate-student labor. People with doctorates in the sciences and, to a lesser extent, mathematics, often find jobs outside of academia (or use part-time work in industry to supplement their incomes), but a Ph.D. in the humanities and many social sciences prepares the student primarily for academic employment. However, in recent years a large proportion of such Ph.D.'s — ranging from 30 percent to 60 percent — have been unable to obtain tenure-track jobs. They must choose between adjunct positions, which are poorly paid and lack job security; teaching jobs in community colleges or in high schools, where little research is done; the non-academic job market, where they will tend to be overqualified; or some other course of study, such as law or business.

Indeed, with academic institutions producing Ph.D.'s in greater numbers than the number of tenure-track professorial positions they intend to create, there is little question that administrators are cognizant of the economic effects of this arrangement. The sociologist Stanley Aronowitz wrote: "Basking in the plenitude of qualified and credentialed instructors, many university administrators see the time when they can once again make tenure a rare privilege, awarded only to the most faithful and to those whose services are in great demand" (The Knowledge Factory 76).

Most people who are knowledgeable of the academic job market advise prospective graduate students not to attend graduate school if they must pay for it; graduate students who are admitted without tuition remission and a reasonable stipend are forced to incur large debts that they will be unlikely to repay quickly. In addition, most people recommend that students obtain full and accurate information about the placement record of the programs they are considering. At some programs, most Ph.D.'s get multiple tenure-track offers, whereas at others few obtain any; such information is clearly very useful in deciding what to do with the next 5 – 7 years of one's life.

Some believe that, as a number of Baby Boomer professors retire, the academic job market will rebound. However, others predict that this will not result in an appreciable growth of tenure-track positions, as universities will merely fill their needs with low-paid adjunct positions. Aronowitz ascribed this problem to the economic restructuring of academia as a whole:

In fact, the program of restructuring on university campuses, which entails reducing full-time tenure-track positions in favor of part-time, temporary, and contingent jobs, has literally "fabricated" this situation. The idea of an academic "job market" based on the balance of supply and demand in an open competitive arena is a fiction whose effect is to persuade the candidate that she simply lost out because of bad luck or lack of talent. The truth is otherwise. (75 – 76)

The effects of a growing pool of unemployed, underemployed, and undesirably employed Ph.D.'s on the Western countries' economies as a whole is undetermined.

Academic publishing[]

History of academic journals[]

Among the earliest research journals were the Proceedings of meetings of the Royal Society in the 17th century. At that time, the act of publishing academic inquiry was controversial, and widely ridiculed. It was not at all unusual for a new discovery to be announced as an anagram, reserving priority for the discoverer, but indecipherable for anyone not in on the secret: both Isaac Newton and Leibniz used this approach. However, this method did not work well. Robert K. Merton, a sociologist, found that 92% of cases of simultaneous discovery in the 17th century ended in dispute. The number of disputes dropped to 72% in the 18th century, 59% by the latter half of the 19th century, and 33% by the first half of the 20th century. The decline in contested claims for priority in research discoveries can be credited to the increasing acceptance of the publication of papers in modern academic journals.

The Royal Society was steadfast in its unpopular belief that science could only move forward through a transparent and open exchange of ideas backed by experimental evidence. Many of the experiments were ones that we would not recognize as scientific today — nor were the questions they answered. For example, when the Duke of Buckingham was admitted as a Fellow of the Royal Society on June 5, 1661, he presented the Society with a vial of powdered "unicorn horn". It was a well-accepted 'fact' that a circle of unicorn's horn would act as an invisible cage for any spider. Robert Hooke, the chief experimenter of the Royal Society, emptied the Duke's vial into a circle on a table and dropped a spider in the centre of the circle. The spider promptly walked out of the circle and off the table. In its day, this was cutting-edge research.

Current status and development[]

Research journals have been so successful that the number of journals and of papers has proliferated over the past few decades, and the credo of the modern academic has become "publish or perish". Except for generalist journals like Science or Nature, the topics covered in any single journal have tended to narrow, and readership and citation have declined. A variety of methods reviewing submissions exist. The most common involves initial approval by the journal, peer review by two or three researchers working in similar or closely related subjects who recommend approval or rejection as well as request error correction, clarification or additions before publishing. Controversial topics may receive additional levels of review. Journals have developed a hierarchy, partly based on reputation but also on the strictness of the review policy. More prestigious journals are more likely to receive and publish more important work. Submitters try to submit their work to the most prestigious journal likely to publish it to bolster their reputation and curriculum vitae.

Andrew Odlyzko, an academician with a large number of published research papers, has argued that research journals will evolve into something akin to Internet forums over the coming decade, by extending the interactivity of current Internet preprints. This change may open them up to a wider range of ideas, some more developed than others. Whether this will be a positive evolution remains to be seen. Some claim that forums, like markets, tend to thrive or fail based on their ability to attract talent. Some believe that highly restrictive and tightly monitored forums may be the least likely to thrive.


  • Aronowitz, Stanley. The Knowledge Factory: Dismantling the Corporate University and Creating True Higher Learning. ISBN 0-8070-3123-2.

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