It's purely academic

Michael I. Sovern

July 27, 1992|By Michael I. Sovern

OF THE half-dozen potential vice-presidential nominees passed over for Sen. Al Gore, only New York Gov. Mario Cuomo appeared to believe that talk of his own candidacy had been, in his word, "academic."

The morning after he offered that assessment, the governor, a painstaking writer, was to be found in front-page photos with a dictionary, putting to rest second thoughts about the proper use of "academic."

No problem there. You and I, Governor Cuomo and all Americans have long been authorized to dismiss the hypothetical, the irrelevant and the impractical with a lightly scoffing "It's academic."

But consider the effect of this widely sanctioned use of the word on those whose efforts it devalues. How would you feel if I defined irrelevance with a curt "well, that's medical" or "that's purely financial" or "that's artistic" or "that's governmental"?

With a simple inflection, your calling would be consigned to the trivial.

The disdaining usage was not born yesterday. In February 1943, the New York Post made this observation: "Hang the wrong man and your apologies are academic."

And witness this report from Victorian England (the Times of London, March 1886): "The discussion partook of an academic character, for it was well understood that whatever the result of the discussion might be, no practical step would be taken in the present parliament."

It was not always so. Earliest references to Plato and his Academy were highly positive. Those who emulated Platonic tradition were "academic," or scholarly. But in later centuries, they were looked upon as "academic," or conservative.

In time, "academic" literature was said to conform to doctrines of that bastion of conservatism, the French Academy. With the advent of modern art in the late 1800s, the enemy was "academic" art. (I am happy to skip past the late 1600s' use of "academy" as slang for bawdy house.)

But that's all academic. Modern universities are powerful engines of change. From the "ivory tower" have come influential, pragmatic ideas and pioneering discoveries like the laser and the computer that have transformed the way we live and work.

Hundreds of thousands of critical inventions and medical breakthroughs, with direct, practical benefits for humanity, have sprung from the American university, the cradle of modern medicine and technology.

When America's leaders need expert advice for the institutions they lead, they frequently bring in professors with profound knowledge of the way the world works.

Newspapers, magazines, and television talk shows rely on them every day to get beneath the surface of breaking news.

Our students, of course, need them the most: Teaching remains our first priority. And no question remains about the importance in the job market of a college degree or two or three.

The research mission of the university is less appreciated. (Most people would be surprised to learn that the FM radio was invented not in an industrial laboratory but in the basement of Columbia's Philosophy Hall.)

Saving lives, understanding our past, adding to what we know, passing it on to new generations -- that is what universities do.

It's real, relevant and practical.

It's academic.

Michael I. Sovern is president of Columbia University.

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