What is the Academic Life? 1. General Answers to Essential Questions

by Steve McCarty

Professor, Osaka Jogakuin College and University

President, World Association for Online Education

Original Source: Education India Journal, 1 (3), 6-12 (August 2012)
[reprinted at this permanent URL by permission of the Editor]

Series Introduction

What is, or should be, the academic life? After many years of thinking about academic ideals to live by, and occasionally writing about academic standards and ethics, the author aims to write a series on the essentials of the academic life. This journal was found to be progressive, welcoming a dialogue on articles of similar scope such as "Some thoughts on the idea of a University" (Sharma, 2012).

The plan of this series is to first set out some essential questions on timeless universals of the academic life, with brief, general answers in this article. Then further articles will aim for more detailed answers and discuss previous scholarship on the idea of the university. In the manner of a spiral, the approach of this series is to answer each question in the most general terms, and then in subsequent articles to discuss the specifics, interconnections, and implications of the issues raised.

Another whole series is envisaged on the a
cademic life in a global age, a sort of report card on reconstituting Academia in cyberspace. It would draw from the author’s experience founding the World Association for Online Education. Nowadays educational technology is auxiliary to all disciplines, which is congenial to the author as a generalist. Since the advent of the Internet, new questions need to be raised, such as: How is scholarship adapting to this global age? How can the worldwide community of scholars contribute to a constructive form of globalization and take more of a leadership role in the world?

Questions Definitive of the Academic Life

What is or should be the academic life? It is hypothesized that the following questions are essential, and that fitting answers can point to the universals of the academic life. What is a university? What is a professor? Who are the colleagues of a person in higher education? What should be learned in graduate school regardless of the field of specialization? To what extent can a human being live by academic standards and ethics?

General Answers to the Essential Questions

The wording and combination of these questions can be suggestive of the universals involved in the academic life by distinguishing some definitive issues while eliminating what is not unique and essential to higher education. The selected questions to examine will first be answered briefly and generally to present an overview of the essence of the academic life. The author addressed some of the key issues earlier as follows:

The essence of the university is its universality, as represented by academic standards, ethics, and meaningful subject matter that transcends cultural boundaries … Liberal arts requirements for all the students unify the university, lest its purpose be narrowed to vocational training in separate departments … When atomic weapons and other scientific advances posed potential hazards to civilization, those with a well-rounded education pointed out the dire necessity for ethical responsibility, encouraging initiatives such as bioethics and disarmament. (McCarty, 1995, p. 43)

What is a university? – The essence of a university is its universality. All true universities have this quality in common. There can be a universal academic approach to any subject matter. Thus the curriculum can include pure and applied fields, theoretical and practical approaches, education and training, but not solely the latter elements. A true university does not yield to contemporary societal imperatives, otherwise education is sacrificed to vocationalization or whatever trend rules the day.

In one sense a university is a unity in itself, as cited above. General education or liberal arts subjects that round out higher education for all students provide a commonality within the university as well as an interface toward the world. The liberal arts are thus essential to all specializations and provide a practical world-view as well, for example in foreign policy studies (Walt, 2012).

A university is situated in a certain community, era, and culture, but it shares the universality of the academic life in common with other universities in the world. All universities should be inviolable by forces that devalue or corrupt scholarship. An institutional culture where the university ends at the gates of its campus displays a grave misunderstanding of what a university is. True universities are fit for regional and international academic exchanges. Provided languages are translated, true universities have such commonalities that they are interpermeable and interconnected.

A university should be a sanctuary from the surrounding society with its corrupting influences of nationalism, violence, materialism, utilitarianism, exclusivism, and so forth. The university should provide sanctuary to well-reasoned critical thinking (cf. Hornedo, 2012) and proposed alternatives to the status quo of the society. Faculty members must be free from retaliation for provoking students to think or for publishing any conclusions reached conscientiously by objective analysis.

A university does not yield its objectivity to unquestioned assumptions or prejudgements of the truth. Newtonian physics governed everything that could be perceived in the 19th Century, but it had to give way to quantum physics and relativity theory when a greater scale was examined. The academic life was introduced by Socrates through Plato as the relentlessly examined life.

The idea of the university will be examined further in subsequent articles, considering the views of other scholars. The rest of the questions also aim to clarify the universal qualities of the university and academic life.

What is a professor? – This question is raised because a professor personifies the university. How to be professorial clarifies the academic life most succinctly. Thus the intent here is not to exclude scholars of a different rank or at an earlier stage of their careers, but rather to encourage scholars and especially teachers to be professorial. By living up to academic ideals, one is pointed toward the role of a professor, and suitable recognition may naturally follow.

To clarify what a professor is in the most direct way, it must be distinguished from surrounding professional roles such as being an instructor training specific skills, or being solely a classroom teacher. Although a professor is partly a teacher, classes are fewer because of the other roles a professor should play in Academia and society. Professors need to be available to profess in areas where their expertise applies. For example, there is the blind review of papers, with little or no recognition for such work. A news program or a court may need the expertise and established credibility of a professor to arrive at an informative perspective or a sound judgement.

The academic process may be corrupted by the purchase of an academic position in some way, or by a careerist, publish-or-perish mentality of academic opportunism, which can be incited by credentialistic hiring practices and rigid rules such as point systems for promotion. Then what is more difficult, complex, interdisciplinary, or important is not researched, and publications in many fields are clogged with statistics that contribute little to knowledge or society because it is safer to stick to what can be quantified (McCarty, 2008, p. 3).

Of course there must be accountability, but in a context that assumes a love of learning and the priority of discovering things that truly advance academic fields. Often the bar is high for credentials in appointments but low for scholarly accomplishments after promotion.

Professors should have the time and tenure to rise above superficial concerns, to keep up with educational technology and advancements in their fields, to be active in academic societies, to give presentations at conferences, and to engage in all sorts of scholarly communication including but not confined to publications that 'count.'

Who are the colleagues of a university person? – They are the worldwide community of scholars connected to all true universities. Wherever the universality of the university manifests in shared academic standards and ethics, scholars belong to this worldwide community. Thus, beyond language barriers and cultural differences, they can readily communicate, collaborate or cooperate with other scholars sharing the academic way of life.

Because of the universality of the academic life, a regional or international academic project or association can be specialized, interdisciplinary, or pan-disciplinary when it involves expertise auxiliary to all fields such as educational technology. Thus the question of who is involved in the world community of scholars can provide another perspective on what is essential to the academic life.

While everyone on the staff of one’s institution may also be considered one's colleagues, educators and researchers imbued with academic standards and ethics have more in common with scholars at other institutions and in other countries than with nearby colleagues not engaged in scholarly activities. As can be seen at international conferences or in international academic organizations, scholars in the same fields have much in common and much to share with colleagues from different cultures but similar disciplines. Scholars from countries or religions that are currently in conflict can maintain collegial relations and cooperate in academic endeavors.

If scholars in some countries or regions cannot thus interact, either they are not true scholars or, more likely, their institution is impoverished, corrupted, or politically oppressed. Cut off from the lifeblood of academic exchanges in a global age, excellence would be unlikely, and such an institution might be a university in name only.

If professors are loaded with classes and campus duties that are not professorial, then scholarly activities and academic exchanges outside of the institution are in effect blocked. On the other hand, professors who hardly teach but are urged to bring in grants represent another distortion of the university by sacrificing its educational mission.

What should be learned in graduate school regardless of the field of specialization? – It is the academic way of life, the standards and ethics of the world community of scholars, which should be internalized through intense graduate study and thesis committee supervision. There is a qualitative difference or leap from high school to university, and then again to graduate school. Just as higher education should not be an extension of high school, an advanced degree represents more than an extension of undergraduate studies. There can be exceptions where an individual internalizes the academic life before graduate school, or without it, because most learning is informal or through self-education. But a graduate degree from an accredited university means that such attainment is certified, and the individual is recognized as a peer in the academic community.

Because of the difficulty of surpassing the level of informational knowledge, often an academic person does not emerge without the cauldron of a thesis and the fires of vetting by professors. No amount of memorized information, formulae, citations, classes or conferences attended, or content produced in itself constitutes a qualitative leap into the academic life. But in the process of graduate school it is the mental discipline of standards and ethics that apply to all fields which may turn a person into a scholar.

Supervising professors can catch common errors of unscholarly thinking and suggest rigorous approaches to a certain investigation. The rigor itself is the discipline, and it should inculcate both rationality and ethical conduct. Common ways of thinking among lay people that scholars must overcome include overgeneralization from a few instances, certitude despite incomplete information, seeing and valuing only what is within one’s purview, perceptual errors, logical fallacies, oversimplifying the complexity of interdependent causal factors, and so forth. Ethical errors include plagiarism, improper attribution, purchasing of papers or credentials, altering of inconvenient data or results, exploitation of others for academic advancement, and all other kinds of misrepresentation.

Thus, while difficult to specify, there are academic standards and ethics that are common to all disciplines and recognizable throughout the world community of scholars. It is academic rigor that is internalized through the discipline of a graduate education. What is to be acquired is not informational knowledge but rather expertise in an academic field.

To what extent can a human being live by academic standards and ethics? – In a holistic view of the human being, there are natural feelings such as love that motivate educators to share. Yet although there are phenomena seemingly beyond the grasp of scholarly methods, one could ask what affective or metaphysical domains exist where academic standards and ethics would prove unhelpful or contradicted.

It could take a lifetime to explore the great extent to which a scholar can live by academic standards and ethics. The scholar never wishes to stop learning, enquiring, experimenting, teaching, researching, publishing, mentoring, openly sharing and communicating. Academic methods are applicable to daily life, and academic ethics are applicable to moral conduct. The rigor of the academic life stays with the scholar after hours, an examined life of reason that applies to daily life in cognitive, and in some ways, affective domains.

When the idea of the university lives within a person, the academic life can provide plenty to live by personally as well as professionally, without contradiction. Such is the universality of the university.


Hornedo, C. (2012, August 20). Professor's email warning students of 'bigotry' goes viral. Central Florida Future. Retrieved from http://www.centralfloridafuture.com/news/professor-s-email-warning-students-of-bigotry-goes-viral-1.2750315#.UDl5AcFlRcQ

McCarty, S. (1995). Practitioners of the liberal arts. The Language Teacher, 19 (11), 43-44. Retrieved from

McCarty, S. (2008). The bilingual perspective versus the street lamp syndrome. IATEFL Voices, Issue 203, pp. 3-4.
Canterbury, UK: International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language.

Sharma, R.P. (2012). Some thoughts on the idea of a University. Education India Journal, 1 (1).

Walt, S.M. (2012, August 23). Top ten things that would-be foreign policy wonks should study. Foreign Policy. Retrieved from http://walt.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2012/08/23/top_ten_things_that_would_be_foreign_policy_wonks_should_study

Next article: "What is the Academic Life? 2. The Idea of the University"
Education India Journal, 1 (4), 52-65 (November 2012)

7 January 2013
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