April 20, 2005

Who's An Academic?

Do technical and hard-science majors really count as academics? I don't really know just what the definition of academic is, but it seems to me like computer science majors aren't academics - or at least not as close to academics as say humanities and social sciences majors. Don't get me wrong, I understand that computer science can be hard and important, and have no doubt that computer scientists are important, but are they really academics?

I suppose the problem lies with the term itself. If academia means college, then a lot of people are academics.

I suppose if you did computer science at MIT, a lot of people would call you an academic. If you did it at your local tech school I don't see a lot of people giving you that title. Is it just the degree of difficulty and respect that makes one an academic?

It seems to me that the vast majority of math, if not computer science or natural sciences, is in reiterating and applying learned concepts rather than creating new ways of doing things. This is because, unlike a lot of social sciences, math is actually verifiable in most respects. There's innovation in higher math like calculus and stuff, but are there all that many real innovations in trig or geometry? Maybe there are, but it seems from my vantage point that there really aren't many.

But does that matter? Only a few people in any field offer major changes that are accepted by an appreciable number of their colleagues. Fewer still offer major changes that are any good (even if ignored by colleagues). If simply being present (or supporting) the changes in a field is all it takes to be considered an academic, then surely mathematicians and computer scientists can ride the important changes made in the last decades and centuries in their fields.

I suppose it's simply the technical, if difficult, nature of math and hard science that seems non-academic. But the line is a little blurry, to say the least.

Part of the definition of academic has to do with being non-vocational and non-technical - even somewhat impractical, perhaps. Computer science is to some degree simply computer-assisted drafting several magnitudes larger. It's difficult and important, but it's essentially technical. Just because it's hard to do doesn't make it academic.

But then how proud should we academics be to fall under that term, considering it's at least partially defined as being useless?


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