Funny You Should Say That: It's Academic

When school isn’t cool, just who is the fool?

By John Cadley

I’m leading a movement to have the phrase “It’s academic” stricken from the English language. I say this because I have a 16-year-old son who berates the importance of education by insisting that nothing he learns in school will be of use to him in real life.

Which is exactly what “It’s academic” means.

If he learns that phrase, I will be hard-pressed to stress the value of all things “academic”– grades, honors, degrees – without him pointing to the dictionary and smugly quoting one of the prime definitions of that very word: “Pertaining to areas that are not vocational or applied; not practical, realistic or directly useful; lacking in worldliness or common sense.”

Just to be safe I’m keeping him away from the dictionary, too.

What happened here? How can a word make reference to the highest levels of scholarship, learning and knowledge while simultaneously declaring you’re better off knowing how to work a can opener?

The word comes from the Greek academe, the public grove where Plato taught. Local philosophers would gather to debate the finer points of human reason, moral ideals, objective reality and universal absolutes – which at the time served as a kind of entertainment since there was no Comedy Central on TV and people needed something to laugh at. Plato would ask, “Is there an objective reality independent of subjective perception?”

Another philosopher would try to answer him seriously and the entire place would erupt into riotous glee. Plato would remind the crowd that the discussion was not for amusement but for education. At which point someone would shout back: “Oh yeah? What does it have to do with pillaging, sacking, conquering and enslaving?”

This, of course, would stump Plato, and since he was the smartest man in the world, academe came to be known as a place where smart people talk about stuff that doesn’t make you smarter. If further proof was needed, it was underscored by the great fire at the Library of Alexandria in 48 B.C., where 400,000 scrolls containing all of human erudition and scholarship were destroyed – and the world never missed a beat. In fact, when a local shepherd was informed of the catastrophe by a crestfallen trustee of the library, the shepherd said, “What’s a library? And you’re standing in sheep dip.”

Academicians will take issue with this, as well they should. Is knowledge for knowledge’s sake really so useless? Let’s say you’re at a party and someone remarks that the time is 12:15. “1215?” you say. “Oh, I’m sorry, I thought you were referring to the date the Magna Carta was signed, which effectively established the writ of habeas corpus and prepared the ground for the slow but inexorable rule of constitutional law over monarchical despotism. And speaking of the Magna Carta – which means Great Charter, by the way – it’s a good thing the clock doesn’t have a 12:97 on it or I would have thought you were referring to the date of the later, amended version, the one that’s actually on the statute books in England and Wales even as we speak.”

Tell me there is not some practical value in this. The stunned looks of surprise, admiration, envy – even the suspicious squint that barely conceals a wish for you to choke on your toothpick hors d’oeuvre of scallop and bacon – don’t they give you a real, palpable lift that can make the next few quotidian hours seem like you’re floating on air?

I’m thinking of using this strategy on my son. When he asks me what’s the point of memorizing Shakespeare’s sonnets, I might tell him to quote this couplet to his girlfriend: “For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings / That then I scorn to change my state with kings” – and see how she reacts (although I’m not at all sure I’d want to know). Or I could tell him how he could win thousands of dollars on Jeopardy just by knowing the capital of Indonesia. Or he could be a fact-checker for the New Yorker and tell smarty-pants writers how many mistakes they made.

Or I could just tell him the truth: You go to school to learn how to think, because thinking is what sets us apart from the brute animals. In your case, my boy, it may be the only thing.

On the other hand, this whole discussion could be, well, academic. Anyone who has teenagers knows how much they listen. And there’s always the chance that my son is right about not needing to learn. After all, he’s 16. He knows everything. 

John Cadley is an advertising copy-writer in Syracuse, New York. Reach him at