An academic is a member of a university or college faculty, or who otherwise holds an academic post.
Overinflated esteem given to academics
Mainstream society often holds these people as being worthy of higher prestige than those without academic credentials. After all, the academic has had to go through some sort of screening process, such as obtaining acceptable grades on assignments, examinations, etc. To rise to a tenured position involves yet another screening process.
Of course, this process also screens out anyone who determines that the costs of going through such a process outweigh the benefits. Some people do not agree with the soundness of the lines of reasoning, and the importance of the facts, they are expected by their professors to memorize and regurgitate. Many courses of study, such as computer science, include many topics that a person will never use in his professional career. Many successful programmers drop out of school early because getting the degree is not worth the opportunity costs. Those dropouts will be ineligible to become a computer science teacher, but does that mean they are less qualified to teach other programmers? Hardly. The real-world experience is much more valuable than what is taught in the classroom.
Division of labor
Like all other participants in the economy, academics depend on their efforts of their fellow citizens in order to have the opportunity to serve as specialists. It is worth remembering what Ludwig von Mises wrote, that the "great surgeon and the eminent musician would never have been able to concentrate all their efforts upon surgery and music if the division of labor had not freed them from the necessity of taking care of many trifles the performance of which would have prevented them from becoming perfect specialists." The surgeon is considered to hold a more lofty, respected position than the plumber or mechanic, but aside from pay rates, this distinction is arbitrary.
Even in the intellectual realm, the academics are not always self-sufficient. Not everyone goes to a university and takes the necessary classes to hear what professors in a given subject, even an important subject such as economics, have to say. And the academics' ideas typically cannot be effectively communicated to the public in the forms in which academics write them. Members of the general public typically are not inclined to read, and sometimes are not equipped to understand, lengthy academic papers, with their specialized jargon which is suitable for communication within the profession; but would prefer to read the summaries and analyses of them that appear in popular media. This makes necessary a host of intellectual middlemen, such as newspaper writers, wiki editors, and so on.
And of course, even if the academics did communicate their ideas directly to the public, it would still be necessary for someone to act on those ideas. A chemist may discover a new synthesis, but it is up to industry to use that new knowledge to produce consumer goods for the masses. Likewise, a political scientist may come up with a better scheme for how society should be organized (or left to organize itself through spontaneous order). But it is then the task of those who engage in political activism to take the necessary actions to bring that idea into effect.
There is, therefore, no need to denigrate or disparage the contributions of non-academics as being less worthy of praise or esteem than those of academics. Academics choose one path; others choose other paths, and it is a good thing, because we could not all be academics. And since we cannot all be academics, what is the point of implying that academia is a superior path? It has not been proven that the world would be better off if more people would choose that path.
The price of something does not necessarily indicate how important it is; consider the diamond-water paradox. Would the world be better if some of the people who chose to become car mechanics had instead preferred to be surgeons and pursued that career route? The increase in supply of surgeons might have pushed the price of surgeries down and resulted in more surgeries being performed. But the decrease in supply of car mechanics would have tended to increase the price of car repairs and resulted in fewer car repairs being performed.
By the same logic that one concludes that academics are more deserving of esteem than other professions because they get paid more, one might conclude that a professional basketball player is even more worthy of esteem than the academic. An academic may protest, "It is not about pay; I actually do not get paid all that much. It is about the sacrifice I make in order to improve the world." In that case, the basement dweller who sits on a computer fixing obscure bugs in open-source freeware web applications is worthy of even more esteem because he gets paid even less. The same could be said for the campaign worker who folds brochures outside of the public eye, while the candidate gives speeches on television. Often such people's contributions are little noticed or appreciated. As Mises commented regarding war, "It is not just that those in the front line shed their life-blood in obscurity, while the commanders, comfortably located in headquarters hundreds of miles behind the trenches, gain glory and fame."
Furthermore, the market for academics tends to be distorted by government intervention. Would there be so many academics if the state did not impose taxes in order to fund state universities and provide student aid? Or would more people choose non-academic forms of education? Might there not be a greater reliance on lay scholars if the state did not put its stamp of legitimacy on the academics turned out by its institutions, and give them preference in hiring to its own prestigious bureaucratic posts?
Academics are deemed worthy of a formal graduation ceremony and accolades for completing a degree. Why is there so much attention paid to such accomplishments, rather than to the kind of learning that can take place outside the kind of stodgy "educational" regime that Jonathan M. Finegold Catalán has described as "a voluntary low-security prison of sorts, where a collection of bureaucrats arbitrarily decides what is best for the student"? Might there not be some better way of assessing a person's work ethic and intellectual capacity than a college degree? In any event, many successful people, such as Oprah Winfrey and Bill Gates, have gotten along fine without a degree. As Mises notes:
|“||In order to succeed in business a man does not need a degree from a school of business administration. These schools train the subalterns for routine jobs. They certainly do not train entrepreneurs. An entrepreneur cannot be trained. A man becomes an entrepreneur in seizing an opportunity and filling the gap. No special education is required for such a display of keen judgment, foresight, and energy. The most successful businessmen were often uneducated when measured by the scholastic standards of the teaching profession. But they were equal to their social function of adjusting production to the most urgent demand. Because of these merits the consumers chose them for business leadership.||”|
- Mises, Ludwig von. "The Philosophy of Bureaucratism". Bureaucracy. http://mises.org/etexts/mises/bureaucracy/section5.asp.
- Mises, Ludwig von. "War and the Market Economy". Human Action. http://mises.org/humanaction/chap34sec2.asp.
- "In Defense of the Shadow Scholar" by Catalán, Jonathan M. Finegold, 15 November 2010
- Mises, Ludwig von. "The Selective Process". Human Action. http://mises.org/humanaction/chap15sec11.asp.