The problem is not promoting academic ability in itself, it is the obsessive preoccupation with it. Academic ability is a vital feature of human intelligence and in some respects is characteristic of it. One of the essential tasks of education is to develop academic ability to the best standards possible for everyone. But there’s much more to intelligence than academic ability and much more to education than developing it. If there were no more to intelligence than this, most of human culture with its complex fabric of scientific, technological, artistic, economic and social enterprises would never have happened. There is an intriguing ambiguity in the idea of academic ability.
On the one hand it is thought to be absolutely essential to individual success and to national survival. If academic standards are thought to be falling, the popular press beats its chest and politicians become resolute. On the other hand, ‘academic’ is used as a polite form of abuse. Professional academics are thought to live in ivory towers and have no practical understanding of the real world at all. An easy way to dismiss any argument is to say that it is merely academic.
How have we become so enthralled by academic ability and so contemptuous of it at the same time? The preoccupation with academic ability has specific historical roots in Western culture. These are partly philosophical and partly institutional. The roots of this obsession are deep in the Enlightenment, the massive expansion in European philosophy and practical science in the 16th and 17th centuries. This led to a view of knowledge and intelligence dominated by deductive reason and ideas of scientific evidence.
These ideas have been reinforced since then by the styles of formal education, promoted especially through the public schools and universities. These methods of thought have had spectacular success in shaping our understanding of the world and in generating technological advances. But there has been a terrible price too.