The paradox of scholarship: pissing on every lamp post

If I have been able to see fur­ther, it was only because I stood on the shoul­ders of giants [Isaac New­ton, 1642 – 1727]

Newton’s com­ment encap­su­lates the ideal of schol­ar­ship, though not its con­stant out­come. Schol­ar­ship is often con­fused with the sci­en­tific method­olo­gies which have trans­formed human civ­i­liza­tions over the last three cen­turies. In fact how­ever, sci­en­tific method­ol­ogy (as New­ton rec­og­nized) is only effec­tive when schol­ar­ship is its hand­maiden, not its mis­tress.

Let us be explicit. Schol­ar­ship is that process of becom­ing famil­iar with, order­ing, and acknowl­edg­ing the think­ing of ear­lier work­ers in a par­tic­u­lar line of inquiry. It can eas­ily become a life­time task. The process is obvi­ously valu­able. Sub­du­ing the arro­gance of an igno­rant mind (espe­cially one’s own) is very healthy. Schol­ar­ship not only helps to avoid past mis­takes and save the waste of “rein­vent­ing the wheel”, but can also be a stim­u­lus for new and more sophis­ti­cated ideas about a topic.

How­ever, the largest body of schol­ar­ship always remains inert, not only fail­ing to stim­u­late new ideas, but actu­ally form­ing a bul­wark against the intru­sion of fresh think­ing. This is true at both indi­vid­ual and insti­tu­tional lev­els; (it is also one of the huge social costs extracted by mass edu­ca­tion sys­tems). In fact, in its his­tor­i­cal form, the scholas­tic tra­di­tion is almost a syn­onym for the blind con­ser­vatism of belief which we assoc­iate with the Euro­pean Mid­dle Ages. Recall, for exam­ple, that this was the tra­di­tion which vio­lently upheld the Ptole­maic and Chris­tian view of the uni­verse against over­whelm­ing empir­i­cal evi­dence.

From the ear­li­est times, orga­nized reli­gion, regard­less of creed, has been a home to scholas­tic tra­di­tions, and has dom­i­nantly been asso­ci­ated with the sup­pres­sion of fresh think­ing. The sec­u­lar ide­olo­gies of more recent cen­turies, such as Com­mu­nism, show exactly the same kind of psy­cho­log­i­cal rigid­ity. It is no acci­dent that West­ern uni­ver­si­ties had their roots in a Chris­tian monas­tic tra­di­tion, that Mid­dle East­ern schol­ar­ship con­tin­ues to find its home in Mus­lim madras­sas (مدارس ), and that insti­tutes of learn­ing with a 1,000 or more years of his­tory in China and Korea (for exam­ple) were axiomat­i­cally asso­ci­ated with a so-called neo-Con­fu­cian canon. The present illu­sion is that the intel­lec­tual habits and vices of these sources have some­how been out­grown.

Has this inert-to-reac­tionary ten­dency of the scholas­tic tra­di­tion changed? By no means. The vast major­ity of aca­d­e­mic pub­li­ca­tions, though they pass for sci­en­tific analy­sis, are firmly in the scholas­tic tra­di­tion of reit­er­at­ing accepted belief while offer­ing lit­tle new insight. There is peri­odic hand­wring­ing amongst the aca­d­e­mic chat­ter­ing classes about this, but never any res­o­lu­tion. A con­tem­po­rary exam­ple of the dis­cus­sion can be found in the June 13, 2010 edi­tion of The Chron­i­cle of Higher Edu­ca­tion: Bauer­line et al, “We Most Stop the Avalanche of Low Qual­ity Research” (the com­ments sec­tion is more use­ful than the arti­cle). When a phe­nom­e­non is as per­sis­tent as this it can gen­er­ally be traced to a pat­tern in human psy­chol­ogy – in this case the per­son­al­ity types which are most often attracted to a schol­arly life. 

The induc­tion of novi­tiates into the schol­arly process has nat­u­rally enough become a near monopoly of uni­ver­sity aca­d­e­mics, although for­tu­nately, the democ­ra­tized access to knowl­edge offered by medi­ums such as the Inter­net is weak­en­ing this monopoly. Often enough, those who have learned to obe­di­ently piss on every lamp post (i.e. learned to name a plethora of sources) are felt to have prop­erly marked out a royal road of pro­gress to a higher degree – an MA or Ph.D.. As a con­se­quence, vast num­bers of dis­ser­ta­tions are lit­tle more than col­lec­tions of acknowl­edged sources with some con­trived and insignif­i­cant “exper­i­ment” or “analy­sis” tacked onto the end. For a lovely exam­ple of the aca­d­e­mic chi­nese whis­pers game called cita­tion, see this short piece by Robert Fitz­patrick (2001)”The Strange Case of the Trans­fer Train­ing Esti­mate“.

One of the stranger con­se­quences of the scholas­tic process is that a lack of inno­va­tion is fre­quently dis­guised by a pro­lif­er­a­tion of sects. This is the face of rev­o­lu­tion for an aca­d­e­mic. In a mod­ern uni­ver­sity set­ting, these sects gen­er­ally go by the name of “a new field of study”. They are a pri­mary vehi­cle for schol­ars to achieve “pio­neer” sta­tus with­out actu­ally invent­ing any­thing; (which is not to say of course that all new fields of study are career con­structs). The early stages of such sects are marked by an urgent quest for respectabil­ity, and accep­tance as a “sci­ence”. There is the rapid accu­mu­la­tion of foun­da­tion great lit­er­a­ture, and a hunt for val­i­dat­ing antecedents. Hence we see much zealotry about quot­ing from every appar­ently sup­port­ing source, no mat­ter how ten­u­ous. Def­i­n­i­tions mul­ti­ply, and old words are given sub­tle new over­tones in the argot of the freshly minted sect. Con­versely, sug­ges­tions that the whole topic can be han­dled per­fectly well by ear­lier study dis­ci­plines are hotly con­tested.

Well, the rather hol­low sound an fury just described can eas­ily con­fuse and over­whelm real sci­ence. Gen­uine sci­en­tific research employs most of the same mech­a­nisms as scholas­tic activ­ity, albeit with a quite dif­fer­ent empha­sis. The processes of hypoth­e­sis and sys­tem­atic inves­ti­ga­tion, and above all the mir­a­cle of inno­va­tion which comes from serendip­ity, do need to be stim­u­lated and but­tressed by the insights of those who came before. This is where schol­arly activ­ity has a legit­i­mate role to play. It is a sup­port­ing role, no less, but emphat­i­cally not the main game. 

The man­age­rial classes who have usurped the run­ning of cur­rent edu­ca­tion sys­tems are not often equipped to dis­tin­guish between gen­uine research schol­ar­ship and reac­tionary scholas­ti­cism. They eval­u­ate by dif­fer­ent met­rics: brand adver­tis­ing, finan­cial profit for the insti­tu­tion, quan­ti­ties of pub­li­ca­tions and cita­tions (mutual back scratch­ing) by the schol­ars, and some­times employ­ment out­comes for the stu­dents.

Most of these edu­ca­tional man­agers may no longer be beholden to a cul­tural pro­hi­bi­tion from the agents of god(s) on open ques­tion­ing and inno­va­tion, except where the shift­ing polit­i­cal demands of this coun­try or that demand it. How­ever there is lit­tle evi­dence that the man­agers’ sub­sti­tu­tion of finan­cial profit mak­ing for ide­o­log­i­cal purity has led to any rev­o­lu­tion in the major­ity char­ac­ter of those who grav­i­tate to schol­arly life. 

It seems that tal­ented research and an impas­sioned quest for new under­stand­ing will always be a minor­ity activ­ity, forced to sur­vive in the cracks between the floor­boards.

 

Ref­er­ences

Bauer­lein, Mark, with Mohamed Gad-el-Hak, Wayne Grody, Bill McK­elvey, and Stan­ley W. Trim­ble (2010) “We Must Stop the Avalanche of Low-Qual­ity Research”. Chron­i­cle of Higher Edu­ca­tion, 13 June 2010, online @ http://chronicle.com/article/We-Must-Stop-the-Avalanche-of/65890/ 

Robert Fitz­patrick (2001) “The Strange Case of the Trans­fer Train­ing Esti­mate”. SIOP (Soci­ety for Indus­trial & Orga­ni­za­tional Psy­chol­ogy) back issue online @ http://www.siop.org/tip/backissues/TipOct01/pdf%20tip/392_018to019.pdf . Also reprinted by Will Thal­heimer @ http://www.work-learning.com/georgenson.html

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Some related mat­ters are also cov­ered else­where on Thor May’s per­sonal web­site:  Why Write a PhD?; How To Get The Degree You Want, or Are You A Fake?; The Doctor’s Dilemma – Read­ing ver­sus Active Expe­ri­ence; with­rawal from PhD can­di­da­cies (Thor May, let­ter) in 1988 & 1996; let­ter of PhD com­ple­tion from the Uni­ver­sity of New­castle, 2010; dis­ser­ta­tion, Lan­guage Tan­gle, 2010 Arti­cles from Thor May’s per­sonal web­site are grad­u­ally also being copied to a blog called Thor’s Unwise Ideas

 

Pro­fes­sional bio: Thor May’s PhD dis­ser­ta­tion, Lan­guage Tan­gle, dealt with lan­guage teach­ing pro­duc­tiv­ity. Thor has been teach­ing Eng­lish to non-native speak­ers, train­ing teach­ers and lec­tur­ing lin­guis­tics, since 1976. This work has taken him to seven coun­tries in Ocea­nia and East Asia, mostly with ter­tiary stu­dents, but with a cou­ple of detours to teach sec­ondary stu­dents and young chil­dren. He has trained teach­ers in Aus­tralia, Fiji and South Korea. In an ear­lier life, prior to becom­ing a teacher, he had a decade of drift­ing through unskilled jobs in Aus­tralia, New Zealand and finally Eng­land (after back­pack­ing across Asia in 1972). 

 

con­tact: http://thormay.net    thor­may AT yahoo.com


All opin­ions expressed in this paper are entirely those of the author, who has no aim to influ­ence, pros­e­ly­tize or per­suade oth­ers to a point of view. He is pleased if his writ­ing gen­er­ates reflec­tion in read­ers, either for or against the sen­ti­ment of the argu­ment.

 


The para­dox of schol­ar­ship: piss­ing on every lamp post”
© copy­righted to Thor May; all rights reserved 2002

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