Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The (Orderly) Life of the Mind

Scholarship plays an important role in social life. It maintains the store of human knowledge, keeping it both relevant and up to date. It is the scholar's job not merely to seek new knowledge but also to know what is known. That is, every time the scholar becomes personally aware of a truth for the first time, she also has to determine who else already knows. Is this discovery something that needs to be communicated to her peers? Or is it merely something that can safely be passed on to students because it is well-established in the discipline? The scholar, that is, is always learning—sometimes just for her own sake, and sometimes on behalf of her entire discipline. In any case, she represents the entire culture (some would go further and say the entire human species). What a scholar knows is in principle what "we" know.

What I just said should not be very controversial. No one would seriously defend the idea that a scholar's sole responsibility is to herself, that she is obligated only to satisfy her own curiosity and live a happy, interesting life. But I wonder whether our scholarly institutions ("schools" broadly speaking) are really organized with it in mind. I think we do well to ask ourselves what a life in scholarship should look like—and what it should feel like—if scholars had the function of knowing things on everyone's behalf. What sorts of conditions would we ask them to work under? What sorts of classrooms would we give them? How would we imagine their conversations among themselves would go? What would we think they spend their days doing? What kind of order would they be subject to?

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, how much control would they have over that order? How much autonomy does scholarship require? How reasonable is to think that the order of the mind can be imposed on an individual scholar? How much depends on the order that scholars find among, and within, themselves? Are we giving them sufficient opportunities to find it?


Presskorn said...

"It is the scholar's job not merely to seek new knowledge but also to know what is known." is, as you say, uncontroversial, but nevertheless a great one-liner... [Except for the typo, delete the second "it"]

Thomas said...

Thanks, fixed.

Lee Sechrest said...

809I think you would appreciate this essay by Donald T. Campbell: Ethnocentrism of Disciplines and the fish scale model of omniscience.The essay argues persuasively that we do need to "learn for others."