A basic definition of a scholar is one “who has engaged in advanced study in a special field.” (1) It’s pretty simple. Study something long enough and hard enough and you’re a scholar. But wait… what constitutes a “special field”? Say, for example, that you have spent a lifetime learning the nuances and intricacies of torture. Are you then a scholar? Or just a sadist? Or perhaps your object of study is yourself. Are mystics, meditators and contemplatives therefore scholars as well? Mmm… not so sure.
These examples cause me to question the sufficiency of this definition, even though I’m quite fond of its brevity. It seems that there are other attributes required of a person to be scholar that are not covered by Merriam-Webster. Clearly learnedness is one. But what else? Does a scholar need to be dedicated to the common good? Dissemination of knowledge through writing and education? Engaging the public? Is there a moral or ethical component of being a scholar?
To sort this out, it might help us to step back a moment. Let’s take a look at a bigger picture and try to get some context, with the caveat that I am speaking from within the United States and from that perspective. Scholars are often also called academics, and together they make up what is called the Academy. This isn’t the Academy of Plato in Ancient Athens, the Greek name of which gives us our modern term “academia.” We’re not talking about a specific place or group of people. The Academy is more like an ideal, a conceptual place where scholars and knowledge comingle. It can have a sort of lofty, ethereal feel to it.
Raphael’s School of Athens (2)
But that’s not the only way people talk about the Academy in the U.S. A common metaphor for it is the Ivory Tower, a place where elites funded by the public write a bunch of stuff that nobody reads and have esoteric discussions on stuff that doesn’t matter. This description contains critiques of elitism, power, privilege, and control. It also contains a kind of expectation that the Academy do something that matters to people.
For the work to matter to people, it seems to me that they need to be able to engage with the work in some way, which leads us to the problem of access. Most academic work (at least that which is most highly prized by the Academy) is published in academic journals which generally have absurdly high subscription and purchase rates, or in very small numbers by university presses. The highest quality teaching (informed by that work) is becoming increasingly inaccessible as tuition for higher education climbs.
This leaves us with a few closing points to ponder. Basically, a scholar is someone who studies something and knows it well. But in the U.S., there is an expectation that the scholar actually DO something with that knowledge, ideally something that benefits the many and not just the few. Scholars on the whole value this ideal, and strive to achieve it, but often get stuck in the mechanisms of the Ivory Tower.
Questions to keep considering: what is a scholar? what are the attributes of a scholar? what kind of product or outcomes are expected of a scholar? is there a moral or ethical component of scholarship? what is it? where does it come from?
Please respond with answers and comment! Next time we’ll turn our eyes toward monks and see where that takes us.
(1) “Scholar.” Merriam-Webster.com. Accessed October 20, 2016. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/scholar.
(2) Wikipedia. Stitched together from vatican.va, Public Domain. Accessed October 20, 2016. https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4406048