Thoughts on Scholarship

tumblr_ma2kcgvypc1ren3pzo1_1280This fall quarter I took a PhD seminar called Historiography. Its basically a research methods class for work in historical studies, and specifically church history. I’ve been plowing through a lot German and French stuff, learning new methods for locating obscure old articles and monographs, and writing a rough draft of the first chapter of my dissertation. Its been a lot of fun, and caused me to reflect on the nature of scholarship. Some miscellaneous thoughts:

1) Scholarship can be used for great good. Its like the army, or the press, or technological advance. It can serve the greater good and contribute to society in meaningful ways. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with it. It is, in itself, a noble and life-enriching activity.

2) Fallen scholarship, when the effects of sin run their full course, tends to produce the opposite of its true purpose. This is way of sin. It does not merely destroy God’s creation, but turns things around into their opposite. It makes family, the place designed for safety and nurturing, into a place of harm and discord. It turns the enjoyment of physical pleasures into regret and pain. It turns religion, the one thing that should humble us, into a system of producing pride and judgment. And so it goes with scholarship: the very thing which should promote knowledge can instead promote obscurity and confusion, and (in extreme cases) elaborate systems of pretentiousness and power-grabbing. Praise God that His common grace restrains this process, and His saving grace reverses it.

3) Related to this, it seems to me that uneducated people, generally speaking, tend to understand life and find happiness more readily than people with lots of education. But that is a wide generalization.

4) Of all arenas of life, it seems to me that scholarship is particularly in need of courage. The best characteristics of good scholarship are, I think, virtues that tend to run parallel with courage: honesty, directness, willingness to risk, perseverance, etc. The corresponding vices would be, I suppose, dishonesty, obscurity, self-aggrandization, flightiness, and capitulation to passing intellectual fads. I’ve heard somewhere that C.S. Lewis said that it takes courage to even write a good story. So also, I say, a good article or dissertation! It takes courage to buck trendiness. It takes courage to publicly disagree. It takes courage to expose your thinking to a wide audience. It takes courage to risk being misunderstood. It takes courage to be clear and simple. But most of all, it takes courage to stand with truth, against all reactions against it. No one who stands for truth will be totally accommodated to his surrounding intellectual culture, and therefore there will always be a degree of backlash. Therefore true scholarship always requires courage and sacrifice.

5) Scholarship is almost always in need of a good dose of common sense. It seems to me that many pieces of scholarship that are technically brilliant in their own context become ridiculous when taken outside the world of scholarship. Scholarship works best when combined with simplicity of thought, with honesty and urgency and directness. A good question is always, “can I make this thesis plausible to a non-specialist?” In fact, I would say that the best scholarship is almost always done by those who have sensitivity to the world of those outside of scholarship.

6) The best fuel for scholarship is curiosity and passion for truth. When combined with curiosity, scholarship can be great fun. It is genuinely exciting and life-giving. It is one of the great joys of life, like having a delightful hobby or making a true friend. I think of Dallimore’s biography of Whitefield, and genuine and vital life that went into that work. “There is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his work” (Ecclesiastes 3:22).

7) Intelligence + hard work is a powerful combo. But if you have to choose, I think hard work is more important than intelligence. It seems to me that some of the greatest advances in scholarship have come from people with mediocre or slightly above average intelligence who pursued a particular project so doggedly that they simply couldn’t be ignored. Similarly, there are a lot of people who are brilliant but never really seem have a big impact.

8) There are all different kinds of skills that go into good scholarship, and thus many different kinds of good scholars. As an analogy, think of how many different kinds of skills make for a good basketball player, and how different each great player is. In basketball, you have point guards, centers, etc. You have defensive specialists, three-point shooters, generalists, etc. You have starters are and subs, and some are more valuable than others—but they all serve a purpose. So also some scholars are primarily gifted with language; others are skilled at abstracting and popularizing the thought of others; some are cross-disciplinary; others will really put out one idea their whole career. There is a place for all this and more: to contribute in any way to quest for truth has value.

I find this liberating, because I often feel limited in the kinds of things I am able to think and write. I’d like to, if I can, make a contribution to the scholarly and popular interpretation of Anselm’s Proslogion, write a few articles and/or books on other miscellaneous topics, and pastor a church and build them up in their faith. There is a lot more I could not do, and a few things I maybe could but don’t have time or desire. That’s okay. Its enough to just do something small. To contribute to the world of thought in any way is meaningful. Oh, the freedom of realizing that your best effort is still a very small contribution, and being genuinely okay with that!

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  1. Great thoughts, Gavin. I stumbled upon your blog a few days ago, and find a kindred spirit. I am in grad school right now working on a third masters…and serve in the Air Force, looking for the ‘courage’ to work through my monograph and seek to be published for the first time. Anyways, you’ve captured in many ways my thoughts…as I transition to a place in life from not just action and operations, but a life of thoughts and ideas. Well done.