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Magazine Essays

Scholarship & Education
Fall 2003
PDF Version

This past spring, the national honorary scholarship society Phi Kappa Phi welcomed into membership 39 Berry students. The inductees had earned top grades while following a rigorous course of study during their college careers and were thus invited to join this distinguished society. As the best Berry students know, however, there is more to scholarship than the achievement of an A average.

In a broader sense, scholarship means a respect for learning as well as a commitment to expanding the boundaries of knowledge. Grants awarded to students to cover college expenses are often called “scholarships” because these funds make it possible for the student to pursue higher learning. Research carried out by professors is also referred to as “scholarship” because such achievements represent contributions to learning.

There is a further dimension to scholarship, and that is its communal nature. It is something pursued within a community of one’s peers and fellow scholars. That is why many specialized articles and books are often difficult for laypeople to follow. Such scholarship is often couched in language used primarily within a narrow assembly of experts. Those of us unfamiliar with such ways of communicating can be left behind.

The communal nature of the scholarly enterprise explains the presence of footnotes in almost all scholarly writing as well as the thousands of academic conferences, published academic proceedings and specialized journals that carry the results of scholarship across the world. The scholarly enterprise is grounded in what is already known and is directed toward what needs to be known and should be known. To outsiders, the constant references to the work of other experts in scholarly writing could seem like axe grinding or the settling of old scores. And from time to time such references are just that. Yet, one cannot move forward without taking into account what is already established and accepted about the topic. At its worst, scholarship simply rehashes old arguments. At its best, it is pathfinding and transformational.

The primary task of a scholar is to stand up and be counted. Following a disciplined personal reading program or keeping private journals is laudable, but true scholarship exists only within give-and-take, public presentation and the sharing of ideas. It must be a public activity because that is the way ideas are tested.

In the mathematical and natural sciences and many of the social sciences, experiments must be replicable. If a scholar claims to have discovered something, then other experts ought to be able to test the results by duplicating the procedure. In the humanities, scholarly and critical claims must be able to withstand vigorous examination. The world of scholarship is thus a world of hypothesis. Any scholarly conclusion represents a tentative assumption based upon one’s best thinking supported by the best evidence possible. Such conclusions, if they amount to anything, are certain to be tested by others in the field. Disagreement is hardly the worst outcome of a scholar’s work. The worst outcome is to be ignored.

Scholarship must be ethical. One is supposed to master and correctly cite what is already known and to report new findings with great care and accuracy. In many instances, the scholar is expected to consider negative arguments and to anticipate possible counterarguments. Indeed, the best scholars acknowledge that their conclusions take them only so far in addressing the question under study.

Naturally, a scholar’s work must be founded upon honesty and integrity. The data one cites cannot be cooked or distorted. If something is amiss, another scholar will likely expose the subterfuge. Readers of this magazine may recall the furor over the cold-fusion experiments of some years ago. What appeared in many newspapers as a remarkable breakthrough turned out to be a bust. Other scholars could not duplicate the results, and consequently the much-heralded claims were discredited. Cold fusion was certainly a case of reckless over-enthusiasm rather than dishonesty, but the testing process was the same. Actually, respect for one’s learning community motivates scholarly integrity more than the fear of being caught. Those who value their good name and the respect of their peers remain scrupulously honest even in matters that would elude easy detection. Self-policing is the real moral foundation of the scholarly enterprise.

In its broadest sense, scholarship represents a special habit of mind. The poet John Keats called this quality “negative capability,” the capacity to live with “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts ….” Keats was describing Shakespeare’s moral courage. Shakespeare was committed to exploring what is right, true and just and would not compromise his artistic vision in order to reach easy answers. By fearlessly confronting moral uncertainties, Shakespeare was able to create a dramatic universe in which the moral order ultimately prevails. That fearless spirit characterizes the best scholarship. Those who seek truth, both within and beyond the academic world, must refuse to blink in the face of obstacles.

Not all conclusions have to be complicated, however. Harry Truman once wished for “a one-handed economist” so he would not have to listen to economic advisers’ arguments that contained the phrases “on the one hand this may be true, but on the other hand that may be true.” There are times when we need direct answers to tricky questions. That said, we should remember that settling for a simple conclusion is not the same as understanding an issue fully or even understanding it at all. Late-breaking news reports, by their nature, often get parts of the story wrong. The best of popular journalism, however, is marked by the self-critical spirit of scholarship as well as its commitment to accuracy and integrity. The path to truth makes demands of us.

In scholarship, the stakes are high. What is true about the world? How does one go about reaching valid conclusions? How does one verify complex arguments? Who is to be trusted? Such questions are appropriate for Berry students who earn superior grades and join distinguished honorary societies. These are also questions that should challenge all Berry professors. Such queries lie at the heart of a liberal arts education. Scholarship is the way we choose to encounter the world around us and is the heartbeat of our enterprise.

Dr. Scott Colley
Berry College President

 

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