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The changing face of scholarship

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Pierre Bourdieu at an unemployed demonstration in front of ‘Sciences Politiques’ and ‘Normale Superieure’ schools in Paris, France on January 16, 1998.

Like most things in life, the idea of scholarship has many meanings. Many people are delighted and proud to receive advanced degrees. In some way it tells them and others that they are “smart,” worthy” and not just part of the crowd.

But when looked at another way, isn’t this an elitist view? And is it realistic or mostly a social construction, relative to our point in history?

If these questions sound unusual, consider the thinkers Pierre Bourdieu, Karl Marx and Max Weber. These and other sociologists maintain that two central functions of social institutions are to  legitimize and reproduce themselves.

Perhaps a slightly jaded view, some see universities as places of knowledge dissemination that, by virtue of what they are, tend to justify high tuition fees and not a few uninspiring, second and third-rate instructors. As part of the legitimization and reproduction process, universities must produce a quota of scholarly publications, many of which wouldn’t survive in the free market. And because university textbooks are often required for assignments and exams, students feel pressured into paying wildly inflated prices for these books if they want to get good grades.

The other side of the argument is that universities are specialized training centers, making tailor made textbooks necessary (and costly) by virtue of their relatively low circulation. Just as a detailed jet engine repair manual may never be a bestseller but is necessary for the airline mechanic, university textbooks in the Humanities are needed for the trade of “critical thinking.”

Glasgow University via Flickr

In fields like history and religious studies, students – some of whom might not realize they are, in part, consumers of education – are implicitly or explicitly lead to believe that a knowledge of original languages is linked to scholarly legitimacy and coherent thinking. This fallacy is often overlooked by those dazzled by a phalanx of references in non-English languages. And it is easy to find utterly shoddy articles which, perhaps, in part try to impress students and colleagues with a slew of references in different languages.

A postmodernist might argue that scholars should be just as concerned with recent language theory instead of conforming to the age-old tradition of upholding proficiency in languages as an emblem of scholarly legitimacy.

Further to Bourdieu’s claim that most scholarship doesn’t exist in isolation but takes place in institutions laden with cultural connotations (by virtue of their being accredited as universities and colleges), one might ask: What are these places really like? How do they really function? How effective are they? And how meaningfully do they connect with other social institutions and practices?

Historically, centers of so-called higher education and their resident scholars take various forms. From the Confucian courts, the Old Academies of Plato and Aristotle, the ashrams of Sankara and Gorakhnath, the early Oxford and Cambridge, the University at Salamanca, the Renaissance University of Padua, the New Florentine Academy, to today’s Visva-Bharati and other unique centers around the world, the definition of “quality education” is not fixed to one ideal.

Connections among pedagogy, language, societal legitimacy and, last but not least, morality are well summed up by Confucius, who in The Analects says:

A gentleman would be ashamed should his deeds not match his words.

A woman photographs a giant silicone sculpture of the ancient and famous chinese philosopher Confucius made by the Chinese artist Zhang Huan at the Rockbund Art museum on December 13, 2011 in Shanghai, China.

Related » Digital Scanning, Equal Rights, History, Individual Rights, Sociology

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