Academic scholarship prides itself on rigour and objectivity. Science is considered the most reliable body of rational knowledge about the natural world, while the arts and humanities pursue unbiased investigation of social phenomena, penetrating what it is to be human. Let the life of the mind flourish, and truth will prevail!
Or is that all spin and nonsense? Let me come clean: I wrote that first paragraph tongue firmly in cheek! Does scholarship really have pride in itself? What’s all that impersonal drivel about “science is considered” and “the arts and humanities pursue”? In the whole paragraph no human being comes into view at all – as if academic work has a life of its own! What’s “the mind”, after all, and how can it have a life?
Let’s try an alternative view of scholarship. As limited and fallible people, we teach, learn from and engage with each other in making sense of our complex selves and the mysterious world we inhabit. From shared experiences, we develop systematic ways of understanding real patterns and regularities in many different aspects of human experience. So mathematicians can invent and test theorems about numbers, space and movement. Scientists hypothesise about stars, chemicals, plants, animals and human experience itself. People in the human sciences theorise about societies and their languages, history and economics. There are the “arts” exploring culture, law, ethics and religion. And there are disciplines that cut across these: archaeology, geography, town planning, medicine, classics, etc. No discipline has yet taken over the whole university!
My first paragraph was meant to evoke a kind of “objectivist” humanism. It was a caricature, but bits of it might be heard in lecture halls, textbooks and university prospectuses. Human autonomy (and that “mind” that all rational people are supposed to share – woe betide you if you don’t!) was set over against “Nature” – a foreign physical world that we look upon like Olympian gods. Meanwhile, my last paragraph was an attempt at something more organic, humble – and respectful of real diversity: the diversity of people’s experiences, and a diversity of aspects of reality which colour those experiences. If I analyse the wavelengths of light in a sunset while my neighbour explores its cultural connotations, who’s to say that one of us is any closer to understanding reality than the other?
Another problem with my first paragraph is the claims of disciplines being “reliable” or “unbiased”. Reliable for what purposes? Unbiased with respect to which points of view? We may like to set up ourselves or our disciplines as if they have an authoritative “view from nowhere” – but of course there’s no such utopian vantage-point. I understand that literary theorists have long pointed this out, yet the critique is too little aired in the competitive world of modern academic research and teaching. This is all the stranger when deep controversies (past and present) are rarely far beneath the surface of any academic discourse.
Every student must have some kind of “faith” that their discipline gives insight into the way the world is, and these “faiths” may have radically different foundations. My suggestion is simply this: let’s examine and discuss our paradigms, perspectives and ideologies more openly, so that we may better appreciate and respect both the diverse nature of reality, and the experiences of our fellow-humans who study it with us. There surely is a kind of faith in scholarship, and the academy is poorer if we ignore it.