Friday, September 13, 2013

Scholars From Two Millenia

The scholar, 1900: 

He studied for one primary purpose: to learn. He was embarrassed not to know at least a little bit about various important things beyond his scholarly scope. His clothing and his hair were not a priority (which also means he didn't purposefully attain a disheveled look). He was well-spoken, whatever his specialty; his grammar and diction reflected a rounded education. He met with colleagues for lunch and they talked about concepts across their disciplines. (The archaeologist; the historian; the physicist; the economist; the lawyer and the English professor would debate about, say, the place of religious icons in the past civilizations.) His house was filled with books -- on shelves; next to the coffee pot; under the tea cup; by the bedside. He was fascinated by his field. He studied it to do it. Still, he knew Bach and Shakespeare and Bruegel. At home -- cutting the grass; painting fences; walking the dog; on bike rides -- he thought about what he had been discussing in class that week; he lived with what he studied. In his spare time, he met with groups of fellow enthusiasts; he may even has started a "society" or two. Beyond all things, he pursued original thought. He was on a quest for his own place in the pantheon of the intellectuals before. He wanted to leave his mark on the world...

The scholar, 2000: 

He seeks not so much to learn as to get and "A". He craves and he relentlessly pursues "success." He works
very, very hard so that he knows the things he needs to know for examinations and so that he can apply these things when he begins the high-paying, secure job he seeks. He specializes. He gets a master's degree online, after work, at night. He builds his CV. Grammar, to him, is unimportant if he is, for instance, an engineer. What difference does it make? By day, he might listen to a professor with grim attention, but, by night, he seeks ways to get his mind off of the work; to recharge his batteries: cutting-edge television; sportscasts; long hours of video-gaming. He wastes time so that he can make the most of his time, when (and if) that time is important. He sees college as an investment; he has wondered if it will be an investment with sufficient gains, in the end. He was not the smartest student in his high school class, but he was the most academically successful. He can remember; he can apply, but he cannot create. He is organized and he is driven to achieve. He will live secure; he will be remembered as "a winner" by those who loved him and, then, he will be forgotten; for, although he had become a master at what he did, he never said anything new...

One is successful because he is exceptional and dedicated; the other is successful because the world has finally realized that anyone "can do whatever he wants as long as he sets his mind to it."


  1. While I appreciate the general tone (and am inclined to agree with your disdain for the modern approach), I disagree with the caricature you present for a 2000 scholar; I think your description more correctly describes a high-achievement student in our society than a scholar. Most scholars I know are still driven by curiosity, a desire for lifelong learning, a craving, whereas most pure students I know are driven only to succeed (failing to realize [in my view] that success is not something to be achieved in such a goal-driven world, but something ephemeral, to be passed through and half-remembered on the path to the next promised success).

    ~ Matt

    Keep posting for as long as you can. I don't always comment, but I always read. Thanks for the thoughts (even when we diverge in opinions, I enjoy reading).

    1. Hi, Matt. Always good to hear from you.

      "I think your description more correctly describes a high-achievement student in our society than a scholar"

      I agree with you completely. I just think that while the real scholars exist, they are becoming outnumbered by the "high achievement student."

      There are certainly good ones out there. I guess the old scholarly stereotype is one I miss. This was more of an emotional than a practical post, I suppose...

      I appreciate your comment about always reading. It's good to know you get something out of this; it's good to have intelligent readers...

  2. The time-server was not invented in 2000 nor even in 1900. Think of the pedants that Erasmus and Rabelais mocked.

    1. True, George. Admittedly, I am easy prey for the bird of golden aged thinking. I have to remind myself of this from time to time. But while Erasmus may have seen the pedants around him, I fear he would find himself overwhelmed by them, today; that he would find himself not just a minority but a bit of a weirdo, by general standards...