31 December 2006

What Motivates Scholarship?

The new scholarly blog, Tibeto-Logic, which I recently quoted on the topic of Cathedral Bell Diplomacy in Armenia and Tibet, articulated something else that has continued to resonate with me. The blogpost I cited begins with a quote from a well-known philosopher and mathematician given the ironical epithet, The Mysterious Whitehead, and ends with some reflexive rumination about the purpose of the blogger's scholarship.
In considering the history of ideas, I maintain that the notion of 'mere knowledge' is a high abstraction which we should dismiss from our minds. Knowledge is always accompanied with accessories of emotion and purpose.
— Alfred North Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 1933.

My present task as a Tibeto-logical thinker is a Tibeto-centric one. I hope I have succeeded in drawing up a small sketch that puts cracks in the stereotype of Tibet as a place cut off from the world. It's a country right here with us on the ground, living and breathing in our times. Just so or, well, nearly so, it was an integral and meaningful part of Eurasia during the rule of the Great Fifth Dalai Lama. Some degree and kind of globalisation was in process at that time. And that remains true even if, limiting ourselves to what has been said within the bounds of this essay, the international presence in Lhasa would seem to have been mostly mercantile and proselytizing in nature. If these interests were being played out on a less than even playing field, we cannot pretend that today that field is necessarily more even or equitable. We should not be quick to dismiss the past based on ill-considered assumptions that things have gotten better, or all that much better, meanwhile.

And finally, I hope Tibetans will find in these investigations a source of pride in the past and encouragement for the future. There is real reason to take pride in the pursuit of that admirable Buddhist virtue of tolerance (Tibetan zöpa, or kshanti in Sanskrit, one of those Paramitas that go far beyond the bounds of duty) that enabled Tibetan society in the 17th century to often welcome and sometimes embrace the strangers among them: the Armenians, the Muslims, and yes, the European Christian missionaries. Oh yes, you're right, I neglected to mention the Chinese, Indians, Mongolians and Newars. Now that people from every culture are living in practically every country, it's increasingly important that we look back to times like these and find out how, and just how well, they did it. It's in our interests.
This resonates with me on one level because my academic work focuses on a small corner of Papua New Guinea, where my two primary concerns are (1) to document poorly described languages and (2) to demonstrate that the histories of tiny coastal villages there have never been either all that stagnant or all that isolated. My documentation efforts are far from complete, but have at least sufficed to qualify the village in which I did fieldwork to establish its own Tok Ples (village vernacular language) school, despite having no more than 300 native speakers. The initiative was all theirs; not mine. My host during my fieldwork (thirty years ago!) had been a schoolteacher and the village was using part of its timber royalties to further the education of its youth.

But the wrapper of self-examination on the "Mysterious Whitehead" blogpost resonates at an even more abstract level because it acknowledges that, while the means of scholarship are (ideally) rational, the initial motivations are (in general) not. The most coldly rational motivation for pursuing a particular line of academic research is the availability of funding sources whose allocations are very much dependent on the political goals of the granting agencies. Of course, many scholars take pride in biting the hands that feed them, while others pursue their own political agendas even without external material inducement.

In my experience, the prime motivator for the scholarly output of untenured academics is ambition/fear of failure. Since I've never had the carrot of academic tenure dangled in front of me, I've only experienced the level of paranoia typical of tenure-chasing academics vicariously, most notably in Nicolae Ceauşescu's Romania, where similar levels of fear seemed to pervade not just academia, but the rest of society as well.

Meanwhile, the prime motivators for tenured academics seem to be (1) collegiality, (2) personal rivalry, and (3) guilt. At least that's what motivates the fits and starts of my lackadaisical output as an academic hobbyist.

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