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“The office of the scholar is to cheer, to raise, and to guide men by showing them facts amid appearances” (Ralph Waldo Emerson).
SCHOLARSHIP, FRANKLY, IS NOT SOMETHING MOST PEOPLE ASPIRE TO. The very word conjures up an image of the pedant, obsessed with heaping together scraps of abstract learning, totally out of touch with the real world. But what most people object to is a caricature, if not an outright counterfeit, of real scholarship. As Emerson suggests, scholarship is something that can be seen in a positive light, and there is a sense in which all of us need to be interested in some of the same things the scholar is interested in.
Perhaps scholarship has a bad name because so many scholars are content simply to know what they know. Genuine scholarship, however, is about doing as well as knowing. “A scholar without practice,” wrote Saadi, “is a tree without fruit.” No scholar worth his salt will fail to do the duties that grow out of knowing the things he has learned.
In a healthy sense, all of us need to take a more scholarly approach to life. That is, we need to have a healthy, eager respect for what others before us have learned. We need to acquire good study habits and increase in our ability to gather and arrange information and knowledge. And we need to be people who do a little research now and then, adding to the body of human knowledge by figuring out a thing or two that maybe no one else has been aware of.
Yet scholarship is not just the collection and analysis of information; it’s the understanding and application of that information. We’re not just looking for data; we’re looking for meaning. The question is not just What’s the sum total of human knowledge about this subject? but What’s the significance of what we know? and How can what we know make us better people? Ultimately then, scholarship has to do with character, both that of the scholar and those with whom he shares his findings. Learning is about doing, and doing is about doing better as each day goes by. In the words of Emerson quoted above, the work of the scholar is “to cheer, to raise, and to guide.” Isn’t that something that all of us would do well at least to dabble in from time to time?
“True scholarship consists in knowing not what things exist, but what they mean; it is not memory but judgment” (James Russell Lowell).