Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Thursday, March 20, 2014

"It is good just by being knowledge"

Here’s a post on a familiar theme: academic papers that no one reads. Let’s take it as a given that there is too much academic publishing, that academic writing is often used to achieve or mark status rather than to add to or disseminate knowledge, and so on. Duly noted, once more. But there’s another point in the post I want to call attention to.

The author, Aaron Gordon, runs some random word searches in an academic database and lists some of the articles he finds. For instance: “Complexity of Early and Middle Successional Stages in a Rocky Intertidal Surfgrass Community,” by Teresa Turner, Oecologia, Vol. 60, No. 1 (1983), pp. 56-65. And “Darwin and Nietzsche: Selection, Evolution, and Morality,” by Catherine Wilson, Journal of Nietzsche Studies, Vol. 44, No. 2 (Summer 2013), pp. 354-370. And “Body Temperature of the Nesting Red-Footed Booby (Sula sula),” by R. J. Shallenberger, G. C. Whittow, R. M. Smith, The Condor, Vol. 76, No. 4 (Winter, 1974), pp. 476-478.

Then Gordon comments, “Two questions come immediately to mind: Why would anyone study these things, and why would anyone pay someone to study these things?” And later: “There must be some way to distinguish between the useful and the esoteric.”

But I want to say: What’s not interesting here? Darwin and Nietzsche aren’t interesting? The ecological complexities of surfgrass beaches aren’t interesting? How birds regulate their body temperature — that’s not interesting? I actually wanted to click through to many of those articles to find out more. Moral: Don't allow your own lack of intellectual curiosity to be a guide to the value of research.

And to the claim that “There must be some way to distinguish between the useful and the esoteric”: no, there mustn’t, and there almost certainly isn’t. Moreover, and more important, I’m reminded of Auden’s prophecy in “Under Which Lyre” of the dangerous powers of Apollo: “And when he occupies a college, / Truth is replaced by Useful Knowledge.” Thus also the speech of the old A. E. Housman in Tom Stoppard’s play The Invention of Love:

A scholar's business is to add to what is known. That is all. But it is capable of giving the very greatest satisfaction, because knowledge is good. It does not have to look good or even sound good or even do good. It is good just by being knowledge. And the only thing that makes it knowledge is that it is true. You can't have too much of it and there is no little too little to be worth having. There is truth and falsehood in a comma.

Obviously my view of things — Auden’s view, Stoppard’s Housman’s view — has implications for the economics of university life. And maybe I’ll get to that in another post, soon. But for now I just wanted to register some irritation and suggest a different way of thinking about these matters than Gordon’s.