The paradox of scholarship:
pissing on every lamp post

Thor May
South Korea, 2002


If I have been able to see further, it was only because I stood on the shoulders of giants [Isaac Newton, 1642 - 1727]


Newton's comment encapsulates the ideal of scholarship, though not its constant outcome. Scholarship is often confused with the scientific methodologies which have transformed human civilizations over the last three centuries. In fact however, scientific methodology (as Newton recognized) is only effective when scholarship is its handmaiden, not its mistress.

Let us be explicit. Scholarship is that process of becoming familiar with, ordering, and acknowledging the thinking of earlier workers in a particular line of inquiry. It can easily become a lifetime task. The process is obviously valuable. Subduing the arrogance of an ignorant mind (especially one's own) is very healthy. Scholarship not only helps to avoid past mistakes and save the waste of "reinventing the wheel", but can also be a stimulus for new and more sophisticated ideas about a topic.

However, the largest body of scholarship always remains inert, not only failing to stimulate new ideas, but actually forming a bulwark against the intrusion of fresh thinking. This is true at both individual and institutional levels; (it is also one of the huge social costs extracted by mass education systems). In fact, in its historical form, the scholastic tradition is almost a synonym for the blind conservatism of belief which we associate with the European Middle Ages. Recall, for example, that this was the tradition which violently upheld the Ptolemaic and Christian view of the universe against overwhelming empirical evidence.

From the earliest times, organized religion, regardless of creed, has been a home to scholastic traditions, and has dominantly been associated with the suppression of fresh thinking. The secular ideologies of more recent centuries, such as Communism, show exactly the same kind of psychological rigidity. It is no accident that Western universities had their roots in a Christian monastic tradition, that Middle Eastern scholarship continues to find its home in Muslim madrassas (مدارس ), and that institutes of learning with a 1,000 or more years of history in China and Korea (for example) were axiomatically associated with a so-called neo-Confucian canon. The present illusion is that the intellectual habits and vices of these sources have somehow been outgrown.

Has this inert-to-reactionary tendency of the scholastic tradition changed? By no means. The vast majority of academic publications, though they pass for scientific analysis, are firmly in the scholastic tradition of reiterating accepted belief while offering little new insight. There is periodic handwringing amongst the academic chattering classes about this, but never any resolution. A contemporary example of the discussion can be found in the June 13, 2010 edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education: Bauerline et al, "We Must Stop the Avalanche of Low Quality Research" (the comments section is more useful than the article). When a phenomenon is as persistent as this it can generally be traced to a pattern in human psychology - in this case the personality types which are most often attracted to a scholarly life.

The induction of novitiates into the scholarly process has naturally enough become a near monopoly of university academics, although fortunately, the democratized access to knowledge offered by mediums such as the Internet is weakening this monopoly. Often enough, those who have learned to obediently piss on every lamp post (i.e. learned to name a plethora of sources) are felt to have properly marked out a royal road of progress to a higher degree - an MA or Ph.D.. As a consequence, vast numbers of dissertations are little more than collections of acknowledged sources with some contrived and insignificant "experiment" or "analysis" tacked onto the end. For a lovely example of the academic chinese whispers game called citation, see this short piece by Robert Fitzpatrick (2001)"The Strange Case of the Transfer Training Estimate".

One of the stranger consequences of the scholastic process is that a lack of innovation is frequently disguised by a proliferation of sects. This is the face of revolution for an academic. In a modern university setting, these sects generally go by the name of "a new field of study". They are a primary vehicle for scholars to achieve "pioneer" status without actually inventing anything; (which is not to say of course that all new fields of study are career constructs). The early stages of such sects are marked by an urgent quest for respectability, and acceptance as a "science". There is the rapid accumulation of foundation great literature, and a hunt for validating antecedents. Hence we see much zealotry about quoting from every apparently supporting source, no matter how tenuous. Definitions multiply, and old words are given subtle new overtones in the argot of the freshly minted sect. Conversely, suggestions that the whole topic can be handled perfectly well by earlier study disciplines are hotly contested.

Well, the rather hollow sound an fury just described can easily confuse and overwhelm real science. Genuine scientific research employs most of the same mechanisms as scholastic activity, albeit with a quite different emphasis. The processes of hypothesis and systematic investigation, and above all the miracle of innovation which comes from serendipity, do need to be stimulated and buttressed by the insights of those who came before. This is where scholarly activity has a legitimate role to play. It is a supporting role, no less, but emphatically not the main game.

The managerial classes who have usurped the running of current education systems are not often equipped to distinguish between genuine research scholarship and reactionary scholasticism. They evaluate by different metrics: brand advertising, financial profit for the institution, quantities of publications and citations (mutual back scratching) by the scholars, and sometimes employment outcomes for the students.

Most of these educational managers may no longer be beholden to a cultural prohibition from the agents of god(s) on open questioning and innovation, except where the shifting political demands of this country or that demand it. However there is little evidence that the managers’ substitution of financial profit making for ideological purity has led to any revolution in the majority character of those who gravitate to scholarly life.

It seems that talented research and an impassioned quest for new understanding will always be a minority activity, forced to survive in the cracks between the floorboards.



Bauerlein, Mark, with Mohamed Gad-el-Hak, Wayne Grody, Bill McKelvey, and Stanley W. Trimble (2010) “We Must Stop the Avalanche of Low-Quality Research”. Chronicle of Higher Education, 13 June 2010, online @ 

Robert Fitzpatrick (2001) "The Strange Case of the Transfer Training Estimate". SIOP (Society for Industrial & Organizational Psychology) back issue online @ . Also reprinted by Will Thalheimer @


Some related matters are also covered elsewhere on Thor May’s personal website:  Why Write a PhD?; How To Get The Degree You Want, or Are You A Fake?; The Doctor's Dilemma - Reading versus Active Experience; withrawal from PhD candidacies (Thor May, letter) in 1988 & 1996; letter of PhD completion from the University of Newcastle, 2010; dissertation, Language Tangle, 2010 Articles from Thor May’s personal website are gradually also being copied to a blog called Thor's Unwise Ideas


Professional bio: Thor May's PhD dissertation, Language Tangle, dealt with language teaching productivity. Thor has been teaching English to non-native speakers, training teachers and lecturing linguistics, since 1976. This work has taken him to seven countries in Oceania and East Asia, mostly with tertiary students, but with a couple of detours to teach secondary students and young children. He has trained teachers in Australia, Fiji and South Korea. In an earlier life, prior to becoming a teacher, he had a decade of drifting through unskilled jobs in Australia, New Zealand and finally England (after backpacking across Asia in 1972).


contact:    thormay AT

All opinions expressed in this paper are entirely those of the author, who has no aim to influence, proselytize or persuade others to a point of view. He is pleased if his writing generates reflection in readers, either for or against the sentiment of the argument.


"The paradox of scholarship: pissing on every lamp post"
© copyrighted to Thor May; all rights reserved 2002