Thursday, May 14, 2009

A Scholar, Sure, But a Gentleman?

Driving to pick up the short people from school yesterday, I saw a car with a bumper sticker declaring the driver's child a scholar at some middle school or other. It started me thinking about that word.

I think that I am a scholar. I regularly study, interpret, analyze, and produce texts. I am regularly called upon to submit for evaluation lists of scholarly works and narratives about my scholarship. But I am a philosopher, when you think of a scholar and you think of a philosopher, the images are probably pretty similar.

But surely that's not what the bumper sticker meant, or what we mean when we declare someone a "scholar/athlete" or say that someone is "a scholar and a gentleman."

(My favorite story about that phrase concerns Charles Sanders Peirce, a philandering genius of the 19th century and William James, a Harvard Professor and the person who championed Peirce's thought, saving him from the dustbin of history although widely held to be overrated in terms of his own intellectual firepower. As the two were walking across Harvard Yard, a noted figure whose name cannot seem to recall, pointed sarcastically at the two and said to his companion, "There goes a scholar and a gentleman.")

It is interesting that in this anti-intellectual culture wherein anything cerebral is seen as elitist, egghead, or wonkish, the term scholar maintains its positive connotation. Is it a manifestation of the Protestant work ethic, that a scholar is a serious, hard working student? One could still be an athlete, just one who takes one's studies seriously? What of those students who work really hard for their B-/C+, are they scholars? How about the ones who skate through to an A with no effort? Is it a matter of achievement or effort?

Is it a matter of subject matter? Are scientists scholars? I have a friend who is a surgeon and who regularly does research on the relative efficacy of various surgical techniques. Is that scholarship? An anthropologist in the field or how about someone who traces their family genealogy? Sarah Palin is writing a memoir, is she now a scholar?

What is a scholar? Am I a scholar in the same sense as the middle school student? Is the term ambiguous (having more than one distinct meaning), vague (having one meaning that could be satisfied in very different ways), or just a meaningless platitude?