Thursday, January 22, 2009

Student and Scholar

89. Student and Scholar

In his 1959 novel, “Dorsai!” the author Gordon R. Dickson makes an important distinction between students and scholars. To paraphrase, ‘a student has read some of what has been written on a particular subject, a scholar has read all of what has been written on a particular subject.’ English colleges still refer to a student’s course of study as the subject the student is reading. Authority within an intellectual community derives in part from scholarship, this professional certainty that a fellow professor’s knowledge of a subject is unsurpassed in depth and breadth.
In Ceramics, or any other studio art, we don’t really put much emphasis on reading. In the limited time available to us in graduate school we’ve got a lot of physical skills and practical experiences to go through. Furthermore, in spite of the burgeoning number of books and articles available on the subject of ceramic art only a fraction of what is written will be immediately relevant to this artist’s teapots or that artist’s sculptures. Only a supremely well-read professor would be able to direct a student’s reading time for maximum efficiency and effectiveness. It’s also a common understanding in the studio arts that excessive intellectualizing is suspect, and likely to ruin the physical creativity of any artist. The student who reads things other than picture captions may well be ridiculed or teased for doing so. The student who spends too much time reading will simply be urged to ‘spend more time on your pots.’ So, true scholarship is not likely to occur in graduate school.
No, scholarship is only possible after decades of conscientious independent work and only a very few individuals will ever achieve it. I admit I’m hard pressed to think of a dozen luminaries of our profession who might even be thought to be on that path.
It’s one of the weak points of our current university-based system. Our “terminally educated” professors have too often terminated their own educations and when toe-to-toe with the professors from more rigorously demanding fields fall short on educational authority. It’s a fight we can almost never win and the other departments know it, because it’s a fight our interests and expectations don’t prepare us for. They have brilliance and scholarship, we have creativity, artistry, and pragmatism. Administrative respect for those things comes slowly, if at all, and as a result studio art faculty often find themselves in a second rate role, dismissed as being less worthy than instructors in other disciplines.
The best tactic that I can suggest for minimizing this problem is to steadfastly resist complacency. Be active in your profession. Read, yes, but also travel. Spend time with distant colleagues. Push your own work in directions that demand research and adaptation. Solve technical problems. Read as much as you have time for, and even if you’ll never be a true scholar, refuse to ever stop being an active student.

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