Suffering academics urged to seek independence

Oct 17, 2002, vol. 25, no. 4
By Tom Koch

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Pity the poor academic, independent scholar Ron Gross (left) says, the one whose time is taken up by everything but the work he or she wants to do: lectures, student conferences, exam preparation and marking, departmental conferences, departmental responsibilities and the time required for grant applications.

The requirements of the job get in the way of the intellectual purpose that draws many to the academic life, Gross told the National Coalition of Independent Scholars (NCIS) at its bi-annual meeting at the Morris J. Wosk centre for dialogue Oct. 4-6.

They should give a lifetime supply of antacids with the doctorate.

Gross feels sorry for both academics and the students tracked along the academic path. A failed academic and self-taught scholar, he has a solution. If what people most want is to follow their interests, to research with a passion, the answer is independence.

In his keynote address Oct. 5 to 80 members of the NCIS, Gross listed a score of contributions made to microscopy, astronomy, and social sciences by unaffiliated scholars.

His presentation anchored the first meeting of the association outside the United States, announcing the introduction of Canadian chapters and a Canadian perspective on independent scholarship.

Papers were presented at the conference by independent U.S., European and Canadian scholars on everything from social criticism to Polish literature. Most make their livings outside the academy, writing and researching in their spare time.

Yosef Wosk, a program director with SFU continuing studies and instigator of the popular Philosophers' Café, invited the group to meet in Vancouver. He is developing not only a local NCIS chapter but programs to foster and advance independent scholarship in Canada. The time is right, he says, to recognize independent scholarship. “There's a critical mass of educated people who don't have access to university facilities or to the kinds of grants awarded to university researchers,” he says. “What I'd like to do here at SFU is to build a bridge, to turn an aspect of our inward-looking academic face outwards to recognize, celebrate, uplift, and mentor these independent scholars. Among other benefits this would assist them with full library access, grants, publication and research.” He adds, “We too would be stimulated by the interaction and the concept has already been embraced by SFU's president, vice-presidents and deans.”

Gross, a self-taught Socratic scholar and the chair of a university seminar on innovation at Columbia University (a part-time postion), has made a career, and created an academic position, arguing for independence in scholarship. The author of 20 books, including Socrates Way: Seven Master Keys to Using Your mind to the Utmost (Putnam), he's one-part showman, one-part scholar, and two parts advocate for an independent intellectual life.

Draped in a hand-made toga fashioned from a tailored sheet he paraded through the Vancouver Library Oct. 2 to talk about Socrates and life-long learning. It's an act he's used for a decade to publicize his ideas, and ideals.
“It's the best way to demonstrate what it would have been like to encounter Socrates in the streets of fifth-century B.C. Athens,” he told reporters.

The point is not publicity alone. Rather it is to remind people the point of great thinking is not necessarily publishing - after all, Socrates himself did not - but thinking. Quoting mythologist Joseph Campbell, he urged the NCIS members to “follow your bliss. The most satisfying intellectual pursuits may follow a twisted path that weaves between different fields and departments. Free to follow that route, independent scholarship can lead to satisfying discoveries. And if it doesn't, it can be satisfying for its own sake.”

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