The word has now a rather old-fashioned ring, at least in its general application. In its secondary (but widely used) sense, it denotes a special, usually monetary award to a student to cover the costs of courses at a school or university which would otherwise be difficult to afford. In its primary sense, however, scholarship refers both to a mode of employment and to a vocation.
As mode of employment, scholarship is the labour of all academic inquiry, exhilarating, patient, protracted, tedious. It is the application of the scholar to what used to be known as ‘disinterested’ study. But the word ‘disinterested’ is now, regrettably, shifting its meaning to something close to ‘bored’, where originally ‘disinterested’ meant, and needs still to mean, unself-referential, impartial, open-minded and non-partisan, weighing judgements without favour to a particular interest, seeking only truth, goodness and justice. Even though a concept may exist with no single word to enclose it, yet the dissolution of the word ‘disinterested’ into another meaning weakens this particular concept at the heart of scholarship.
For the mode of employment in scholarship is inseparable from its vocational hold. Being a scholar entails wanting to do the job. Meaning and practice are coterminous. The narrative signified by career is inherent to the scholar precisely because the scholar accrues competence only over time; his or her interests shape themselves gradually within the channels along which the discipline passes; only after time spent, both arduously and pleasurably, in making the necessary progress from A level and similar qualifications to undergraduate degree to Master’s degree to doctorate, is the liberating secret of all knowledge, that it is diffuse, unbounded, undisciplined, thrilling, disclosed to the scholar. Only then, in the course of a career, does he or she discover the freedoms of inquiry, and yet must then, in the needful name of order and of the advances guaranteed only by specialisation and the division of labour, corral and mark out the new inquiry as a field, with a map of knowledge and its boundaries, landmarks, pathways and bearings.
Somewhere in his or her heart, the good teacher must feel the call of scholarship, its seriousness, its dedication, its comedy. Such a teacher must not forget how often the scholar is a ludicrous figure in literature, from Shakespeare’s Holofernes to Ronnie Barker’s mad scientist (although it is worth pointing out that few scientists, after lifetimes spent in libraries and laboratories, would actually call themselves scholars). Unworldliness is no use to schoolteachers, but if it is unworldly to prefer scholarship to money, teachers should do so. The pressure to magic knowledge into money is all around us, and scholars in schools have a duty to the future not merely to resist that pressure, but to transmute it into the common good.
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