The Last Work of a Student or the First of a Scholar?

That slogan puzzled me the first few times I heard it but I think I understand it more clearly now.

I was puzzled because the word “scholar” means “student.” It’s a Latin word derived from the noun Schola or school. A scholar is one who studies in a school. As a boy I remember teachers referring to us as “pupils” and “scholars.” Of course the word has come to denote a professional academic, a professional researcher but the reality is that all scholars, if they are scholars in the true sense, remain students. It’s impossible to be a scholar without learning continually. The privilege of learning daily, of researching, thinking, analyzing, and then explaining (teaching) is one of the great benefits of academic life.

So, what are the differences between the work of student and that of a professional scholar? The greatest difference is not necessarily in the quality of the research or writing, though those things are likely different. The greatest difference is in the motivating spirit, the intent. Students tend to research and write about those things that interest them, problems or questions they want to work out. There’s nothing wrong with that. One of the functions of a school is to provide a structured place, instruction, and resources for students to do just that. Ordinarily, however, the work of a professional scholar is motivated by something else: the needs of others. Self-denial is an aspect of academic life that is not often considered.

As part of the process of preparing a proposal for the MA (Historical Theology) program at Westminster Seminary California the student must do more than demonstrate a personal interest in a topic and the ability to pursue the question. There are two basic criteria the proposal must pass:

  1. Needs to be done
  2. Can be done

The student must demonstrate that there is a need for this particular research project. Is the project inherently interesting? Some questions are so narrow that even though no one has researched it no one should research it. Other questions are so broad that they defy careful, detailed research. Further, if a well-researched, well-written journal article or book has just been published on the very same topic, from the same angle, then the proposed MA thesis may be redundant.

Thus, even before a student begins researching his topic he must first get himself to a library. He must start in the reference room to find out the basic contours of a field. What are the basic questions? What is the state of the secondary literature? Who are the leading scholars? Then the student must move from the reference room to the stacks to get to know the major works on a topic. Finally, and perhaps most importantly for the purposes of a proposal, he must check the periodical literature (e.g., via WorldCat and ATLA) to see what, if anything, has been published on this topic in the relevant journals that is too recent to appear in reference works and monographs or even collections of essays. If a topic passes these tests it may proceed to the next step.

The second question, “can be done” is of less relevance to this post so I’ll simply say that it has to do with whether the student has the ability and preparation to pursue a project successfully and whether the student has access to the necessary primary and secondary sources to research and write about a topic.

One of the great impulses of genuine scholarship is to try to fill a gap in the knowledge about a particular topic. I’m thinking about questions that need to be answered because there is inherent value in the question and (good) answers. Sometimes the desire to fill in gaps is derided as a quest for novelty. Doubtless this happens and it’s particularly irritating when it happens with public research dollars. Not all projects are equally worthy of time and resources. Filling gaps that need to be filled and doing it well is not the same thing as the quest for novelty, i.e., doing something new just to be doing something new. That said, sometimes the value of research is not always recognized immediately. In that case, if there is a question as to the value of a project, perhaps it’s better to err on the liberal side, if you will, i.e., in favor of tolerating research rather than repressing it.

In contrast to the work of a scholar, the work of student tends to focus on the his own interests regardless of the needs of others. There are questions that, for the moment any way, have been well and thoroughly researched and discussed. In historical theology it is more difficult to find a something that needs to be done in connection with one of the “Greats” than with a lesser known figure. For example, if a student is proposing a project on Athanasius, Anselm, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Edwards, Schleiermacher, or Barth it should be a carefully considered, particularly thoughtful and well-read proposal. Whereas in my field of special interest (Reformed orthodoxy), despite the massive work of Richard Muller and others, one can still throw a dart blindly and likely hit something that needs further research or on which no work has been done.

This is why student term papers, if the topic is left open, tend to “dog pile,” i.e., they tend to cover things that, with a little preliminary research, would have been found to have been thoroughly discussed in easily accessible secondary literature. This is understandable in student work. There is a reason that certain topics a perennially interesting to students but it the mark of a scholar to move beyond dog piling.

There is another contrast between the work of students and that of scholars. The last work of a student tends to do more reporting on secondary literature and that of a scholar tends to do more teaching or explaining. Both are snapshots of a one’s progress in learning at a given time. For the student, however, the interest is more in methods than in conclusions. Did the student use sound methods? Did he avail himself of the best available resources and use them effectively? Did he present the material well? To be sure these questions are also fairly asked of scholarly work but there is another mark that student work is not expected to hit: did the work make a contribution? Did it advance this discussion and understanding of a field, a topic, or a question?

In short, a student’s work is evaluated as to whether he helped himself. A scholar’s work is evaluated as to whether he helped anyone else. For the Christian scholar there is a clear analogy between the Christian life and good scholarship.

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    • Yes, it’s the Duke Humfrey’s library, which is just above the lower reading room at the Bodleian. I spent many happy hours there with Ursinus, Olevianus, and other friends.

  1. Thanks, I knew I recognised it. I spent a week in Oxford last year (most of the research was done in the Bodleian’s collection at Rhodes House), which was my best week of research thus far. It must have been a great place to do doctoral work.

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