Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Hazards of Being a Scholar

L. Ali Khan

Over a period of forty years, I have published more than a million words in the form of books, academic articles, poems, short stories, and public scholarship such as this piece. Of all the published sentences, I am most proud of writing “distribution of knowledge is a scholarly obligation,” an axiom that captures an elegant virtue. Upon reflection, however, I myself don’t know what it exactly means or if it is even a good idea. This commentary struggles to explain the meaning of the axiom, potentially of interest to scholars in all disciplines ranging from physical sciences to social sciences, history to theology, literature to law.

What is Scholarly Knowledge?

Knowledge is central to the human species. Without knowledge, life would be impossible to live. In advanced urban societies, the knowledge needed to function is much more complex than in societies with nominal modernity. Fortunately, all cultures with varying degrees of openness act as public classrooms for people to acquire and share knowledge. Even in preliterate cultures, acquisition and distribution of knowledge are as natural as the gratification of biological instincts.

Scholarly knowledge is a higher form of creative knowledge acquired through dedicated labor, not necessarily in schools and universities, which includes reading, experimenting, experiencing, observing, conversing, thinking, organizing, revising, discarding, and finessing ideas. Acquiring scholarly knowledge is not a part-time undertaking. It does not come easily or casually. Scholars as teachers, scientists, poets, artists, and thinkers spend most of their lives, day after day and night after night, in the acquisition of creative knowledge.

Early in my childhood, I learned that scholars, such as al-Khwarizmi, are the true heirs of prophets and distributing knowledge is an act of charity. I assumed naively that knowledge is inherently good. The discovery of mathematics and laws of motion, the invention of building materials, ships, and aircrafts, the innovation in technology and production of comfort goods, the writing of poetry and plays, painting and singing, indeed the great achievements of human civilization, all have been the intellectual products of dedicated labor.

Despite sharing elements of divinity, scholarly knowledge may or may not be good for human civilization. Scholarly knowledge cannot be defined in strictly utilitarian or moral terms. Abstract knowledge in any discipline may not be convertible into utility. And even if utilizable, scholarly knowledge may indeed be harmful. For example, the invention of lethal weapons requires scholarly knowledge. Toxic ideologies, including communism, colonialism, and exceptionalism, the byproducts of scholarly knowledge, provide excuses to commit aggression and perpetrate massacres.

Few scholars dedicated to creative knowledge are evil and wish to inflict harm. Most scholars mean well, though some might be misguided. Many scholars believe in personal humility and good deeds, though some might team up with powerful groups for questionable causes. Despite scholarly good intentions, there are plenty of predators and malefactors, some in the form of businesses, who use scholarly knowledge to engage in profiteering and perpetrating crimes against humanity.

Propertization of Knowledge

Few scholars wish to keep their creative knowledge secret. Most are not only willing but eager to share what they have written, discovered, or invented. For centuries, scholars have distributed their knowledge as charity. With the rise of intellectual property, scholarly knowledge is patented and copyrighted. Some knowledge is kept confidential in the form of trade secrets. The ancient romance of distributing knowledge for free is not completely out of fashion though a large portion of scholarly knowledge has been propertized.

The propertization of creative knowledge has been a source of power and profit for individuals and businesses in the role of editors, publishers, and vendors. Scholars after spending years of hard labor may not find a publisher. A system of privileges has been built to label the quality of academic work with where it is published. Well-connected academics may publish even minor works with prestigious publishing houses. Top institutions in the United States operate as a cartel to fix the intellectual market in their favor.

The monetization of propertized knowledge is no less scandalous. Scholars receive royalties in pennies (5% or 10% of the sales) even when their works are published and distributed. The intellectual property businesses, more than scholars, are nervous without a worldwide protection of intellectual property, much like the weapons industry is nervous with the “nightmares” of a peaceful world.

Knowing fully the market dynamics, most scholars everywhere in the world still behave in the tradition of prophets and not profiteers. They wish to share charitably though they know that someone else is making money with the distribution of their work products and someone else might harm peoples and properties with the application of scholarly knowledge.

Scholarly Punishments

From time immemorial, rebel scholars have received various punishments for their intellectual labor. A rebel scholar lives at the margins of mainstream ideologies and conventional wisdom. A rebel scholar is rarely an apologist, propagandist, puppet, or the establishment crony. Some sort of apostasy is deeply embedded in authentic scholarly genes. An authentic scholar is highly skeptical of prizes, rewards, and recognitions because such endowments are soaked in malodorous favoritism. Even after dissemination of their work, authentic scholars seek anonymity and ordinariness.

Yet the world locates rebel scholars for inflicting retributions. Prophets challenging existing institutions have been exiled or murdered. Socrates drank Hemlock. Galileo was forced to retract his anti-Church discovery that the Earth is not the center of the universe. Solzhenitsyn was sent for years to a labor camp for criticizing Stalin. Ibn Rushd’s (Averroes) books were burnt. Even lesser known scholars have been tortured and imprisoned and their works destroyed. In more forbearing societies, such as the United States, rebel scholars taking on the “sacred institutions” may be fired; their work is discounted as “extremist” and “out of touch;” and they may receive threatening emails.

In moments of doubt, I wonder if the distribution of knowledge is indeed a scholarly obligation. What is wrong with living and creating in a cave? At prayer times, I draw a deep breath and send cheers to deities and muses in all corners of the world supplicating that I do not wish to be a scholar awaiting punishments.