The Mission for Erudition

Hello All,

As I write a research paper, I have been thinking about that most quintessential qualities attributed to an academic, erudition. A word that comes from the latin erudire, or to polish, it is something that all young postgraduates crave. How does one, we wonder, become one of those writers who attracts jargon words in book reviews such as ‘scholarly’ or, my personal favourite (and the most hackneyed), ‘magisterial’? Surely this ‘learning’ must be something magical, a treasure of the mind that opens up new vistas of thought?

From reading the work of postgraduates who have yet to complete their Thesis, one can see that it is a long and arduous road to be ‘learned’. It is often encouraging to discover writing styles and quality of research not dissimilar from your own within the archives of submitted theses while trolling around for material. It is a journey to become erudite; to have good ideas and to present them clearly and concisely. Yet ‘learning’ also implies a certain grace or elegance. A typical part of the ‘imposter syndrome’ experienced by many if not all doctoral students (i’m a fraud, I can’t perform at the level expected of a doctor) is a dissatisfaction with one’s level of learning.

But what is this thing that we call ‘erudition’? My solution to this anxiety has been to see the quest for this status as a process that requires years of slow improvement. Yet surely, I think to myself, not everyone plods along this road to reach the lofty heights? There must be some magical trick or alchemical secret that will give me access to the learned writing style that I crave. The answer is obviously no. If this were possible, what would be the reward of this goal that I have set myself? If I could magically know everything about my topic, then where would the excitement of new discovery be? If my writing style was perfect, then where would the satisfaction of improvement come from? A desire to reach one’s goal without effort is some kind of alchemical madness, a quest for a miracle elixir. The longer one travels, the more one learns, yet the destination continues to recede.

If this is the case, then I feel somewhat cheated by the Australian education system. Our system allows anyone with a sufficiently high Honours mark (a first class) to skip the Masters program all together and go straight to PhD. Yet if the quest to write well is a long journey, is this a good idea? Are we taking a magical shortcut to a doctorate that somehow cheats us of the rewards?

Perhaps the mission for erudition does benefit from a little panic in the mix. When we realise that we have very little time to learn a great deal, I think it shocks us into action. Our path is the same length, yet we have less time to traverse it. The short-cut becomes an obstacle course. Or, perhaps a more accurate analogy: it becomes an intensive course instead of a course conducted over many years. Perhaps in Australia, the secret to becoming polished is to attack your research with a lathe rather than gradually rubbing it by hand. Having said this, I am sure that anyone undertaking a doctorate feels like they don’t have enough time to learn it all, since this is an impossible goal. What a conundrum!

An article I read recently entitled It’s a PhD, not a Nobel Prize analysed markers comments, and concluded that a PhD was research training, rather than a perfection of the art. This is comforting, since it places the completion of the doctorate in context as a single step in a much longer path, rather than placing it (perhaps unjustly) as a destination. I get the impression that something would be seriously wrong with your attitude if you ever felt that you had reached some kind of zenith as a scholar. Hubris perhaps? Generally the response of the Gods to such an attitude is “eat lightning, sucker”.

The road shifts and changes depending on time and context, and the completion of PhD is probably only the beginning. There probably isn’t an end, since every advancement simply makes the next distant destination appear over the horizon. The grass is probably always greener on this new vista. Yet this doesn’t stop me wondering about my mission for erudition, and how I should undertake it.

I think perhaps erudition, like all personal faculties, should be seen as a developed skill within, not some kind of destination. Perhaps, as St. Augustine wrote, “Patience is the companion of wisdom.” I need to be more patient with myself, and it will come with time. Having said that, I don’t think I will ever believe anyone who tells me that I have reached some kind of pinnacle.

What do you think, O readers? Is the notion of erudition something real, or some kind of mirage generated by scholarship? I don’t think there is a definitive answer, and so I am very curious to hear your opinions.

Best,

James

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