On the solitary and the social scholar

I was at a huge social gathering this weekend where women were dressed in their choicest attire and men were at their blustering best.  There was a  lot of noise and a lot of good food deftly travelling on huge trays  weaving between the crowds miraculously avoiding dunking someone in a bucketful of gravy.

A million children of all ages swished around the great hall and the stairwells and the tent and the garden like schools of fish about to arrange themselves into different colourful formations, engulfing each old shape into a new  one as their direction changed, like the groups of fish in Finding Nemo.

But as I turned a corner relatively hidden from the noise and the bustle, a different sight caught my eye.

Ensconced on the steps of an isolated staircase between a railing and the wall was a little boy sitting with a book. Not a part at all of the herds of children outside.

I would have waved at one of the little kids outside without a second of thought–maybe even hollered out something at a stray one at the tail end of the wave of kids– but I was a bit hesitant to disturb the solitude of this one.

He was more a little man than a boy with a book in his own little world. He had chosen this place in preference to the childish world outside.

I was guilty of being a denizen of that world he had denounced perhaps with disdain. That made me  immediately deferential of him–which means I refrained from using the baby voice with which I speak to all children between 2 and 15, never quite sure of the stage of their intellectual development.

This was just a boy. But his reclusiveness led me to another thought.

Does a scholar have to be necessarily isolated?

English: Concrete relief of a boy reading a bo...

Or might a scholar be social? What does a social scholar look like?

If one of those children running about outside grew up to be a great writer or a great scientist what would be the difference between their work and this boy’s on the steps?

Now, by a social scholar I just don’t mean those people who give talks and attend events and smile a lot and look very comfortable in company as though they were born for it.

By being social I mean writers and scientists and other learned folk who draw their energy for their work from the people around them. Not the secluded scholars who just look for such energy from within themselves or from  books by predecessors just like themselves who reach out to them through articles  bypassing that chaotic medium in which we are all immersed–namely the human world around us.

In olden days, monks were the scholars isolated in their monasteries reading and writing and contemplating. Even today, universities (say in the US) are set up in  small towns where the scholars often lead relatively isolated lives. We treat monks and professors with deference in part awed by the scholarly temperament (although sadly that’s not so much the case anymore).

It’s often assumed that too much socializing is bad for the life of the mind. It’s also assumed that quiet, contemplative people will grow up to become good scholars.

I am tempted to say that this is just not true but since I can’t produce a single statistic backing up my statement off the top of my head, I’ll refrain from making such a statement here.

Rather, let me think about the works themselves produced from contexts of solitude. What do they look like?

Do works produced by isolated and contemplative people tend to be  individualistic, or isolationist, single issue driven, one main perspective centred,  one character driven using the rest  of the world only as a passive canvas (in case of arts and humanities oriented works)? Can there be a danger of minimizing the human interest in the case of scientific enquiries produced by people who never had much of an interest in other human beings and hence kept themselves separate? Is there less of collaborative, lateral and interactive thrust in such work driven by the isolationist nature of the people who produced them? Plenty of generalizations here but just ideas I’d like to find some answers to.

We assume socializing is a detriment to serious work. We have “party schools” and we have “serious schools,” we have “social butterflies” and we have social lone wolves. But just as the butterflies need to sit still a bit to think, the ones in seclusion need to get into the party spirit somewhat to become meaningful.

We need more scholars with the party spirit.

Then again, perhaps the boy on the steps was just shy. Perhaps he is a great observer of life because he never participates.

We’ll know when he grows up.

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69 thoughts on “On the solitary and the social scholar”

  1. “could you explain this a bit more?”

    I’m not sure what else to say. Studies and statistics on personality tests indicate that people with academic profession are more introverted. When a field attracts people with certain personality traits you end up with conformism because everyone thinks alike. That way you lose information and end up with a skewed image of reality. For instance, introverts are very prone to abstract thinking, coming up with ideas and theories that arent grounded in facts. This is especially so in soft sciences.

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  2. It depends on the nature of the work, I guess. I don’t know how many introverted marketers there are, and good marketing and service require you to deal with people. But when most of the work is needs high attention to detail and quiet, introverts will probably flock to it. Where they would hate having to be social workers, bartenders, and other professions.

    Your point is interesting though. I’ve often wondered how much of modern culture in general is influenced by an introvert geek domination. The move to online stores and streaming services instead of local stores is a very geek idea, one that prioritizes introversion over human connection, for example. Heck, the whole psuedo-friendship web 2.0 culture does too. Good post, thought-provoking stuff.

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  3. I graduated college a year and a half ago, and I have to say that one of my biggest challenges in going through school was struggling to find the balance between isolation and social activity (no big news there, that’s what most college kids have to deal with, I know). Going into college I had believed I was an introvert and was kind of shocked to realize during my freshman year that I wasn’t. I was always much more energized after going to a party than I was after sitting around my room watching a movie by myself. Even if it was a movie I loved. Even if it was a party where I didn’t know anyone.

    My degree was in Creative Writing, which required that I make time to be alone. It is nearly impossible for me to write around other people, but it also takes a lot of will power for me to drag myself away from dinner with friends to go work on a short story that is due that week. I managed to do it. I graduated with honors, to all eyes a success story.

    Still, it always seemed odd to me. Most of the students around me who were getting the same degree were introverts and seemed to have no problem getting up and leaving a group so that they could write. I always felt a little out of place trying to explain that it was hard for me.

    I love writing. Always have and always will. But I also suspect that I will always have to deal with tearing myself away from company in order to get the solitude required.

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  4. A great post and as I read it I was reminded of the ongoing discussion (some would say debate) between introversion and extroversion. I find these days that I am a bit of both. Sometimes I am enamored with my own thoughts and then I put them out there… like this comment and find, well.. ????

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  5. What an interesting perspective, I’ve never thought about it like that before! I think a lot of people tend to be inbetween, though – I’ve always been relatively sociable but I’ve always read a lot and been scholarly too. I think you probably need both to develop to your full creative potential.

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  6. I have been so frustrated with my dissertation, and I have been trying to figure it out alone. Then I started my blog for feedback and that helps somewhat. But a couple days ago, a student of another english came into my classroom for a writing conference.. Really, she just wanted to bounce ideas around with me and see if I could help her focus on her topic. I went out on a limb and said, “sure, if you’ll read my first page and help focus as well…”.

    So we read each other’s work and talked. I ended up the winner in that discussion. The student came up with this simple and fantastic idea that totally changed my perspective. It was awesome!

    A little while later during my planning period, I went to see a fellow colleague (he is so smart it just makes me CRAZY) and I asked him for advice about my topic. He and I ended up talking for thirty minutes. I had so many more ideas than I had at the beginning of my day.

    So I’m going to try to be more social about my research. It really does help to collaborate and just talk with people about ideas.

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  7. I think it has a great deal with the subject matter they pursue. Fiction in particular, those that dedicate themselves to an undesirable field are often given traits to mirror it. They study spiders? They tend to lurk about and have a creepy air to them.

    To be fair, there is some truth to that. If you are someone that studies cavebats for a living, you probably spend a lot of time in… caves. If the individual is so focused on their work, the isolation comes naturally.

    If it’s a study of people, and shifts of attitudes over the years. The negative could potentially be that the person is particularly invasive and has a bad habit of treating people as test subjects.

    I’d also like to take a moment to thank you for your frequent visits to my blog and checking out my short stories, it’s appreciated.

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  8. Thank you for a very thoughtful post. I enjoyed reading it. As the kid with the book, myself, I understand why he might be hiding. I hid because the space battles or magical quests I was partaking in clashed with the other kids’ noise. 🙂

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  9. Social scholars exist: Tycho Brahe was quite the party animal, as well as a dedicated (and important) astronomer. Evariste Galois was a mathematical prodigy (he has his own theory, Galois theory, which is still studied today); he died in a duel at the age of twenty. So perhaps being a social scholar didn’t work out quite so well for him.

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  10. I was very akin to the boy on the stair. I read alone because first, I was a smarty, and second, I was diagnosed at a young age with a social anxiety disorder. As an adult now, I find I have simply overcome my reclusive tenancies and now flourish with the “social scholars”. I would argue that those of us who read on the stairs are no smarter by any means, we just aren’t ready to jump in to the world yet. Sure, we get an intellectual head start, but all the while we are missing out on the social aspect which, it could be argued, is more important.

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  11. This is really interesting. I was one of those “social” scholars. I took way too many classes/extra curricular activities in school, but would bring my assignments with me everywhere, including midnight bowling, before going blurry-eyed to my 8AM class.

    To sit down and write, I need solitude. I’ve never been one to write in a coffee house. I prefer music with no words. But my other creative endeavors, from drawing and painting to knitting and sewing, I love having it be social, or singing along to my favorite music, or even just having a movie I’ve watched many times before on in the background. I’d even go so far as to say if I had my druthers, I would write in the morning alone, make music midday either alone or in collaboration (but very focused), and do my tangible art creations in the evening/late at night (even without natural light) in a group setting.

    Thank you for posting this. It got me thinking a lot!

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  12. Statistically speaking, Academia is introverted. Different profession attract their personalities that have the specific skills required. And loners get a lot of reading done. They have less distractions. But that also creates a sort of conformity which can be detrimental. Social psychologists, for instance, are something like 95 percent liberals and a recent study found that they, by their own admission, were likely to discriminate against conservative colleagues. And there is probably a similar reversed situation in many corporations.

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  13. Are we here on WordPress all social scholars to some extent? We obviously enjoy writing and if we didn’t also enjoy having others read it, we wouldn’t be here.

    Beautiful post. I could almost see myself in your description of the young reader.

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    1. Yes, that’s another angle I thought of actually but didn’t include here since I’m trying to keep my posts short. Reading, commenting etc. are all interactive social activities that benefit writers and scholars immensely.

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  14. I love SO much reading your posts. So insightful, beautiful prose, and thought-provoking. I imagine conversations with you over coffee are only that much more fascinating.
    Well done. And keep them coming. Selfishly, so I can enjoy them. 🙂

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  15. I enjoyed the post … however, a scholar, a true scholar of any discipline devotes all he/she has to it, and the isolation (to use the dreaded term) is not so much a choice but a condition of it.

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  16. Lots of children are forced into seclusion by their peers for different reasons. That could be a reason that the boy was sitting there. He also could be just a bookworm.

    I agree that people that learn everything from books can never come up with a good analysis of a social issue. However, there are people that have chosen seclusion, because an outside view often offers new perspectives instead of being a part of the herd, where you are clouded by judgement of others and peer-pressure.

    Rise above it, so to speak.

    I think it is better to mix in the herd, step out of it and then come up with your answers.

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  17. I don’t know if we should classify people like that, Maybe we all have to grow our wings. It would go round and round. and round. Statistics are only as factual as the person giving facts “honestly” In statistical medical studies, blood tests, yea, even then we get a percentage. And then their is evolution to consider…. Or is it the stuff they put in our food to make it grow faster creating all these isms. lol. “Diagnosis”
    We have a broad view, some think in the box, some outside. I love how you write it. It makes me rant and rant along with you.
    I do think its probable he will end up a brilliant individual.

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  18. Loved your post, and the imagery.
    To be utterly frivolous, I couldn’t cope with parties and social gatherings at all until my mid-twenties, when I discovered that when I had a brandy and ginger, it made everyone seem more fun, and less stupid, and me less boring and stiff !

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  19. Good blog… Perhaps we are different in the different stages of our lives. You can be an writer of introspection as well as social. Perhaps it depends on the situation, mood or whatever else is going on. It’s good to be well rounded. 😀

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  20. Well, I’m a bit of a loner, and I do get a lot of knowledge from observation. I am very interested in others and their perspectives.

    Here’s something you might find interesting: I got my Master’s at a school considered pretty good for English. Most people there were studying with the intent of eventually becoming serious literary scholars. But a lot of us also had a pretty healthy social life, even if we were hanging out with mostly each other. It’s not like we sat around and talked shop when we socialized, lol. (Well, for the most part. ;))

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  21. Hmmm..was there a reason that you thought of scholars when looking at the boy? Because what I envisioned in my mind’s eye was a boy entering the wonderful world of adventure or science fiction, going on an amazing adventure in a world built by the authors words..hehe. I feel it has to be balanced. Yes, we need the stillness and quiet to do inner work but we also need to interact with people to participate and experience life. Balance is the key as it always is in everything.
    I really loved the descriptive beginning part of the post…” A million children of all ages swished around the great hall and the stairwells and the tent and the garden like schools of fish about to arrange themselves into different colourful formations, engulfing each old shape into a new one…” that’s beautifully written 🙂

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  22. I’ve heard some recent research indicating that group brainstorming is the best way to generate ideas and solutions to problems (which I’m sure no one would argue with, two heads being better than one and all that), BUT only when all members of the group first spend some time alone coming up with their individual suggestions (to prevent more talkative people from dominating; to prevent people from censoring their ideas; to make everyone accountable to contribute something, etc). And so, the solitary and the social each have an important role to play.

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  23. This is funny because today’s creativity challenge prompt was on collaboration. Art and education are not spent in a vacuum. Scholars are no longer in the Ivory Tower, the scholar is in the community and in the streets learning among the people.
    I need to learn that I need to work with people more and that who is going to see my work if I keep it locked up?

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  24. I’ve had a similar experience to Molly, above. When I was an environmental lobbyist, neighbors dropped by, people called, the world whirled. Now that I’m seen as a writer, folks seem apologetic about interrupting me, or say things like, “I was going to stop by, but I figured you were probably writing.” Like, that’s all I ever do (I wish)! Since I’m an introvert at heart, but w/ a very social nature, this is great. I get to decide when to go out & party, but don’t get bugged. Perfect.

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  25. Beautifully written post. As the child who used to take her book to parties, I would say that the role of observer can on occasion be part of participation, which allows for closer observation, and some more social fun along the way. It usually works out well.

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    1. Since you call yourself The Victorian Librarian, I must confess I was thinking of Jane in Jane Eyre ensconced behind the curtain reading a book in the opening scene (and of her author who lived rather secluded most of her life). And of some Victorian paintings of women reading which have more complex gendered attitudes to reading–perhaps a subject for a different post! Thanks for reading.

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      1. Ok. so I have done my fair share of reading behind curtains, and anywhere else where I could find some quiet, but happily I had a much better childhood than Jane Eyre. As for her author, I am lucky enough to opt for seclusion as and when I want it, not to have it forced upon me.

        Re: the Victorian paintings of women reading, I’ve been collecting references to such paintings over the last couple of years, so am quite intrigued that you brought it up, and would love to hear more of your thoughts on the matter. I have done some work on Rossetti’s thoughts on women as readers, and really need to do some more on it. There’s so much there…

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        1. Yes, there’s lots here. A painting of a woman, for example, reading a book lost in her own world was threatening to the viewer whereas a woman holding an open book but looking directly at the viewer would be seen as the picture of a non-threatening, nicely accomplished woman 🙂

          You might like a book called “The Woman Reader” by Kate Flint.

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  26. A great think piece on a significant question. When I was working on a novel in a cottage in Maine, the neighbors dubbed me “The Hermitess” because of my singular and solitary pursuit. And yet, I participated in all the neighborhood socials. There seemed to be something about writing itself that isolated me from them. Thanks for this one.

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