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?
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.