Many people don’t know that January is a key production month for academics and intellectuals around the world. Thousands of the best and brightest scholars in the humanities and social sciences travel to major international conferences at the start of every calendar year. The winter break at most universities looks enviable to most observers because it offers two or three weeks without teaching classes. Yet, the best scholars instantly fill that time with conference presentations, research activities, and grant applications. It is one of the most important time frames every year precisely because the actual work of scholarship can occur.
The origins of organized intellectual endeavors begin with the religious institutions of the ancient and medieval worlds. From the libraries of Ashurbanipal and Thebes, the preservation of existing information and the creation of new knowledge were recognized as enormous powers and privileges. It was one of the most sacred and divine activities a human being could undertake. From this basis in theology, three lasting features of human reasoning emerged – history, law, and literature.
Most historians will tell you that modern history – the interpretation of past events – emerged in the nineteenth century. However, the chronicling of significant activity stretches back into the first days of human experience. Regardless of the present day techniques of anthropology and archeology, the historical imagination has always remained a fundamental aspect of intellectual inquiry. Every new field has its own history. Each of those histories connects back to earlier attempts to understand. Whether it is the study of life (biology) or the study of the universe (astrophysics), there is a history that provides a foundation for continued learning.
One of the earliest applications of history was the creation of the law. Law relies on a sense of previous human experiences in order to extrapolate a system of governance. Law, in return, expanded the reach of history and its affirmative legitimacy in the public imagination. Both fields carry the seed of religious faith in their origins, limiting the range of doctrinal deviation. Objectivity is one of the key ideologies that reflect the idea of God as the foundation for both historical and legal knowledge. In both the courtroom and the classroom, jurists and historians possess an unparalleled power to tell students, “No. You’re wrong.” In contrast, scientists (both physical and social) teach various methods of inquiry that encourage disobedience and doubt. Conformity remains a fundamental virtue of law and history, derived from their creation in the crucible of faith.
The third core field of human inquiry is literature. Storytelling and poetry have ancient origins that parallel history and the law. Indeed, the best historians and lawyers use literary allusions and narrative techniques to demonstrate the mastery of their fields. However, literature escaped the trap of objectivity more easily than its two cousins. The manufacture of fiction enables a more open discourse about content and meaning than the traditions of religion, history, and law allow. There remain many rigid barriers in the authentication of excellence in literature, but the effort to recognize multiple perspectives (and to resist synthesizing them) is a hallmark of the literary mind – even across language barriers and over time. In a way, literature opens the door to philosophy, giving rise to increasingly complex reasoning and, most recently, the rigor of the scientific method.
God as an idea remains the foundation for implicit authority in academic life. Two centuries of empirical investigation claim a philosophical or scientific (read ‘secular’) foundation for truth, but the unspoken interactions within universities and courtrooms rely on a compliance with an unquestioned, divine authority. Expertise has replaced an objectivity that had reduced the overt claims to godly status. Doubt and nonconformity has never held greater influence in human civilization. Authority now faces inherent superstition whenever it is exercised. In debates about sanctioning Iran, investigations of closed bridges, or projects to revitalize local economies, argument reigns.
Democratic authority requires that more people take these intellectual debates seriously, but also understand how to reach consensus without the faithful conformity of the ancient world.
Dr. Walter Greason is the Executive Director of the International Center for Metropolitan Growth and author of Suburban Erasure: How the Suburbs Ended the Civil Rights Movement in New Jersey. His work is available on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and by email (firstname.lastname@example.org).