Friday, October 05, 2012
Scholarship: collective assessment
Jason and Paul's defenses of legal scholarship--and endorsements of the need for a defense--bring to mind a few thoughts: one on measuring scholarhip individually or collectively, another prompted by recall ing the worst reactions to scholars' "impact."
(1) Once you look for their effects, ideas can seem to matter a whole lot, but scholarly contributions to the success of ideas is mostly a collective endeavor; the "impact" of a single article is rarely measurable in a useful way. The conservative movement recognized the power of ideas, and of academic scholarship, when it committed a lot of money legal scholarship (notably through the Olin Foundation), D.C. think tanks, magazines, etc. Economic ideas seem to matter a whole lot right now in what path German, ECB and EU officials take in saving (or not) the Euro, and a lot of those ideas are generated and spread through scholarship. Bernard Harcourt's book last year, "The Myth of the Free Market," describes important effects of ideas, often developed in scholarship. Daniel Rodger's "The Age of Fracture" devotes much attention to changes in scholarly ideas and their effects as well.
All this suggests that scholarship's value often should be assessed collectively, not by the individual book or article. A body of work with common methods, premises, values and interests, to which many contribute, can have significant impact in affecting people's beliefs, worldviews, perspectives. (Recall the concern that colleges "brainwash" students with disfavored ideas--feminism, socialism, whatever.) At the level of the individual book or article, only for the most very notable work can probably make a good assessment of "impact" and "value." Yet the tendency I think is to focus at that level, and to lean toward generally poor proxies that take quantifiable form, e.g., by citation/download counts, or England's dreadful meansures of its universities' scholarly productivity through publication counts and the like.
(2) Scholarship's fuzzy value has comes into sharper focus relief when governing elites come after scholars, whether with intimidation or much worse.To shift the context about as far as possible from that of present day U.S. law professors, the extreme cases are those in which authorities literally kill the scholars and other educated elites--Poland at the start of WWII, Cambodia under Pol Pot. In other cases, faculty are merely fired, or intimidated into joining or disavowing some ideological affiliation, etc. Eastern Europe experienced much of this in the postwar era; we had a lesser but noteworthy variant in the era of Red Scares. Democracies need among other things vibrant civil societies and independent intellectuals, as dictators recognized. Granted, these are references to officials with particularly extreme sensitivity to "scholarly impact." Still, this, too, suggests that the value of scholarship is more collective and amorphous than individual and measureable.
Posted by Darryl Brown on October 5, 2012 at 07:13 PM | Permalink
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This is a very smart comment. Thank you.
Posted by: David | Oct 7, 2012 2:22:31 AM
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