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The New Amateurism

I blogged recently on dilettantism. This was intended as a piece of provocation. But it was also, in my view, an optimistic take on the ‘New Renaissance’ brought about by the knowledge revolution and new ways of learning and working that we are seeing. The suggestions were meant as playfully speculative, in line with the subject matter.

I was surprised, then, when talking to my dad last week, to hear that many of the contributors to his new learned journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies could be described as ‘amateurs’.

I wanted to know more, so I asked Dad to drill into the statistics a little.

Learned amateurs

He says: ‘So far, in 4 vols, we have 32 contributors. 18 of them are not employed by a university and 14 are, but one of the latter is employed only very part-time’. We agree that this does not prove the case for amateurism as several of the 18 who are not employed by a university are either current PhD students or may be well qualified in conventional terms but unable to secure university positions.

However, even discounting PhD candidates and those with degrees not directly related to Buddhism but close enough to the subject of their papers, there are ‘8 amateurs’. These are people with no recognised qualifications in the subject for which they have produced an article for a learned journal edited by a leading scholar of Buddhism. Dad goes on to say: ‘Remember that these people are scattered over the world. I have included in the amateur figure the very part-time academic, who I think has no academic qualification in Buddhism at all! Perhaps I should add that a couple of the amateurs are superb’.

I think it is striking that 8 out of 32 contributors to a learned journal published by an independent centre for the university of Oxford are amateurs who largely obtained their education, we presume, using online materials, inter-library loans (again facilitated by the web, of course) and other means.

What does this prove?

On its own, it can’t prove much. And there have been related discussions about ‘citizen scientists‘ and the like elsewhere which have gained considerable interest but not yet caused major upheavals in our views of education systems or the way knowledge is progressed.

But it stands to reason that when expert knowledge is disseminated all over the world, for free, there will be people – amateurs – who will learn from what they read, see and hear and want to participate. And why shouldn’t they? Why should they be bound by rather recent academic and bureaucratic conventions and norms about ‘methodology’, ‘research tracks’, ‘post-doc positions’ and the like? The Humboldtian ideal that researchers make a contribution to knowledge should be open to all, regardless of geography, educational opportunity or wealth. This is the higher academic mission that perhaps has been lost in recent decades in the waves of research proposals, RAEs, REFs, citation counts and so on.

The democratization of knowledge

I was taken to task recently for using this phrase ‘glibly’. So I will try to be precise. I mean that once knowledge is freely available to all, the question of who controls the knowledge – or better, who controls what counts as things worth knowing, and how that knowledge is acquired – is radically questioned. Just as a democratic political system is one that gives all citizens an equal say in their collective governance, so a democratic system of learning and ‘knowledge production’ is one in which all can participate and contribute on equal terms. This latter state of affairs is already in train and will become more widespread and its consequences more significant. This is what I mean by the democratisation of knowledge.

Amateurism and democratisation are two different concepts of course. But I think it is not much of a stretch to say that the more democratic a system is, the more one deals directly with the contributions of those in the system and the less likely one is to look first for professional accreditations or extra qualifications. In democratically run businesses it is the quality of the ideas that count, not the number of certificates on one’s CV; in political democracies no professional qualifications are required to make political decisions, instead one is judged on ideas and track record.

I’m not for one moment suggesting that universities are like despotic oligarchies, or nasty tyrants – those things which democracy generally overthrows to such good effect. Nor are they like the big, for-profit corporates who rarely show signs of being democratically run and who, far too often in recent years, have been found to be corrupt. On the whole, I think universities have been perhaps the major force for good in European civilization over the last, what, 500 years? But all institutions can ossify, all are vulnerable to being hijacked by vested interests, all are at risk of becoming too bureaucratic, all need to be revivified from time to time. A fresh breeze blowing into this world from committed and learned amateurs can only be good.

Hold on…jobs for the girls and boys?

It is easy to find at least one objection to my suggestion of a new amateurism and its link to democratisation in the particular case of the OCBS journal. It is an obvious charge that this is not an example of democratisation at all. My father, Richard Gombrich, a scholar of first rank and from a traditional background, has a very strong, if not controlling, interest in the show. He is the editor and what he says, goes. How then can you say that this is knowledge democratically promulgated? If anything, this is just old skool jobs for the girls and boys whom the top dog favours.

In some sense it is hard to refute this. Somebody will always have some kind of position of controlling authority in any comparable situation. Perhaps these days one could make a case that an algorithm could somehow impersonally decide on authority – but here we are either led to the well-known problems with citation indices or the issues that arise when serious decisions are turned into mob happenings – as in the notorious YouTube comment streams. In any event, the discussion of authority is a slightly different (though closely related) theme to those discussed here.

More relevant is that I have never met an academic who does not have some story to the effect that one of their best papers was turned down by an idiot editor who didn’t understand its significance. In a related vein, one hears countless complaints that editors only look for papers which progress knowledge in their domains in footling and trivial ways. This shows that even ‘professional’ academics suffer seemingly arbitrary decisions which block them from progressing as they would like. Professionalism (in this sense) is no guarantee of recognised quality because the assessment of quality is, of course, subjective. The final say about what counts must always be made by someone or some board. What is remarkable about the OCBS case is that, in the judgement of the editorial board, among the best papers selected are several by amateurs. It is these papers which have been selected as representing interesting research in the field. And this, I take it, is a success for amateurism and evidence of the democratisation of knowledge.

Around 400-500 years ago our civilization received a big kick forward from several courtiers, a displaced Jewish lens grinder, an ex-military man, and many others only tenuously associated with the universities of the time. Who can say that the next great advances in our civilizations will not be inspired by those driven only to know and to contribute, whatever their formal qualifications?

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