Why I Care about Public Scholarship

My wife and I were chatting with some ranchers who are engaged in holistic management. It was exciting to hear how their work with cattle was affecting their land and their transition from conventional to regenerative farming. During the conversation, it came out that they’ve felt like researchers would never listen to them. But they shared that there was a local soil scientist who did listen. And that was important.

Have professors and teachers made you feel like you wouldn’t be listened to? Like your important experience didn’t matter?

Hey, I’m credentialed and I experience that often too.

The educational theorist and priest, Ivan Illich, wrote against this in the seventies, noting that the emphasis on expertise has led to us valuing “institutional commodities” at the expense of the “ministration of a neighbor.”

That line sticks with me. How can we serve each other as neighbors? How can we listen to each other and show that we value each other?

There’s so much in higher education that works against this “ministration of a neighbor.” Grades don’t make a caring community. Whatever it is we imagine when we say “Ivory Tower” is not a caring community. This is why we need public scholarship and community engagement. I believe folks in higher education need public scholarship and community engagement not just to give something–though we ought to engage in our own neighborly service–but also to ground ourselves in the communities we already belong to.

I wrote about this need recently, and I would like to share my article with all of you:

In the article, I move toward redefining public scholarship in a way that’s inclusive of community members like those ranchers who keep my daughters fed:

Public scholarship is the collaborative creation and dissemination of knowledge undertaken by multiple community members with the twofold objective of 1) strengthening bonds between centres of higher education and the communities they inhabit and 2) reaching a richer understanding of reality in ways inaccessible to any group alone.

Enabling Public Scholars through Faculty Development

Whenever I think about how important the insights and work of farmers and ranchers are, I think about the poetry of Wendell Berry. The way he respects farmers ought to be a model for all of us who work in higher education to respect the communities we’re already embedded in.

Here’s an example. Listen to “The Man Born to Farming” below or read the poem here.

Farming is mystical for Berry. The farmer experiences soil as a “divine drug” and experiences an agricultural resurrection that participates in the Resurrection: “He has seen the light lie down / in the dung heap, and rise again in the corn.” I think it’s important the way Berry relates farming as a way of knowing: “his thought passes along the row ends like a mole” and “the unending sentence of his love flows out of his mouth.” This is a knowing, a reasoning, that comes from love. And if we don’t love the knower, and respect the knower, we will think nothing of the “vine clinging in the sunlight” or the “water descending in the dark.” But the farmer still knows whether we listen or not.

This article is for everyone like those ranchers who know and love and deserve our attention and respect.


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