What’s The Point?

Over at Talent Egg, Krysty Rydz has been discussing what she calls a Young Life Crisis, that scary, scary moment when you realize that you’re almost at the point where you have to enter the Real World, and may not find that job you’ve always thought would be waiting.

Now, I’ve never been afraid of the Real World – I’m pretty excited about going out, earning money, being completely independent, and doing something that is rewarded in money or its own impact, rather than letter grades which are, let’s face it, pretty irrelevant in the long run. Then again, maybe the reason I’m not afraid is that for me, the Real World is still a ways away – at least 4 or 5 years, if all goes to plan. And the fact that, after all, the Academia brand of Real World isn’t all that different from school.

My crisis has been slightly different. If you’ve been reading my blog (not that you have… that’s ok), you’ll know I’m pretty big on Academia being useful; for me, it’s just a waste of grant money if it doesn’t say something new in concrete terms.

…which, I’ve been coming to realize with a shudder, is a pretty hypocritical ideal for a medievalist. Or is it?

That’s the question I’m stuck on. The answer I keep coming up with is that if your research is good enough, it’s useful. Genuinely new research in medieval studies may never help children in Africa or revamp Canadian diplomacy, but it can and does have real and gigantic effects on the field. And, as my roommate has pointed out, the fact that it contributes to a society that is willing to fund things which do not have a utilitarian application is use in itself.

But these justifications seem a bit thin when I’m sitting here tweaking a paper on a monument most people have never heard of, or on dead Anglo-Saxon infants. I love what I’m studying, but does anyone else care?

And should I even care that no one else cares? Is it enough to contribute to your own field? Does everything have to be utilitarian and tangible? What about the fact that, as my roommate points out, every drop of research, however esoteric, contributes to the general knowledge-horde of a society? Or that every drop of research, however esoteric, may have real-world effects that are intangible?

I guess what it comes down to is whether it’s enough for research to be new and concrete. How utilitarian does it have to be, to not be a waste of grant money?

That’s what I can’t figure out. I keep having visions of Reason coming and closing the gates to the Middle Ages, telling us that everything that we need to know has already been found out, and none of the rest matters.

  1. RS said:

    While I see your point, I think that there is something that needs to be added to the discussion. What satisfaction do you get out of what you are doing? Do you love it? I hate to disagree, but I have never been of the opinion that it must be new to be good. Maybe that’s where academia has started to go wrong. It becomes so important to be unique that it trumps all else. Of course, I also don’t see education as being vocational training either. Go figure. I teach Medieval lit. However, it is not in the esoteric nature of the contribution that its value lies, save in the academy. The day may just come when we might all agree that there ‘is nothing new under the sun.’ What then? Do we then abandon a rich heritage of ideas and thought? Of course not. Thoreau wrote, ‘Do not trouble yourself much to get new things, whetherclothes or friends. Turn the old; return to them. Things do not change; we change. Sell your clothes and keep your thoughts.’ Perhaps this can be applied to ideas too. Maybe we do not always need the new. What we need is to see the value in those ideas we have beyond only newness. Reason will never close the door to the Middle Ages. The more we broaden the scope of our understanding, the better we see those things we love.

    Then again, maybe I have no idea what I’m talking about. Wouldn’t be the first time.

    • Julia said:

      I agree with you in terms of ideas in general, but when millions of dollars (on the whole, that is) of grant money are involved, not to mention the time and money and effort spent on actually printing the stuff researchers come up with, I can’t but think that it needs to be new and useful to be worth it.

      But, “The more we broaden the scope of our understanding, the better we see those things we love.” I guess that goes for research as well. I can live with that.

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