Independent scholarship in the arts

Opening article for the inaugural edition of The International Journal of Independent Scholars (ed. Guy P. Buchholtzer), 2010.

 Taking Emerson’s famous Harvard address On the American Scholar as his touchstone, the writer draws on his experiences as an author and activist in the area of the arts and cultural policy to make the case for validity of the work of the independent scholar who chooses to work outside the traditional academy. The advantages and disadvantages of independent activity and academic affiliation are examined, and the writer concludes that  “we have more in common—those of us outside the academy and those within its walls—than is sometimes allowed.” 

Wikipedia, that bottomless fount of rough-and-ready research, defines an independent scholar as “anyone who works outside traditional academia in the pursuit of truth and knowledge … often an amateur rather than a professional although this is not always a matter of choice. There is some debate about the acceptance of independent scholars, but their knowledge can be comparable to that of institutional scholars.”

Although some academics swear by Wikipedia as a reference tool of first resort, the on-line encyclopaedia’s open-door policy for anyone who wants to post (or delete, or modify) an entry has meant that until comparatively recently it has been widely frowned upon by the hard-core academic community. But this particular entry presses all the right buttons. It is concise, it is pointed, it has a modicum of wry humour (“not always a matter of choice”) and it sums up the somewhat ambiguous and sometimes compromised standing of those of us who conduct our work beyond the confines of the academy.

This compromised standing of the independent thinker is not a new phenomenon. Over 170 years ago, in his famous Harvard address On the American Scholar,[1] Ralph Waldo Emerson talked of the challenges that beset the scholar: “the self-accusation, the faint heart, the frequent uncertainty and loss of time, which are the nettles and tangling vines in the way of the self-relying and self-directed; and the state of virtual hostility in which he seems to stand to society, and especially to educated society.”

It remains true that those who publish outside the learned journals can draw disparaging looks or outright scorn for the lack of rigour implicit in their publication free of the process of academic peer review. The situation is not improved by the knowing and ironic times in which we live. Two of the most influential U.S. political commentators are both satirists, Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart, whose Daily Show describes itself on its website as “unburdened by objectivity, journalistic integrity or even accuracy”. In the public fora, seriousness is out of fashion. So it is easy for those independent scholars—the self-relying and the self-directed—who are unable or unwilling to become associated with an academic institution to develop a defensiveness about their situation. To them, Emerson’s words are no doubt a comfort. Even so, setting all such defensiveness aside, a strong argument can be made for the complementarity of the work of the public and the academic thinker.

Emerson believed there were three requirements for the education of the true scholar: a familiarity with nature, from which we learn to classify and make connections; an understanding of “the mind of the Past,” most conveniently via books; and a willingness to take action, piercing with one’s words the “resounding tumult” of the world and dissipating its fear—action, he believed, is “pearls and rubies” to the scholar’s discourse.

However, he approached his definition of the scholar by disparaging the diminished role of “the delegated intellect” in a world in which human functions are “subdivided and peddled out” piecemeal. “In the right state he is man thinking,” he said. “He is the world’s eye. He is the world’s heart.” Emerson saw the scholar as “a person who would do whatever possible to communicate ideas to the world, not just to fellow intellectuals.”[2]  In this paper, I would like to draw on my own experiences as a writer in the non-academic world to examine the role and formation of the independent scholar, and at the same time to keep in mind those aspects of Emerson’s thoughts about the intellectual’s condition that continue to resonate today.


I came to the world of independent scholarship by what I suspect is a classic (and in some quarters classically suspect) route: print and broadcast journalism. My academic background was limited to undergraduate work at an English university. It was not a promising beginning.

The first three decades of my career as a writer were spent writing reviews, feature articles and commentaries about culture and the arts (primarily dance and music, but also theatre and books, as well as policies and politics) for newspapers, magazines, radio and television. I began this work in London, England, but in 1967 moved to Vancouver, Canada, which became my base for newspaper reviewing and for national magazine and broadcast work. Throughout the 1990s I edited The Vancouver Sun’s general-interest weekend magazine and launched and edited its Review of Books section.

Any writer with a smattering of talent but not much ambition who wishes to coast through life on a cushion of guaranteed income could do worse than choose to work in journalism. It is hugely satisfying for anyone looking for instant gratification (your sentences are usually in print within hours of their creation), enormously rewarding for the adrenalin junkie (the deadlines push up the levels every time) and it allows you to become an instant “expert” on a different topic every day. Those deadlines mean that research tends to be at the depth of a layer of veneer on a cheap bookshelf—you need, as a colleague used to put it, the attention span of a fruit-fly—though an interest in serious research can be found in the most surprising places: a sensationalist tabloid I wrote for briefly in London in the 1960s provided its writers with subscriptions to the London Library, and expected us to use them.

It is this potential for superficiality that throws the largest cloud over hopes any popular journalist might have to be taken seriously by the world of scholarship, and causes the greatest frustration. Despite appearances to the contrary, inside many mass-medium journalists is a serious writer struggling to get out. The problem with journalism is that you can never delve deeply enough. There are always subtexts beneath reasons, arguments behind postures, stories behind stories, and more intriguing people than you can ever hope to delineate in more than a passing sketch. Inevitably, if you are covering a “beat” like culture and the arts, you tend to become something of a specialist or even an advocate. Some editors like that, and encourage writers with pronounced opinions to develop into columnists; others hate it and shuffle off to other beats those writers they think are in danger of becoming too deeply involved in their field.

Throughout my journalistic career I was fortunate to have editors who indulged me in developing a specialist bent, in part on the grounds that it gave the publication a useful air of authority. Dance was the area that attracted me, and still does. I find it a peculiarly compelling art. I like it for what it demonstrates about the possibility for the rendering of ideas of beauty through the human form, for the wordless depths of emotion and feeling that it can express, and for what its transient nature implies about the evanescence of the human condition and the need to live fully in the moment.

Unfortunately, the more I became involved in my chosen area, the more frustrating I found it to do it justice. Magazine writing helps a little, because in a significant magazine piece you can expand on themes, explore nuances and generally be more creative in style and approach. You are also expected to do serious research. Most reputable magazines require source notes from writers, and employ fact-checkers to verify the accuracy of submitted articles (a job that is my idea of the hell that lies in wait for lazy writers).

It was magazine work that began to draw me away from journalism and into the world of independent scholarship. In the 1970s a magazine in New York asked me to write an article on the history of a Canadian dance company that was visiting the city. Subsequently the company management asked if I would be interested in writing a book to celebrate the company’s fortieth anniversary. They were probably looking for a puffy kind of celebration, with lots of pictures. I took time off from the paper, moved to the company’s home city, interviewed everyone and his sister, brought the beginnings of some kind of order to the shambolic heap of documents, clippings and photos that the management laughingly called its archive, and delivered a warts-and-all history.

It was a liberation. Freed from the restraints of the newspaper and magazine formats, I discovered how much I liked the discipline of close research allied to the kind of on-the-street legwork and interviewing that I had grown up with as a journalist. It also freed me to write in a more personal style, and to explore and expand on issues and ideas that I found intriguing and wanted to share.

One of the joys of writing about a comparatively neglected and under-appreciated field like arts and culture in Canada (as it was then, and still is to perhaps a lesser degree) is the opportunity it provides for carving out a niche. The newspaper work had given me chance to establish a toehold. Now, with a book under my belt, I began to enlarge it. I was making the first steps toward serious independent scholarship.

I had already been successful in obtaining support from the Canada Council for the Arts for short research periods (in the 1970s I became the first working newspaper critic in Canada to be given a grant to travel to Europe to research the summer arts festivals, and Canada Council money helped me survive during the research and writing period for the dance company book). Now I applied for a senior arts grant to take a year off to write the first full-scale history of dance in Canada. (I was told that the decision to award me the grant was swung by a non-Canadian member of the jury panel, the choreographer Robert Joffrey, who said: “When a culture advances to the point where someone considers it is time to write a history of its dancing, it is time for us to support it.”)

This was moving into serious territory. I crossed the country a couple of times for interviews and primary research in libraries, archives and personal collections, and I did substantial reading for context. Two years later, I had an attic filled with documents, a significant extension to the domestic library, many valuable new contacts and friendships. The fruit of all of which was Dance Canada: An Illustrated History. Reviewers and academics alike were very kind. It was named one of the “165 great Canadian books of the 20th century” in a collection published by the Vancouver Public Library. The niche was beginning to feel comfortable. That book was followed by a couple of biographies, of the luminous Canadian dancer, Evelyn Hart and the jeweller Toni Cavelti, and a collection from three decades of my dance writings.

Throughout this time, I maintained my newspaper presence. Writing books on Canadian dance is all very well, but everyone has to eat. Anyway, I enjoyed newspaper work. The luxury of being able to write in a sustained way about issues within a single broad field, albeit on a piecemeal basis, let me develop a wide knowledge of issues and individuals. It also reinforced my belief in the inherent value of the arts and culture to modern society, and allowed me to start to test my notions of what contributions I could make to the improvement of the standing of arts and culture in modern Canada.

I imagine that few writers are deluded enough to believe that what we write is going to change the world, however much we might like it to. But perhaps that Emersonian sense of communicating ideas—“making a contribution” is another way of putting it—is  a necessary element of the makeup and motivation of any serious scholar, independent or not. It certainly seems to be an entirely laudable motivation for that handful of scholars who have found a way to attract the public spotlight.

In my case, the drivers for this commitment to social improvement were ordinary enough. At base were the basic instincts of the professional journalist: a lifelong curiosity about the way things are, and an enthusiasm to share discovery. If you know it, print it, as the old-generation journalists would say. But there was also a family influence. My father was a trade union activist. The bookshelves in the bedroom I shared with my younger brother bore heavy socialist tracts and volumes of Trade Union Conference proceedings alongside Biggles, the Beano Christmas albums and Boys’ Own adventures, and I was an avid reader. Avid writer, too; and from a very young age I was pretty sure that I had a responsibility to use my skills as a writer to reinvest something of myself in the betterment of the world. It helped (or made the condition worse, depending on your point of view) that in my cub reporter days, in England, newspaper editorials were called “leaders”, because they led public opinion. I liked that. It was something I thought I would like to do. At its worst, today, that urge to teach and change can give my writing a didactic edge.


Depth of research for broad context and specific knowledge—the second of Emerson’s requirements for the scholar, if you interpret “books” to mean acquired information—intensified throughout the 1980s and 1990s. I travelled often across Canada to conduct assessments of dance companies for the dance office of the Canada Council for the Arts, another opportunity to write in a more encompassing fashion about art and artists than the limitations of journalism allowed. And in the mid-1990s passion and possibility intersected with policy when I was invited to join the Canada Council’s board of directors. It is an appointment that comes with a modest honorarium for meetings attended but is otherwise unpaid. Even so, friends in journalism looked at me askance. To them, the job sounded a lot like a conflict of interest, though I didn’t see it that way. Neither, fortunately, did my editor-in-chief at the time, who encouraged me to accept the post.

That appointment lasted six years. It spanned a period of high turbulence in the history of cultural funding in Canada. We were debating, passionately, the central principles of how best to foster and support professional cultural activity in Canada. Nothing was sacred; everything was up for scrutiny. It was an exhilarating time. And the effect of this was two-fold, in terms of its influence on me as a writer and scholar. Most obviously, I became increasingly well informed about the state and status of arts and culture in Canada. But as the years passed, I also found myself becoming more and more militant, in the sense of being a committed advocate, about the issues I wrote about and cared about, both in print and at the board table. (My wife Susan, also a former print and broadcast critic, says I am the only person she knows who can get excited at the thought of writing about cultural policy, but I get excited at the thought of writing anything, so it helps if it’s something I know and feel something about.)

Again, there came a cross-fertilization of interest and opportunity. The Canada Council holds a number of other agencies under its aegis, among them the Canadian Commission for UNESCO. Since UNESCO’s remit covers education and science as well as culture, this would seem to be a strange fit, but when the Canada Council for the Arts was established in 1957, UNESCO’s prime emphasis was deemed to be cultural, and the Council seemed a convenient place in which it could be lodged.

In my years on the Canada Council board, the reputation of UNESCO was in some disarray, a leftover, perhaps, of various scandals that had shaken the organization in earlier decades. There was also a general feeling that the Canadian Commission itself needed a shake-up. I had been a vociferous defender of UNESCO at the Council table, largely because I believed, and believe still, in its potential as peacemaker to the world. Toward the end of my Canada Council mandate, I was asked to become the Council’s  representative on the CCU executive committee and be part of a small task force to redesign and streamline the CCU structure and operations. We accomplished that; I then became chair of its new Sectoral Commission on Culture, Communication and Information for a couple of years, and eventually served four years as the Commission’s President.

UNESCO is a specialized agency of the United Nations and currently has 193 member states (one more than the UN itself). Its mission is to contribute to world peace and security by promoting international collaboration through the three fields of its mandate, education, science and culture. Here was opportunity heaven-sent. Making the world a better place? Where could that be more likely?

It was a staggeringly naïve assumption. At any time, several of those 193 member states are at war with other members of the UNESCO community. Reaching global agreement on anything more important than the kind of coffee to be served in the cafeteria is a grinding affair that moves at the speed of molasses across glaciers. In my early visits, before I became acclimatized to the culture, I often felt that I was taking part in a performance of Kurt Jooss’s 1932 anti-war ballet, The Green Table, which opens with a group of masked diplomats gesticulating at each other across a green baize table, segues into a vivid narrative of war, devastation, despair and death, and ends with the same group of diplomats posturing the world away.

I can’t count the times I emerged from lost hours, lost days in the vast debating-room bunkers at UNESCO’s Y-shaped headquarters in Paris swearing never to return. I always did, of course. Idealism often trumps common sense. You hold your nose and grit your teeth and wrap up warm against the Paris winter chill and slowly, eventually, by infinitesinal degrees, change happens. For the instant-gratification journalist, it was a hard lesson, but for the fledgling independent scholar a good one: you learn that what takes long to achieve has a better chance of enduring.

What you also learn is the lasting value of deep research and a profound understanding of with the field in which you work. The range of potential involvement in UNESCO issues for any single invididual is vast. Inevitably, as a member of the consultative commission within your country, you gravitate to areas of your own particular interest and expertise, making whatever contributions you can to the development of a national position on the topics. As a representative of your nation in the halls of UNESCO, you work toward building international agreement on positions adopted by your national government, both through spoken and written presentations to the organization’s governing bodies and by lobbying the representatives of other nations behind the scenes. The processes are different, but the need for a solid grounding in the issues, and an ability to articulate the arguments concisely and persuasively, is essential.

In that sense, journalism was a great preparation. For a writer, one of the benefits of a life in journalism is the way it forces you to be clear. There is no room for obfuscation (nor for words like obfuscation, come to that: a tabloid daily for which I once wrote was said to have an unwritten editorial ban on all four-syllable words except “television”).

That doesn’t mean you write down to your audience, though journalists sometimes do. Rather, it means you treat your readers as you yourself would expect to be treated: with respect for their intelligence, and with an understanding that they expect to encounter, in exchange for their daily dollar, interesting or provocative perceptions or ideas or information … new tools to develop an understanding of their world.

These basic principles of communication are particularly helpful when you are dealing with complex issues that have caught the attention of governments, since bureaucracy’s talent for linguistic obfuscation knows few bounds. (New to me, for instance, among the reams of documents that emerge daily from the UNESCO print-shop, was the “non-paper,” defined by the Internet’s jargon-tracking Double-Tongued Dictionary as “an off-the-record or unofficial presentation of [government] policy” and apparently so named in order that its existence can be denied.)

In retrospect, it is clear that this slow progression from nuts-and-bolts  newspapering toward engagement with history, policy and advocacy was a natural part of a strengthening embrace of a life of independent scholarship, as was the development of the ability to reconcile differing points of view into an acceptable consensus—a necessary virtue in the debates and corridors of UNESCO.


In terms of taking action, the file that consumed the largest amount of my time and attention in my years as President of the Canadian Commission for UNESCO was the file on cultural diversity, and it was linked directly to my interests as a writer and independent scholar. In subsequent years, I have taken an active role in representing Canada at the UNESCO table and elsewhere in the field of arts and learning. Obviously, the issues are linked; and both, I would argue, are significant priorities for Canada and the world at the start of the “globalized” 21st century.

The drive to protect cultural diversity is rooted in the belief that indigenous cultural expression is a primary element of any culture’s identity and self-knowledge. Implicit is a respect for each culture’s uniqueness, and an openness to the cultures of all parts of the globe. Pluralism and cooperation are concepts on which Canada has been built, and the core of its social strength today. It is in this area of pluralistic living, the art of being good and civil neighbours, that Canada has a leadership role to play. Indeed, it has been my experience at UNESCO that other countries look to Canada for help in this regard.

However, the offshoots of global development—porous borders, instant international exchange of ideas and influences, and the rapidly widening digital divide—all complicate and compromise the affirmation of indigenous cultural identity. As Canada knows well, the work of our own artists is at constant risk of being drowned by the 24-hour deluge of cultural materials from south of its borders. Beginning in the late 1990s, Canada and a small group of other countries worked to build support for a new international instrument, housed at UNESCO, that would affirm the right of nation-states to foster, protect and promote their indigenous cultures. It was a major undertaking of international diplomacy, and it took five years to bring off. It was by no means an easy sell.

The other principal issue that has guided me in my more recent forays into independent scholarship is the inclusion of creative activity in education.

One of the first columns I wrote about the arts in Canada after arriving as an immigrant in the 1960s was about the crucial importance of exposure to creative activity from the earliest years, and I have seen no evidence that persuades me to think any other way. It is more and more apparent that we are short-changing not only ourselves but the generation of the future in an important area.

We are under intensifying pressure to come up with innovative responses to some of the most profound dilemmas humankind has faced. We are already managing global health threats badly, are often unable to protect human rights, we are nowhere near eliminating the curse of poverty or curing the world’s environmental ills, and the recent global economic crisis only makes these problems more acute. We know all too well the horrors of rising fundamentalism and international terrorism. Meanwhile, advances in scientific research—stem cells, the human genome, cloning, robotics, nano-technology, the promise of extended life—force us to re-examine our moral priorities as human beings.

To equip ourselves for this massive change, we need the ability to bridge the gap between the material and the non-material, between scientific reality and the intuited world of what might be. That means giving ourselves full access to the inspirational and educational influence of involvement with creative expression and the imagination as an essential tool in building just, responsible and sustainable societies.

As hard evidence to support this position becomes more readily available, the idea of improving access to creative and imaginative activity both within our educational systems and throughout life has been gaining increasing traction, both within Canada and internationally. In the spring of 2006 UNESCO staged a world conference on arts and education in Lisbon, Portugal.

What emerged from Lisbon was both a road map of recommendations for substantial change to the international profile and practice of arts in education, and a new non-governmental international organization, the World Alliance for Arts Education (an amalgam of the international bodies for music, theatre and visual arts educators), to start to put its recommendations into practice. At the same time, a Canadian network of educators and interested agencies has begun to hold a series of symposia in preparation for the follow-up to the Lisbon conference, scheduled for 2010 in Korea. A spirit of optimism and adventure is abroad.

All of which is massively encouraging, to a point.


Neither cultural diversity nor arts and learning have been easy files on which to generate agreement for change. But however frustrating the pace of progress might sometimes have been, involvement with policy debate at this level (both national and international) has been, for anyone interested in writing about cultural policy, a remarkable gift. It provides both insight into the processes of government thinking and negotiating, and an inexhaustible resource of information and opinion on the issues. It has also allowed me to clarify my own views, and midway through my Canada Council term a senior bureaucrat in the Canadian government challenged me to articulate arguments for public support for cultural activity.

The challenge evolved into a book, The Defiant Imagination (2004, Douglas & McIntyre), which I described at the time as a manifesto for wholesale change in the way we as a society regard and value cultural activity. “After more than 30 years of writing and broadcasting about the arts in Canada it is more than ever clear to me,” I wrote, “that we need a new cultural contract between government and society, a contract that locates culture squarely in its crucial role as a catalyst for economic prosperity, social health and national identity, a contract that that will help develop a nation of vision, innovation and generosity.”

Bold ambitions. What I attempted to provide was both a platform for broad public debate of these issues and a handbook of argument and example to use to make the case for cultural activity with the power-wielders outside the cultural cathedral, politicians, bureaucrats, businesspeople, educators. It was my first formal venture into independent scholarship.

What has became clear to me, as I have delved ever more deeply into cultural policy, is that, for all the optimism and adventurousness, the cultural community must do some intensive consciousness-raising if it seriously hopes to establish itself at the heart of the social agenda. Those who believe in the values of creativity, imagination and cultural expression need no convincing; but they are inside the charmed circle. Multitudes remain to be persuaded. This does not diminish the importance of the issues. And while I am under no illusions that the challenge will be met in my lifetime, advocacy for both these causes has now moved to the forefront of my writing and my public action.

Is all this a form of attempted social engineering? I suppose it is. I suppose that social engineering is what I have always tried to do, in the sense of wanting to challenge the status quo, in the sense of taking action, rather than standing on the sidelines.

Should that be the role of the independent scholar? I don’t see why not. In fact, it may well be that it is a role that is thrust upon the independent scholar by the very nature of his or her independence. In any case, is that not just a contemporary term for what Emerson was advocating when he defined the scholar’s role as “the world’s heart”?

Not that being the world’s heart is always easy. Defining the scholar’s duties, Emerson said: “The office of the scholar is to cheer, to raise, and to guide men by showing them facts amidst appearances.” Well, hmm. Not everyone is cheered by the facts. Rather than face up to them, many of us prefer to remain in the world of appearances, which may be one significant reason why we have done such a lamentable job as a race in coming to terms with the enormous challenges we have created for ourselves.

This should hardly deter the serious scholar, independent or affiliated, from bringing critical attention to bear on the moral, social, economic and political questions of our times. Certainly, it can be, as we have established, a lonely and misunderstood task – “He plies the slow, unhonored, and unpaid task of observation … Worse yet, he must accept, — how often! poverty and solitude” (Emerson again, in his own spelling and punctuation).  But that is no excuse for not doing it.

Of course, the sword of poverty and solitude cuts both ways. Tenure in the academy provides insulation against poverty. At the same time, speaking to small groups of fellow specialists in a language that those outside the coterie sometimes find difficult to comprehend can virtually guarantee solitude—or, at least, ensure that the masses don’t come listening. Outside the academy, poverty is pretty much anticipated (though “not always a matter of choice”) for all those who don’t find a seat on the public intellectual “star” merry-go-round. At the same time, solitude outside the academy is a lot less likely, since the work of the non-academic scholar has to be—at least in theory—more broadly accessible.

I over-simplify. The perceived dichotomy between “public” intellectuals and “academic” ones that Wikepedia refers to is more than simply a matter of audience reach, though that is certainly a factor, and an important one. But one of the dangers of generating a large audience, one that goes beyond the boundaries of academic specialisation, is that, in making one’s ideas more broadly accessible, one runs the danger of being forced to coarsen or dilute them. Conceivably, that prospect may also deter large numbers of thinkers within the academy from venturing beyond the confines of their circles of understanding into the broader, busier, less rigorous world.

Which brings us back to one of our earliest points. One of the disadvantages of independent scholarship lies precisely in that suspicion on the part of the institutionalized academic that those outside the ivory tower are not doing the work in the proper and approved way. To counter this, Wikipedia suggests, the independent scholar must often become a “memetic engineer, or propagandist in order to advance his or her contribution.”

True enough, as my own experience probably demonstrates. But surely that impulse to try to bolster one’s cause by working to influence and change human beliefs and thought patterns is by no means the exclusive province of the independent. Many academics find themselves in a similar position. We have more in common, those of us outside the academy, and those within its walls, than is sometimes allowed.

We work in different ways, perhaps, and live in different milieux, and some of us have tenure and some of us won’t even have a pension, but in the end we have much to say to one another. In the words of Alfred Kazin, speaking from Emerson’s podium at Harvard 150 years after Emerson: “In the end, despite all our troubles, it is thinking that makes the ‘scholar,’ it is thinking that makes us happy, it is thinking that unites us with the universe. In an increasingly tyrannical world it is thinking that tells us who we are.”[3]

[1] Emerson, Ralph Waldo. On the American Scholar. Cambridge, 1837.

[2] Di Leo, Jeffrey R.  Public Intellectuals, Inc. Inside Higher Ed, Feb. 2008.

[3] Kazin, Alfred. Where Would Emerson Find His Scholar Now? American Heritage, Dec. 1987.


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