Mar 3, 2009

Book Review: The Independent Scholar's Handbook

For many individuals, properly defining a central purpose in life is a difficult process of abstraction. Even with that accomplished, there is another hurdle: designing a path that makes that abstract purpose concrete. For those individuals who want to be scholars, either in the humanities or in one of the sciences, but do not want to be professors in a university, Ronald Gross has written The Independent Scholar's Handbook.[1]

"Serious intellectual work can be pursued outside of academe," says the author stating his theme.[2] This book is not a mere call to spend a lifetime in study, no matter how passionate. Gross writes not to dilettantes but to individuals who are eager to learn better methods of research, create new knowledge, and expect to produce something with their studies--a book, a series of lectures, or some other ultimately marketable product.[3]

The front cover, but not the title page, contains this subtitle: "How to turn your interest in any subject into expertise." Each of the ten chapters of the book covers one phase of independent scholarship. In Part One ("Starting Out"), one chapter covers "From 'Messy Beginnings' to Your First Fruits of Research." In Part Two ("The Practice of Independent Scholarship."), chapters cover selection of resources (such as finding specialized libraries and gaining access to data bases), the benefits of working with other scholars, maintaining a high level of scholarly craftsmanship, and seeking financial support. Last, in Part Three ("Independent Scholars in Action"), Gross displays the range of activities in which scholars can make use of their expertise: tutoring, nonacademic teaching, writing in various forms, and "intellectual activism."

"Independent scholars are pioneering in a new area I call 'intellectual activism'," says Gross. "By that," he notes, he means scholars "undertaking activities that are not in themselves scholarship or science. These activities do not [themselves] create new knowledge, but they make existing knowledge more accessible, understandable, useful, or enjoyable to others; . . . they do something which benefits . . . the general culture." Though his abstract description is somewhat unclear, his examples of "intellectual activism" show that he usually means activism for intellectualism, that is, activism encouraging others to live "the life of the mind."[4]

Nevertheless, readers familiar with philosopher Ayn Rand's idea of intellectual activism--intellectuals taking action to spread philosophical principles by applying them to current problems in society--will find plenty of instruction and inspiration in this handbook.[5] At the end of every chapter, Gross offers a case study of an independent scholar in action, often rising from obscure beginnings to public success in one form or another. An example is Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique, a book that launched a women's movement that brought early progress (by debunking Freudian views of women) and later regress (by advocating governmental controls on employment).[6] Gross very briefly describes numerous other examples throughout the chapters--for instance, Rachel Carson, a scientifically trained author whose book for general readers, Silent Spring was most responsible for starting the modern environmentalist mass movement.[7] Through his many examples of independent scholars, Gross unintentionally gives the serious student of modern history--particularly the intellectual activist trying to gain insights that will make his work more effective--historical examples of the many independent intellectuals who, in decades past, shaped our society today--its movements, its values, and its politics.

Thus there are three potential audiences for The Independent Scholar's Handbook: would-be independent scholars, acting professionally; intellectual activists, acting as advocates of a movement; and individuals integrating the two points, that is, those individuals who have chosen to be in-line activists, which means advocates of intellectual change within their own chosen profession.

Cautions: The author provides a flood of examples and particulars. Objective readers will need their skills in reading at varying levels of intensity because some sections will be much more valuable to some readers than to others. Readers will also need to be wary of the author's "philosophy," which is a mishmash of an implicit benevolent universe principle, genuine intellectual excitement, and vague, conventionally leftist solutions to social problems.[8] Also be aware that this first edition was written before the internet became widely available as a resource. This fact does not detract from the book's main value, which is not the specific resources Gross lists but the timeless methods and virtues required for success.

For the appropriate readers, The Independent Scholar's Handbook can be an informative and inspiring guide.

Burgess Laughlin
Author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith

[1] Ronald Gross, The Independent Scholar's Handbook, Reading (Massachusetts), Addison-Wesley Publishing, 1982. This is the first edition; the second, 1993, edition reportedly contains only minor improvements. Both are out of print. Inexpensive used copies are available from Amazon Books. [2] For the "outside of academe" quotation: p. xvi. [3] Ch. 1, "Risk-takers of the Spirit." [4] For the three quotations: p. 148. [5] For Ayn Rand's discussion of intellectual activism: Ayn Rand, "What Can One Do?" in Philosophy: Who Needs It, Ch. 17. See also discussions of intellectual activism on the website of The Ayn Rand Institute and The Ayn Rand Center for Individual Rights, under the Participate/Activism tabs or search for "intellectual activism." [6] The case study of Betty Friedan appears on pp. 94-99. If my memory of 30 or 40 years ago serves me well, Ayn Rand wrote a book review of The Feminine Mystique, praising some of its insights, but I cannot identify the exact issue and periodical. [7] For mention of Rachel Carson: p. 94. [8] For the skill of choosing an appropriate level of reading depth: Edwin Locke, Study Methods and Motivation: A Practical Guide to Effective Study, at The Ayn Rand Bookstore. I wrote the review featured there.