Individuals have questions which they, as students, bring to the university to develop skills necessary to find answers. They tap into scholarly conversations with that readiness to research their questions, but study cannot be approached with too narrow a sense of relevance. Study in humanities, for example, is a deliberate encounter with great literature and requires some ‘rising to the occasion’, challenging ourselves to respond in a spontaneous and charitable way to products of original thought, insight, inspiration, and expression. Reading as a study activity requires charity and patience. It requires a suspension of one’s own questions in order to grasp those of another voice. Encountering greatness can enlarge anyone’s thinking, emotions, and sense-of-self in a general way, even in people who simply want a ticket to a professional career with a degree of dignity and gravitas.

Thinking about any issue is assisted by awareness of complications and objections already on record. Being aware of a variety of points of view comes with an awareness of history. Education should leave a person with the knowledge of why it is valuable to know the record of observations and discoveries. Academic disinterestedness includes a willingness to accept that others have recorded important insights and interpretations of observations and that learning them will improve anyone’s thinking. There is no accomplishment in re-inventing the same wheel continually.

Academic disinterestedness is also a subordination of personal likes and dislikes, wishes and fears, to the principles of rational evidence and recognition that one’s personal view might have gaps and misconceptions. Knowing this adds the purpose of identifying biases, agendas, needs, wishes, and fears, as much as possible, and making efforts to reduce their distorting effects. That is part of academic disinterestedness and involves relying on measurement, verification, and logic as much as possible. It is a subordination of ego to logic. Craftspeople of all kinds learn a similar disinterestedness in the love of materials, tools, technique, skill, and of learning itself. The work involves displacement of ego in favour of an openness to nature and materials and a patient searching and trying over until skill and sensitivity are achieved, an acceptance of the solitude of the process. There is a determination to keep going in spite of making mistakes, to accept fallibility while trying to do better.

For any claim to knowledge, it is necessary to consider objections and inconvenient observations, either in debate as Socrates did, or over time by reading and thinking. Writing then re-reading your own thinking is a technique that enables comparisons.

The best thing accomplished in education is contemplative disinterestedness: a discipline of submitting to evidence and logic in the joy of learning and understanding the truth, rather than to wishes and fears or a ‘party line’. Kant’s idea of duty is doing what is right for the joy of something greater and more honourable than personal or party benefits. Socrates thought ethical action results from knowledge of The Good (the greater good, the good overall) which removes the knower from narrowly self-interested motives. For Kant, calculating duty, a general will rather than a private will, had the same result.

Copyright © 2011 Sandy MacDonald. The moral right of the author is asserted.