Review:
Gross, Ronald. The Independent Scholar's Handbook.
Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1982. xvi, 261 pp.

by Ralph Dumain

PREFATORY NOTE

This is a review of the first edition of the book, not of the more recent 1993 edition. The 1993 edition is also out of print, though reviews can be found on amazon.com.

PART ONE: SUMMARY

At first glance I thought I would find only isolated sections of this book of substantive interest to me, particularly the case studies. However, Gross is interested not only in explaining some of the how-to's of research, but he is a man with a mission, and the mission inspires. From the beginning he emphasizes the joys of the intellectual life, what it has done for the people who choose to devote their free time to such enterprises, and the contributions they make to society as well as to their own personal growth thereby. Interspersing his narrative with examples and case studies, he proceeds to cover choosing topics of interest, developing projects and ideas, and employing a project management approach to independent scholarship. Strangely, the part of the book that first absorbed my attention was on designing one's own workspace. Getting the flavor of what it is like to organize one's physical work environment put me in the mood most receptive to the excitement and enthusiasm for intellectual work Gross seeks to arouse in his readership.

Library and information resources is an area I am already familiar with, but the chapter on working with others gave me some new ideas. In this chapter as well as elsewhere Gross really makes a case, which amazed even me, that independent scholars (basing himself partly on the studies of Robert Stebbins on amateurs) could make significant contributions in almost every field (see p. 68)! Talk about a man with a mission.

William Draves' work on the free university and the importance of lifelong learning and expanding educational opportunities are discussed.

There is a chapter on intellectual craftsmanship, which lists pitfalls in research, outlines four models of research, discusses time and project management, and gives some practical suggestions for honing one's technical competence, including consulting with retired professors. Then comes a chapter on getting support for one's work, with suggestions on how to institutionalize oneself, and an analysis of the possibilities for garnering financial support.

The chapter on sharing one's work covers teaching and tutoring, publishing, formats and media of presentation, programs, exhibits, study circles, and intellectual activism.

Following that are two complementary chapters. The first covers using one's occupational experience as a takeoff point for intellectual reflection and research. The possibility of taking sabbaticals is covered here. The second is about scholarship as an avocation, eg. using humanities degrees in other kinds of real-world jobs.

The final chapter is about how to overcome isolation and associate with others, via SIGs, roundtables, and regional and national organizations consisting of or in support of independent scholars. Organizations covered in detail include Basic Choices, University Seminars at Columbia University, the Institute for the Humanities at NYU, the Institute for Research in History in New York, and finally there is a case study of Reinhold Aman's journal of verbal aggression Maledicta.

There is a postscript providing both inspiring and sobering food for thought. One informant reflects on the basic psychosocial problem of American a-intellectuality. Someone named George sadly resigns himself to never being able to find time to complete the work only he can do. The Lindisfarne institution is described, and Naresh Chakraborty's pioneering educational efforts amidst the horrors of Bangladesh testifies to the human will for self-improvement.

Finally comes a list of maxims on the life of the mind, an independent scholars basic bookshelf, and appendices covering specialized bookstores, foundation funding, tax deductions, university presses, and copyright. Some books listed in the bibliography are how-to books, but most cover the social, historical, and philosophical aspects of intellectual life.

Overall, the book succeeds on several levels. Not all will need to avail themselves of the various nut-and-bolts suggestions, but there are so many kinds of suggestions involved and specific ones for each area that most people will find something they have not thought of before. The excitement, the passion, the moral righteousness even, of the possibility for taking the life of the mind into one's own hands and making a contribution thereby to the development of self and society, are stunningly portrayed. Even I, who can recite my own litany of independent research projects I know of going on outside of academia, was amazed by some of the case studies (more on this later). The various examples and case studies themselves are interesting from an intellectual and social point of view.

PART TWO: THE INTELLECTUAL CONTENT OF THE BOOK

A. CASE STUDIES AND THEIR LESSONS

The examples and case studies listed cover the famous and the not-so-well-known. I already have my own strong ideas about the contributions independent scholars can and are making in the humanities and social sciences in areas being neglected or mishandled by academics, but as I mentioned before, Gross's argument that independent scholars could make significant contributions in almost every field exceeds what even I thought possible. I especially underestimated what independents could accomplish in the area of the natural sciences, which I had assumed was severely limited. Not only was I surprised to read of Stebbins' roster of the amateur wings of various scientific fields that were making useful contributions, but my eyes were opened by John Snyder's success in mapping the earth from space satellites.

A myriad of other examples interested me, some of which I knew and others unfamiliar to me, among the former: I.F. Stone, Betty Freidan, Reinhold Aman; among the latter: Emily Taitz and Sondra Henry on Jewish women's history, Myles Horton's Highlander institution for promoting mine workers unions, Hazel Henderson's innovations in alternative futures and institutionalizing media attention to air pollution. Leo Miller's scholarship on Milton.

B. RECOGNIZED PITFALLS OF INDEPENDENT THINKERS

There are only a few examples given of the theoretical issues involved in independent thinking outside of formal channels. One example is the independent philosopher who reinvented Kant (p. 87). Another is the poor soul who submitted a mathematical manuscript to a publisher and it turned out he had reinvented the calculus (p. 188). These are the kinds of problems that interest me, but the theoretical issues of the cognitive development and intellectual perspective of independent learners and thinkers are missing from the book. This leads into a critique of my problems with some of the case studies.

C. PHILOSOPHICAL PROBLEMS OF THE BOOK

This is not so much a criticism of the book Gross wrote as a critical elaboration of the book he didn't write. By that I mean that Gross's mission was to incite excitement about the possibilities offered by independent intellectual work rather than to take sides on specific issues or judge the merits and demerits of specific people. The end product, however, of his indiscriminate boosterism, was my having to react to enthusiastic recountings of people I despise. Much as I love the American independent democratic spirit that shines through this whole mission of independent scholarship, there are larger philosophical and sociological issues about the relation of the intellectual to society that do not enter into Gross's picture. Being independent of academic or similar recognizable institutions does not in itself make one fundamentally independent of broad ideological and social trends. Gross's seemingly total innocence is mitigated only by an annotation to one of a few questionable entries in the bibliography, where he feels compelled to criticize Jacques Barzun's elitism. Otherwise, given the panoply of philosophical approaches to philosophy of science, I think Gross is quite out of his depth in recommending Feyerabend's anarchistic, nihilistic rubbish.

Let's get down to more substantive examples. Though he consulted professional physicists, Gary Zukav's book on modern Physics, The Dancing Wu Li Masters, is the worst kind of obscurantist mystical rubbish, and a rather pedestrian example of its genre which flooded the marketplace in the 1970's and early 1980's as an outgrowth of the most anti-intellectual tendencies of the counterculture. How real physicists could tolerate Zukav's nonsense is a mystery, but then prominent physicists have themselves engaged in such philosophical hucksterism since the 1920s, flying beyond their own specific scientific competence into the stratosphere of jejune mysticism in popularizing their work.

Having had to endure some of Buckminster Fuller's pretentious, meandering, gibbering, incoherent and ultimately pointless speeches for tedious, agonizing hours at a time, I am not at all pleased at seeing him held up as a paragon. Whatever his past, Fuller in his last years seemed pretty at home among the elite when I saw him, and his apolitical "design" approach to looking at the world is ultimately politically irresponsible and socially unconscious.

Futurism has always been a politically questionable field, but it became unbearably irritating when Alvin Toffler became famous. "Change" was the definition of the problem by politically vapid intellectuals as they sought to manage the social upheavals of the 1960's, but once again as with Fuller, Toffler's shallow analysis of society found its natural home among a certain target audience of the professional class, to gain an acclaim it did not deserve. But most disgustingly of all, The Third Wave flatters the puffed-up ambitions and excessive self-regard of the professional-managerial class that fancies itself as the inheritor of social power when in fact it is little more than a tame puppy dog licking the heels of multinational corporations as they ravage the world with unemployment, austerity, starvation, war, and much building of prisons for the surplus population.

And finally there is the sad case of Eric Hoffer. Hoffer presents the most interesting theoretical challenge of all, because he was both so intensely working class and simultaneously so socially unconscious and politically reactionary. His outmoded perspective on the black issue and his embrace of warmongering Lyndon Johnson as a fellow "longshoreman" are sad reminders of just how severely the individual experience of Americans is disconnected from any penetrating awareness of social structures. That Hoffer could be the kind of intellectual he was cries out for some intense in-depth theoretical analysis of the relation between self and society.

These are the issues that vitally interest me. I don't expect Gross to treat them in the handbook, but I feel duty-bound to point out that some of his examples are not so edifying.

(Written 9 November 1994, edited for web 16 February 2000)

1994, 2000 Ralph Dumain


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