The role of the scholar

I have been thinking about what it is that makes a scholar a scholar, instead of a teacher, a researcher, or a professional working in higher education. What is it that is intrinsically tied to someone who can be called a scholar? What differentiates the scholar – in terms of his/her responsibilities, activities, and practices – from other related professions?

I think there are three things that makes a scholar a scholar.

First, is the scholar’s inherent interest and commitment to the pursuit of knowledge. This includes questioning existing beliefs and norms, offering alternative perspectives through which to view things in new light, and the construction of new knowledge. This can be done in many ways, but I belief that fundamentally it is about bringing together seemingly-unconnected stuff. (See also Myers, 2014 on making ‘unexpected comparisons’).

Second, is the scholar’s desire and motivation to seek betterment to society and humanity. The scholar’s gaze transcends socially and politically constructed boundaries (e.g. nation-state, us/them, here/there, past/present/future, etc.), and is firmly grounded in his/her ‘people’. The ‘people’ with whom the scholar strives for may be living in the present, but they could equally be the human race across time immemorial. Issues that concern humanity and the existence of humans on earth, broadly defined, are the work of the thinking scholar.

Third, is the scholar’s ability to communicate and engage with others effectively. This is incredibly important, because a great idea remains an idea in the head, unless he/she is able to explain it to a wider audience. More importantly, the engaged scholar should have the ability to explain why his/her idea matters. But most crucially, he/she must be able to illuminate or inspire in others how ideas can be translated to actionable stuff. (For an example, see Schafran, 2014 for powerful provocations about what urbanists can do for truly progressive urbanism)

Must a scholar be necessarily an academic, traditionally defined? I don’t think so. Universities and institutions of higher learning provide a good, supportive base for scholars to do their work. But scholars can also work from other places and institutions.

As written here:

… intellectual curiosity is not institutionally bound. … teaching does not only take place in the classroom, research continues beyond the stacks, collaboration infuses life into learning, and ideas are better disseminated by any means other than the limited-access, subscriber-only academic journal.

As long as there is an open mind to think and learn, a concern and a desire to make things better for humanity, and an engaged scholarship, the scholar is a scholar regardless of whether he/she is an academic.


Myers, G. (2014), From expected to unexpected comparisons: Changing the flows of ideas about cities in a postcolonial urban world. Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography, 35: 104–118. doi: 10.1111/sjtg.12046

Schafran, A. (2014), Debating urban studies in 23 steps. City, 18(3): 321–330. doi: 10.1080/13604813.2014.906717


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