Why basic research matters III: Paul Axelrod

Why does university research matter? The most common, and most persuasive explanation is that scholarly inquiry may lead to such outcomes as a cure for cancer, a bump in the Gross National Product, or an end to bullying in schools. All of these are worthy goals, and academics in Canada contribute day in and day out to these and hundreds of other important projects.

But I believe research matters for a very different reason: the university is the only institution in society that encourages professors and students to explore knowledge freely and to follow their discoveries wherever they lead.

Corporations, governments, and non-profit organizations value research, but they are selective about the projects they support. They choose projects designed to enhance profitability, support particular policies, or facilitate advocacy. Again, all of these goals enhance the quality of Canadian life. But they also impose thematic and intellectual constraints on the researcher.

Academic boundaries are less confining. To be sure, there are rules to be followed. Data must be assembled responsibly, privacy protocols must be respected, researchers must be accountable for the funds they spend. But if they meet these requirements, the sky, intellectually, is the limit. Topics can be arcane, puzzling, or to many observers, stunningly irrelevant. But through – and only through – such inquiry, the most imaginative, creative work  in arts and sciences can emerge.

Imagine a researcher who seeks to understand student life in Canadian universities during the 1930s.  He or she would want to ask questions such as: Who went to university, (i.e. students’ age, gender, religion, social class etc.)? Why did they attend? What did they study? How were they taught? What extra-curricular activities preoccupied them? How did they dress? Did they have sex? Were they politically active? Were they affected by the Depression’s hard economic times? What did they do after they graduated?

To answer these questions, the researcher would have to explore pertinent documents in university archives, including student newspapers, discipline reports, course calendars, photographs, and alumni records. To broaden the context, one should examine what politicians, newspapers, and the public were saying about universities. One would also want to know what was happening in higher education elsewhere in the world. Were Canada’s institutions unique or did they follow international trends?

An intensive study on such a small topic might well illuminate some larger historical themes on youth culture, life in the Depression, the economic role of higher education, and gender relations.

Full disclosure: I conducted this study and published it under the title, Making a Middle Class: Student Life in English Canada during the Thirties. It was among the most fulfilling research projects I have carried out in my 35-year university career. The scoping out of the subject, the systematic exploration of the records, the marshalling of evidence, the discovery of historical patterns, the exhausting process of writing, editing, writing again, and the pleasure of seeing the final product were immensely rewarding.

Did this work matter to anyone but me? I think so. It contributed to the literature on the evolution and characteristics of higher education in Canada, but it also informed and enhanced my teaching. Students were intrigued not only by the academic and social lives of their predecessors but also by the process of conducting original research. They were anxious to master the skills required by taking on their own projects.

I am a stickler for lucid prose, so they endured my continuous critiques of their writing (which invariably improved). The discipline they developed in conceiving, conducting, and completing essays on topics (perhaps equally esoteric to outside observers) mattered immensely and, ultimately, served them well in their post-university endeavours. Among other things, they learned how to define, investigate, and solve an intellectual problem, and how to convey their new knowledge to others.

All research, including the most unlikely and obscure, offers similarly creative possibilities. Commentators in politics and the media who disparage “curiosity-based research” for its alleged lack of relevance and applicability miss the point.

Faculty and students who do this work well have great imaginations. They ask unusual questions, search inventively for answers, rigorously defend themselves among skeptical peers, and push back the frontiers of knowledge. Isn’t that why we have universities?

 

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Blog Posts

Humanitarian or missionary?

Noreen Fagan | October 27, 2014

Andrea Paras is a professor at the University of Guelph who studies the relationship between religion and humanitarian work. She explores how the religious values of different humanitarian organizations affect their practices, and how Christians in Canadian faith-based organizations distinguish themselves between missionary and development work. “I am trying to question the idea that there is a strict separation between the religious and the secular,” says Paras. “It is something that is taken for granted by Western societies – the assumption that religion should be delegated to the private sphere.” Paras argues that going into a foreign country to deliver relief or assistance has strong historical roots in religious activity, and that religious actors have been involved with development work since it started. However, over the last 50 years the dynamics of humanitarian aid have changed, and so have the requirements for organizations interested in development work. For Canadian faith-based organizations to receive funding from the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development (formerly known as the Canadian International Development Agency or CIDA) they are required in to separate their development work from their religious mandate. This mandatory adherence to a secular format prompts Paras to question whether religious organizations can separate the two, and if they are really different from any other humanitarian organization. “I don’t think they are that separate,” says Paras. “Organizations buy into the secular fiction, but once they go down that road it can put them in tricky position. If they go too far away from their religious identities then their church-based constituencies start getting worried.” She says ultimately secular and the non-secular agencies may assume different appearances, but in humanitarian work they share a common set of values. “If you look at the values of dignity and humanity that Medecins Sans Frontiere talks about, they are not all that different from the values that would motivate a Christian or a Muslim organization, ” says Paras. She states these values are rooted in western values, which are in turn based on religious beliefs. But, as the Western world’s approach to development changed, the religious tenets gave way to a more humanistic set of values. “As Western society in general became more secular, the [development] organizations that emerged wanted to do the same kind of work, but not for religious reasons,” says Paras. In Canada, this shift from the religious to the secular became more apparent as the amount of humanitarian aid increased. Audiences started to understand the problems associated with development work. Hence, over the last 20 years agencies have steered away from the traditional paternalistic approach to development. The same fear of paternalism extends to faith-based organizations. “They [Canadian audiences] are putting pressure of church-based agencies to stay relevant and to minimize the negative effect of what they are doing,” says Paras. In order to minimize any negativity, religious organizations have become more self-reflexive about their own identities, and more concerned about staying relevant. By staying relevant, Paras means faith-based organizations have to prove they are equitable, non-discriminatory, and that they engage multiple-faith audiences in their work. While non-secular organizations may only be driven by humanistic values, faith-based agencies still have to find a balance between satisfying their church-based constituents and their role in development. They have to position themselves very carefully between secular donors and church-based audiences that might expect certain things of them. Finding the right balance can be tricky. “If they stay too close to their traditional mandates – and this is the case for a number of organizations in Canada that started off as traditional missionary sending agencies – they risk becoming extinct,” says Paras.    

Georges Sioui on spiritual ...

Araina Bond | October 24, 2014

Georges E. Sioui studies Aboriginal education, culture and religion at the University of Ottawa. Sioui, who is Huron-Wendat, has recently noticed a resurgence of matricentrist values among young people. read more »
Manipulus florum

From manuscript to search ...

Guest blog by Chris Nighman | October 23, 2014

Long before the advent of the Internet, and well before Gutenberg invented moveable type, medieval intellectuals devised information technologies to take advantage of a growing mass of Big Data repositories known as “manuscripts.” read more »

If you’re happy ...

Cathy Majtenyi | October 22, 2014

Brock University recently launched a series of monthly podcasts covering a wide range of themes. As part of our own package of “Belief” related blog posts, Research Matters is pleased to present this exclusive interview with Brock Associate Professor of Psychology, Michael Busseri. Busseri will join two other colleagues to explore this topic in Brock’s January 2015 podcast, “What gives us a sense of wellbeing?” read more »

Lucid dreaming depends on ...

Trent University Staff | October 21, 2014

New research by Trent University Oshawa Anthropology professor Roger Lohmann and graduate student Shayne Dahl indicates that cultural learning shapes the kind of awareness and control people can experience while dreaming. “Scouring the ethnographic record on dreaming for hints of lucidity under Professor Lohmann’s guidance, I found something surprising: that lucid dreaming is widely thought to have serious consequences,” said Dahl, who completed his M.A. thesis, “Knowing Means Connecting with the Source of Life: Knowledge and Ethics among Blackfoot Traditionalists” at Trent in 2012. (He is now a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Toronto.) “As one of my Blackfoot informants put it, ‘You could die in your dream.’” Lohmann and Dahl’s findings were published in the 2014 collection, Lucid Dreaming: New Perspectives on Consciousness in Sleep. Lucid dreaming – waking consciousness arising during a dream – has been a hot topic of scientific research in recent years. According to Lohmann and Dahl, the common assumption that dreams are products of isolated imaginations has distorted our understanding of lucidity’s variation in form, function, and real-world outcomes. Pop culture portrayals in films such as Avatar and Inception present fantasies where lucid dreaming enables marvelous real-world powers. Many traditional and religious cultural worldviews take the relationship between waking and dream worlds as reality rather than fantasy. Lohmann’s fieldwork in Papua New Guinea among the Asabano people explored how they used dreaming as evidence for and contact with supernatural beings. “Asabano converts often told me that seeing dreams of Jesus or Heaven convinced them that what the missionary told them was true,” said Lohmann. “It struck me that they had to believe their dreams were more than figments of their own imaginations to reach that conclusion, and that I, for example, would not be convinced by the same experience because of my different cultural background.” Similarly, Dahl’s fieldwork in Alberta included encounters with Aboriginal medicine men who practiced lucid dreaming. “Shayne’s field experiences and his search of ethnographic literature brought home to us that lucid dreaming has profound potential for people who think it’s more than just a fantasy. We found that descriptions of lucid dreams are radically different in form, function, and outcome depending on the cultural assumptions of the dreamer,” said Lohmann. Their research revealed evidence that in some cultures, lucid dreaming is unknown, while in others it is a commonly taught skill. In some, lucidity is tacit rather than acknowledged, but people nevertheless believe that they actively undertake goals in their dreams. Lohmann and Dahl found that this implicitly lucid “volitional dreaming” commonly appears in ethnographic accounts of dreaming. In cultures where “generative” theory holds sway, dreaming of something is understood to cause it to happen in the waking world. This leads people to experience lucid dreams as opportunities to create or do magic. By contrast, people who believe dreams are what one sees during “soul travel” use lucid dreams as an opportunity to spiritually visit real places. “Even when we consciously disbelieve our dreams,” Dahl said, “They still affect us at a deeper, emotional level that we can’t easily control with reason.” “All of this shows that cultural dream theories are multiple, that people invoke them in complex ways, and that they are at the very core of what lucid dreaming is and what it makes possible,” said Lohmann. This story was originally published by Trent University on, July 15, 2014. Is has been edited for style, brevity and clarity and appears here with permission.
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