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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