How to measure a good scholar

By Gerald Morgan

We have learned to our cost in recent years that no institution is better than the persons empowered to lead it, however worthy many of the lesser lights in an institution may be. The well-being of Ireland depends on the good judgment of the Taoiseach and the Minister for Finance, and the well-being of Trinity College depends upon the good judgment of the Provost.
A great responsibility is laid, therefore, on the voters in the forthcoming election, among whose number I am excluded by virtue of advanced years (I am sixty-eight) and retirement. The College needs to think more carefully in the future about its policy of exclusion, especially when it hosts morally elevating conferences on the subject of ageism. Mahaffy was seventy-five when elected as Provost in 1914. If that is deemed too old, the age of fifty-five is surely too young. Few scholars can establish their greatness at so young an age.
I take it that we are agreed that a scholar with a love of learning (and preferably with a love of Trinity itself) is what is required. We cannot hope that a manager or a philistine will restore Trinity to a place among the world’s leading universities. There will perhaps be six (or even more) candidates with a great number of publications to their names.
We ought not to be unduly impressed by that mere fact. There are in this world many  Professors Drudge or Doctors Dryasdust with long lists of publications (perhaps a hundred or more). Greatness in scholarship is conferred by something more than competence and drudgery. The great Oxford philologist, Eric Dobson, taught me in the 1960s that in textual criticism we must weigh manuscripts, not count them. Let us say that six manuscripts exist for the reading of a given text. Two of these manuscripts may lay claim to a greater authority than four if the two are independently derived and the four are derived from a common source beneath the archetype. J.R.R. Tolkien unfortunately did not write the masterpiece on Beowulf for which his scholarly admirers had hoped, but a single article, “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics”, published in 1936, a seminal work which transformed the study of the Old-English epic poem. At the same time his great colleague, C.S. Lewis, although teaching thirty hours a week at Magdalen College, published his Allegory of Love. That work is still read by students with enthusiasm and profit, although one might wish (as I do) that his opening chapter on “courtly love” had been less persuasively written.
In the long lists of publications we must seek out those which are indeed transformative (there may be none). And we must seek out those which address great issues and subjects rather than minor issues. I wish the electors well in this endeavour.

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