Findings - Autumn 2007

Findings: Richard E. Nicholls on Amateurism

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By Richard E. Nicholls

September 1, 2007


 

While there have always been amateurs—those who have taken time from their usual labors and obligations to pursue a disciplined study of some subject outside their usual sphere—their emergence as a distinct and somewhat curious class is recent. Indeed, William Haley, in his urgent plea for the preservation of their still-crucial role in the arts and sciences, observes that “the word amateur in the sense of ‘one who cultivates anything for a pastime, as distinguished from one who prosecutes it professionally,’” only emerged in England in 1803. The rise to dominance of a complex economy and of bureaucratic states created new and rigid ideas about professions and professionalism, casting doubt on the need for the enthusiastic dabbler. But Haley, himself a professional of some standing (having served as the editor of the London Times and as director-general of the BBC), thinks that declining respect for the devoted amateur is not only wrong-headed but dangerous. He argues that “the issue of amateurism and professionalism—which in effect has become the battle to preserve amateurism—is of the greatest possible importance.” This is in part because amateurs dedicated to a particular pursuit often do so for the love of discovery, unbound by demands of profit and professional standing; out of their inspired pursuits many essential discoveries and ideas have emerged. While the enemies of the engaged amateur—including specialists anxious to defend their rights and jobs, scholars determined to defend their vocational terrain, and civil servants suspicious of those lacking credentials—may scoff, the devoted amateur often adds to a society’s store of essential knowledge.

Drawing on a variety of 19th- and 20th-century examples, Haley demonstrates the absolute necessity for the existence of amateurs. They can bring a fresh eye to a subject, unencumbered by the dominant theories of the moment, moving easily between disciplines, providing a “cross-fertilization” of ideas crucial to intellectual progress. They are “the leaven that the dull dough of society will always need.” At a time when prancing ideological hustlers and stolid, vacuous experts seem to have seized the airwaves and print media, his terse, spirited defense of amateurs has a special resonance.

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To read William Haley’s 1976 essay, “Amateurism,” click here.
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Richard E. Nicholls is a contributing editor of The American Scholar.


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