A new kind of scholar -- neither a professor, nor affiliated with a university -- is being honored for unique contributions to America's intellectual life. Philosophers, historians, and literary researchers who work outside academe, with no incentive but the joy of learning, now receive recognition through awards sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation. ``For the last few years, there have been many more talented scholars produced than college teaching jobs available,'' explains Steven Lavine of the Foundation. ``We realized that these people could produce important contributions to knowledge, and that when they did, they should be recognized.''
The new breed of savant is exemplified by Gloria Erlich of Princeton, N.J. Her ``Family Themes and Hawthorne's Fiction: The Tenacious Web,'' published by Rutgers University Press, recently won the Rockefeller-funded award of the Modern Language Association, the leading scholarly society in the humanities. But Erlich has worked mostly outside academe.
``My base of operations has been the Princeton [N.J.] Research Forum, which is one of some two dozen `new academies' launched around the country over the past five years. We're `independent scholars,' providing for ourselves the intellectual and social support system which professors find -- or, often, fail to find -- on the campus.''
Significantly, Erlich and others like her are now winning status within academe. She was recently a Visiting Scholar in the Women's Studies program of Douglass College, part of Rutgers University, and she's active in numerous learned societies where she works alongside tenured faculty.
``Moving in and out of academic institutions gives us the best of both worlds,'' she says. ``We PRF members have the freedom to write as we like, without having to please tenure committees. We can let our ideas ripen without pressure. And by having colleagues both inside and outside of academe, we maintain connections to developments in our own and adjacent fields.''
Other comparable groups include the Institute of Historical Study in San Francisco; the Center for Independent Study in New Haven, Conn.; the Institute for Research in History in New York City; the Minnesota Humanities Forum in Minneapolis-St. Paul; Alliance of Independent Scholars in Cambridge, Mass.; and the Academy of Independent Scholars, a national membership organization headquartered in Boulder, Colo. Some groups focus on one discipline, such as Independent Scholars of Antiquity. Others, like the Princeton group, are interdisciplinary.
``A great strength of our group is that it draws almost equally from the scientists and the humanists in this region,'' says Judith Ruderman, president of the Independent Scholars Association of the North Carolina Triangle (Durham, Chapel Hill, Raleigh). ``We've got a major scientific `park,' plus Duke University, plus the National Humanities Center. The ISA has become one place where all these kinds of people can talk together.''
How serious a scholar do you have to be to benefit from such groups? In several localities, the groups include a wide range of people, from novices to published investigators. ``We offered a six-part series on `How to Become an Independent Scholar' here,'' reports Anite Pitts of the Amarillo, Texas, public library. ``Out of that series came an ongoing association, Independent Scholars of Amarillo. It includes people just beginning to do research into their own family or house or community, as well as widely published experts.''
Now that their worth is being recognized, scholars outside academe are hoping to make even more contributions. Says Alvin Toffler, author of ``Future Shock'' and longtime observer of cultural changes: ``Writers, thinkers, researchers, and scholars like these make striking, creative contributions to our understanding of the world around us. It's time to shatter the myth that the university has a monopoly on the production of knowledge. Each of us can play an exhilarating role in that process.''
The author coordinates a national, nonprofit clearinghouse on independent scholarship. For further information, and a list of groups around the country, write: Independent Scholars National Program, 17 Myrtle Drive, Great Neck, N.Y. 11021. `Moving in and out of academic institutions gives us the best of both worlds.'