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Thursday, September 30, 2010

Conferences

Conferences are difficult to organize and often also expensive. Do they yield enough benefits to justify one's efforts?

In fact, some of the benefits produced consist in (please tell me if I missed some important ones): 1. enhancing the prestige of the organising institution and of the speakers, 2. allowing the participants to meet and get in touch with previously unknown colleagues, 3. allowing the participants to strengthen one's personal relationships with colleagues and friends, 4. enabling the participants to listen to interesting papers, 5. enabling the participants to engage in fruitful discussions.

I especially value point 5, considering 4 to be reached also through intense reading (especially since the internet has now made much more material easily available, and enables exchanges of pre-print drafts in a smoother way). Point 3, which lies often at the basis of a fruitful common enterprise can be achieved, I hope, through point 5.

Let me now speculate a little bit more on why should an open discussion be a value in itself. We all know geniuses who have been able to produce incredible achievements while leaving in complete isolation. The following lines do not address them, since their case is so unique that no educational or cultural system may realistically try to contribute to their genius, not to speak of “creating” it. But what about all other average students and scholars? They must certainly read and study on their own, but why should they from time to time try to meet and confront? This has to do, in my opinion, with the value of non-technical knowledge in general and humanistic knowledge in particular. In fact, why should one care for the furthering of non-technical knowledges, which lack any practical output? A possible answer is their indirect connection with technical ones. A further answer is their intrinsic value for reasons different than the ones implied in the definition of a “practical output”. Reading novels may be said, for instance, beneficial to one's ability to prove empathy for others, and, hence, to one's ability of being a good citizen, a caring relative, a compassionate human being. The study of distant cultures may be similarly held to enhance one's openness towards other people, while fretting one's prejudices. A mind trained in logic might be more able to distinguish among valid arguments and fallacies in other people's claims and hence be less liable to be cheated. All these (and many other) outputs are, in my opinion, further enhanced by encounters and sincere exchanges with others.

Am I too utopistic and far off the mark?

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