The Shifting Experience of Self   /   Spring 2011   /    Book Reviews

More Than a Historical Accident

An update on the travails of the university

Chad Wellmon

State Library of Australia, Fairy Duff; flickr.

What distinguishes the university from other sources of knowledge in an age of Google and Wikipedia?

On October 1, 2010, the President of the State University of New York, Albany, George M. Philip, announced the closure of the French, Italian, Russian, Classics, and Theater programs. As liberal arts faculty members from across the country lodged their protests, Philip insisted that he had no other choice. Faced with declining state support, his university could no longer afford luxuries like small foreign literature or fine arts departments. In an age of economic uncertainty, the university could no longer lay claim to a privileged position. Like any other institution, it had to be held accountable to market demands and immediate social needs. As Stanley Fish put it in his New York Times blog, the long anticipated crisis of the university had finally arrived. The Great Recession and the more urgent demands for economic accountability and value that followed in its wake would, it seemed, turn the liberal arts university into a glorified trade school. The university of critical inquiry and self-discovery was on the verge of collapse.

Over the past two decades, Fish, a Milton scholar turned public spokesman for the university, has chronicled the travails of the university in the clearest of terms. Whereas most justify the university through appeals to its economic or social utility, Fish argues that the only way to defend the university is to tell the centuries- old story of the university on its own terms—that is, the story of an institution that is self-regulating, autonomous, and internally coherent. Unlike other modern institutions, the university is a system unto itself and thus incommensurate with the market and its values. It is an “integral unity with its own history, projects and goals; goals that at times intersect with the more general goals of the culture at large, and at times don’t” (New York Times, 18 October 2010).

According to Fish, then, the crisis of the university pits two systems against one another— a market-oriented one with its demand for efficiencies and infinite profit growth against a university-centered one with its commitment to critical inquiry and knowledge for its own sake. To justify the university in terms of economic or social utility is to subordinate one system and set of values to another. Proclaiming, prognosticating, or polemicizing the university in crisis has a long history, and Fish is but the latest chronicler. The particular force of Fish’s account, however, lies in its uncompromising embrace of the university’s incommensurability with anything external to its own internal logic.

It is of some note, then, that two academic superstars, not critics outside the academy, have written book-length critiques of this very system. For both Louis Menand, a professor of English at Harvard, and Mark C. Taylor, a professor of Religious Studies at Columbia, the crisis of the university is structural and lies in the system of disciplinary distinctions that Fish celebrates. The disciplinary logic that Fish defends is more accurately, they suggest, the triumph of modern professionalization and specialization in the realm of knowledge. And it threatens to destroy the university. Like Fish, they argue that the liberal arts are suffering a crisis of legitimation. But whereas Fish exhorts academics to embrace their disciplinary identities and social and economic irrelevance— claim it as a “banner,” he writes—Menand and Taylor lament the fact that faculty are not trained in, and thus show little inclination or facility for, justifying their work to people outside their discipline, much less outside the academy. In an age of increasingly market-oriented demands for accountability, the inability to speak beyond disciplinary concerns and the failure to relate the work of the university to the broader culture have become devastating liabilities.

The merit of Menand’s book is not only to have historicized this tension—the double imperative both to produce new knowledge and to disseminate that knowledge to an ever-growing and diverse public—but also to suggest why it has been so intractable. Underlying the academy’s notorious resistance to change, he writes, is the belief, “central to the academic’s professional self-conception,” that the “university does not operate like a marketplace” (16). Whereas Fish exhorts academics to defend this commitment as their singular rationale, Menand is more concerned with analyzing the underlying system that allows for such distinctions in the first place. Ironically, he locates it in the modern university’s intellectual division of labor that makes the production and dissemination of knowledge more efficient—that is, he finds it in a market, but one that is unique to the university.

It is easy to see how the modern academic discipline reproduces all the salient features of the professionalized occupation. It is a selfgoverning and largely closed community of practitioners who have an absolute power to determine the standards for entry, promotion, and dismissal in their fields. The discipline relies on the principle of disinterestedness, according to which the production of new knowledge is regulated by measuring it against existing scholarship through a process of peer review, rather than by the extent to which it meets the needs of interests external to the field. (104–5)

The incommensurability of the university that Fish celebrates is guaranteed by a closed market, whose clear and almost impenetrable boundaries are tended by every generation of scholars.

In Menand’s deflationary account, the modern university is less the singular institution of moral formation and self-development and more a monopoly of the production of knowledge and the production of those who produce it. The modern university has little in common with the American college of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which sought to inculcate virtue and moral character; instead, it is a modern institution dedicated to the efficient production and dissemination of knowledge. For Menand, the crisis of the university is not an ethical one that pits liberal arts values against market values. It is rather a crisis of the system by which knowledge, understood in a fundamentally modern sense as separable from ethical values, is created and distributed in the twenty-first century. Although Menand traces the emergence of the modern research university and disciplinarity to late nineteenth-century America and the founding of universities like Johns Hopkins, he could have bolstered his case with an appeal to Immanuel Kant, who already in Gesammelte Schriften(1798) described the university not as a place of Enlightenment and the “exit from a self-incurred immaturity” but as a factory organized according to the division of intellectual labor.

Menand is careful not to cast disciplinarity aside in favor of something called interdisciplinarity or transdisciplinarity. Taylor, in contrast, is less cautious. For him, the division of the university into separate, disciplinary departments is “obsolete”: “as the interests of…faculty members become more specialized and the subjects of their publications more esoteric, the curriculum becomes increasingly fragmented and the educational process loses its coherence as well as its relevance for the broader society” (4). With disciplines walled off, teachers and researchers have neither the ability nor the incentive to talk to each other, much less work together to solve contemporary problems. It is this disciplinary logic that undergirds the university’s claims to incommensurability but also leads to its social isolation and internal division. The organizational structure of the contemporary research university may have made sense one hundred years ago or even two hundred years ago, but the demands of globalization and the attendant spread of global capital and the emergence of a digitally networked world have rendered it increasingly irrelevant.

Taylor invokes “interdisciplinarity” to save academia from the “outmoded” arrangement of disciplinarity. Menand acutely observes that aspirations for a transformative and revolutionary interdisciplinarity are chimeras. Interdisciplinarity is merely the “ratification of the logic of disciplinarity” (119)— unquestioned respect for the inviolable autonomy and expertise of other disciplines. This ethos is so ingrained in individual scholars that interdisciplinary encounters usually leave the assumptions, limitations, and perspectives of individual disciplines fully intact.

Ultimately, Menand’s calmer and more historically sensitive account of the university is more ambitious than Taylor’s manifesto. In order to survive its current crisis of legitimation and remake itself into a new, relevant, and productive institution, the university cannot simply aspire to a vague notion of interdisciplinarity or technologically enhanced teaching. For Menand, the possibility for radical change lies in rethinking the very system that produces professors whose technical language and intellectual horizons have been so stunted as to be incomprehensible and irrelevant to a world outside the university. If we want professors to be able to address a broader audience, “then we ought to train them differently” (158).

Whatever their differences, these accounts of a university in crisis shine a bright light on the system that manages the relationship of the university to the broader culture. The question now concerns the place of the university in the production and dissemination of knowledge in our current age. As Kant put it, the modern, discipline-based university was a historical accident, but one that emerged to meet specific needs. Is this accidental arrangement, with all its productive efficiencies and specialization, the most apposite for the contemporary university? And perhaps more importantly, if the university’s relative monopoly on knowledge has already ended, then what can distinguish it from other sources of knowledge in an age of Google and Wikipedia? Maybe this latest declaration of crisis will break the inertia of an institution that has changed so little over the past century.