THR Web Features   /   March 11, 2015

Media Excess, Disruption, and the Future of the University

Jay Tolson

In his new book, Organizing Enlightenment: Information Overload and the Invention of the Modern Research University, literary historian Chad Wellmon, a faculty fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, argues against those who claim that the research university is an outmoded, bureaucratic institution ripe for disruption. Recounting the emergence of the research university in another era of media excess, this one driven by print, he focuses on what has always distinguished the research university—an ethics of knowledge. And this, he claims, is needed now more than ever. Here is an excerpt from the afterword of his book:

Misgivings about specialized science and disciplinarity have returned in recent jeremiads about the research university from within its most elite ranks. Harvard professor Louis Menand writes that the “structure of disciplinarity that has arisen with the modern research university is expensive; it is philosophically weak; and it encourages intellectual predictability and social irrelevance. It deserves to be replaced.” Similarly, CUNY professor Cathy Davidson has criticized the research university as an “archaic, hierarchical, silo’d apparatus of the nineteenth century.” Our institutions of higher learning have “managed to change far more slowly than the modes of inventive, collaborative, participatory learning offered by the Internet” and other online and digital technologies. Unlike some of the more general critiques of the university’s disciplinary structure, however, Davidson’s critique is more focused on what is actually at stake. Our universities are “stuck,” she writes, “in an epistemological model of the past.” Our digital age entails not just new and better technologies but an entirely different notion of what constitutes true knowledge: how it is produced, authorized, and disseminated. The disciplinary organization of knowledge is antiquated and dispensable. The very structures and forms of knowledge are changing, and, for Davidson at least, the disciplinary research university is being left behind.

In her more recent work on the future of education, Davidson embraces the potential of digital technologies to undo the authority structure of the research university and spur “collaborative” forms of knowledge production. And yet, in what she describes as a “field guide and survival manual for the digital age,” her Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Change the Way We Live, Work, and Think, she relies on that same authority structure she seems eager to escape. She bases her “guide” for the digitally perplexed on what she calls “the science of attention.” She grounds her argument in the authority of modern, disciplinary-based science as she cites study after study, all of which are legitimated by the authority of the disciplinary order of the modern research university.

Davidson’s bad faith is a testament to just how enduring a system the research university ethic is. But it has endured not because it was a rigid, hierarchical system, a Weberian iron cage, a Foucauldian panopticon, but rather because it has sustained communities of people engaged in a common pursuit. Research universities have never overcome the fragmentation of knowledge or realized anything like a universal knowledge. But what they have done is organize intellectual labor, traditions, and desires more effectively over the past two hundredOrganizing Enlightenment Cover years than any other technology. To dismiss the research university as an antiquated bureaucratic “apparatus” defined by constraint and enforceable standards is to overlook the ways in which its continuity and stability depended on the transformation of actual people....

At this particular moment of technological and institutional change, we need motivating ideals to orient our institutions and ourselves. The idea of the research university is more than its bureaucratic structures. However haltingly, the research university embodies ideals and virtues that scholars both inside and outside the university hold dear. This is where primarily structural accounts of the research university as simply a bureaucratic system, seemingly lacking human agents who endow it with meaning and life, can offer no compelling vision for a future research university. These cool, distant accounts of the research university, so redolent of Weber’s description of any other modern, rational system, see nothing at stake, just the inexorable logic of another modern bureaucracy. They overlook the persons and norms that have always been the core of the research university. Anthony Grafton describes this attitude best: the “loss of patience, or faith, or interest in specialized knowledge” is ultimately a capitulation to the absoluteness of the bureaucratic system of the contemporary research university. Such an attitude belies a thoroughly structural account that omits the research university’s most basic feature: its underlying ethic. These more radically functional accounts, however descriptively illuminating, can never answer a basic question: why would anyone choose to devote herself to specialized knowledge and an institution such as the research university? The research university reproduces itself by forming people into its culture. Its survival relies on the decisions of actual people, not simply on the abstract totalizing mechanisms of an institution. Advocates of the contemporary research university need to recognize and embrace its most central feature: the fact that it embodies a set of norms, practices, and virtues central to modern knowledge. Whatever its myriad failings and bureaucratic functions, the research university sustains what scholars hold in common and commit themselves to—an ethics of knowledge.

You can read the introduction to Organizing Enlightenment here.