In Defense of Specialization


To judge from the jeremiads of some of academe’s elite scolds, the specialized scholar is an anachronism. Disciplinarity is dead. Or it should be.

The Harvard literary scholar Louis Menand, to name one prominent Jeremiah, wrote in 1998 that the disciplinary structure of the modern research university is “expensive; it is philosophically weak; and it encourages intellectual predictability, professional insularity, and social irrelevance.” Disciplinarity and the intellectual specialization at its core is, he later expanded, little more than an “episode in the history of the division of labor.”

That “episode,” we should remember, began on these shores with the rise of the American research university roughly from 1870 to 1915, when American academics organized themselves, their labor, and their institutions according to disciplinary boundaries defined by specialized and credentialized expertise. American scholars also established national professional organizations, including the Modern Language Association (1883) and the American Historical Association (1884), and university departments. All of that, in Menand’s view, gave rise to what is now a stultifying system of self-governance and autonomous experts devoted more to perpetuating the guild than to advancing knowledge.

Menand is hardly alone. Cathy Davidson, a distinguished professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, believes that this “archaic, hierarchical, silo’d apparatus” will soon and mercifully be overturned by the emancipatory force of new digital technologies. Our universities, she argues, are “stuck in an epistemological model of the past.” The disciplinary organization of knowledge is antiquated and ripe for the disruptive effects of “collaborative” changes that digital technologies and the Internet will usher in.

Attacks on specialization and disciplinarity are typically made in the name of liberation. Davidson looks to the messianic promise of technology. Menand, more circumspectly, takes refuge in cool irony but holds out the promise of greater intellectual freedom. He notes that contemporary academics have inherited a social system that both guarantees their privilege and obliges them to be embarrassed about it. Scholars who identify closely with a discipline or defend specialization must renounce it even while embracing and exemplifying its standards.

And it is precisely such hostility or ambivalence toward its disciplinary structure that obscures the real value of the research university, at a time when the institution is coming under widespread attack. That is unfortunate, because when Davidson, Menand, and others rail against the research university, they focus on its constraints, boundaries, and their own desire to transcend them, but they ignore the historical role of the research university as a technology for the cultivation and maintenance of cultural attention — a technology that is all the more important in our age of distraction.

At its beginning, the modern research university was not an American invention. It and its ethic of disciplinarity emerged at a moment, similar to our own, when an evolving medium — print — threatened to overwhelm notions of quality, authority, and trustworthiness. In late-18th- and early-19th-century Germany, readers troubled by the huge increase in printed material felt imperiled by a veritable “plague” of books circulating among the reading public.

Deep concerns about what counted as authoritative knowledge made writers and intellectuals anxious as they heard and read increasingly pointed critiques of universities as outmoded guilds that needed to justify their existence in an age of easily accessible information. Philosophers and thinkers like J.G. Fichte, F.W.J. Schelling, Friedrich Schleiermacher, and Wilhelm von Humboldt were the first to embrace and argue for the idea of a renewed university with specialized academic knowledge as its organizing system.

In 1807, Fichte lambasted what he saw as academe’s refusal to adapt to the new print environment. The first universities, in Paris, Bologna, and Oxford, he wrote, had been “ersatz,”​providing orally conveyed substitutes for what at the time were small libraries of manually produced texts. With the ready availability of printed texts, he reasoned, universities no longer needed to function as book substitutes. And yet professors continued to read the books of other scholars aloud, as if students couldn’t read on their own.

So what was the purpose of the university when print was so readily available and already altering the way people acquired knowledge? In Fichte’s view, if universities were to survive, they would have to transform themselves. And while most of his fellow scholars and authors agreed, they disagreed strongly about how to do so.

Some argued that universities should be replaced by specialized vocational schools devoted to training students in skills specific to particular professions. Others, including Fichte, strongly rejected what they called the “utility message” of the Enlightenment: its singular focus on the technical and practical value of all knowledge. The possibility of knowledge that was not immediately reducible to political or economic ends depended on whether the university could distinguish itself from the broader culture as the unique institution devoted to what Germans called Wissenschaft, or science as a practice.

This lofty ambition for a university was never fully realized, and what we today call “disciplinarity” did not take full form until universities were incorporated into state bureaucracies in Germany, and enrollments and budgets grew. Over the course of the 19th century, German universities developed other academic practices that we now take for granted: the idea of research, the seminar, the faculty imperative to publish, the division of intellectual labor according to specialization, and a focus on the fine-grained details of scholarly argument.

Specialized academic knowledge, Wissenschaft, was not simply an ideology imposed by the vague rationalizing imperatives of modernity. It was a normative and ethical framework that valorized particular intellectual goods (the never-ending production of knowledge and the ability to perceive the relationships of various sciences) and inculcated particular virtues (rigor, collaboration, intellectual imagination, industriousness, responsibility, and a critical disposition). Academic knowledge tied epistemology to ethics. It formed people and grounded knowledge in a community that could sustain, cultivate, and evaluate it. And it gave rise to great achievements, from the first well-funded and organized laboratories to large philology projects used to this day.

Within the university, specialization and disciplines have organized intellectual labor, traditions, and ambitions for over 200 years, not as abstract taxonomies but as cultural practices. To dismiss them as merely static, formal categories is to overlook the ways in which their continuity and stability have depended on transforming actual people who developed and embodied practices and habits of work, criteria for excellence, and systems and forms of communication, all of which were tied to a disciplinary self, the persona of specialized knowledge.

Beyond the university, specialization and disciplinarity helped create a buffer between the internal demands of scholarly knowledge and the external demands of a broader society that wanted knowledge to be useful. The disciplinary order and the continuity of scholarly practices and virtues have long been the basis for the university’s claim to a unique form of epistemic authority.

Most critics of disciplinarity and the research university juxtapose the constraints of specialization with the liberating promises of digital technologies. “Neither the Internet nor the World Wide Web,” writes Davidson, “has a center, an authority, a hierarchy, or even much of a filter on the largest structural level.” I would counter: That is true on only the most abstract of levels. There are always forms of epistemic authority, whether they are academic disciplines or Wikipedia’s five pillars of principles. We inhabit a world of filtering technologies. Digital technologies will not deliver us a future free of intellectual constraints.

We need to think about the future of the university in terms of its place in our new media ecology, where concerns about what is accurate and true and valuable daily grow more acute — felt not only by scholars in the contemporary university but also by researchers and executives of Silicon Valley titans like Google.

As a research paper by some of Google’s top search engineers makes clear, even the purported disrupters are concerned about epistemic authority. Methods of evaluating the quality of websites rely largely on features such as hyperlinks. Generally the more incoming hyperlinks a site has, the higher its score on Google’s search algorithm, called PageRank, and the higher its place in a search. PageRank measures how well connected, or popular, a website is, not how accurate its information is.

But Google’s crack team of engineers is out to change that. They want to evaluate websites on “the correctness of factual information” and have designed a method of extracting a website’s facts and assessing them. Such a process, they hope, will yield a trustworthiness score or, in Google talk, a Knowledge-Based Trust (KBT). As in so many aspects of our 21st-century lives, algorithms and the engineers who write and manipulate them will determine not just what music we hear on Spotify but also what we trust, the authority of what we know.

The reduction of knowledge and truth to the accuracy of facts is, to say the least, a limited picture of what we might aspire to know and claim to be true. What about how facts are connected and the ends to which they are put? Google, being Google, will develop more algorithms and perfect its information-extraction techniques to help us search and filter the undifferentiated mass of digital data. But what will happen to other search-and-filter technologies, the practices and techniques that have organized, evaluated, and authorized knowledge? Will Google’s algorithms become the only technologies left? Remember: They are designed not just to organize knowledge but also to keep us in front of Google’s ads. Google cultivates our attention toward its corporate ends.

Amid the chatter surrounding the future of the research university and complaints about disciplinarity and specialization, we would do well to consider what we might lose were they to disappear. Yes, the modern research university is a bureaucratic machine that reproduces and maintains itself through ever finer specialization. (Nietzsche lamented as much more than 150 years ago.) But it is one of the only social institutions left that can lay claim to distinct and trustworthy forms of knowledge. A great deal of that authority rests not on the intransigent departmental structures or the self-serving interests of an academic system that Menand and Davidson are at least partly right to decry, but rather on the intellectual virtues and practices still cultivated and safeguarded in the university.

The research university has embodied an ethic of knowledge — one not immediately reducible to social, political, or economic utility — which is imperiled in a political and cultural climate in which economic utility threatens to trump all other values. In an age of information abundance, the original purposes of the university remain more relevant than ever.

This essay originally appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education (April 6, 2015) as In Defense of Specialization.”

chad wellmon

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