Published in First Things, 4.16.15
“In his Organizing Enlightenment, Chad Wellmon explains how the modern research university was a response to a crisis of “information overload.”
The Enlightenment saw an explosion of new knowledge and research. The Enlightenment empire of erudition was a bookish empire. Philosophes imagined they could provide a unified account of knowledge by “capturing it in print” (10) – by capturing everything in print, in encyclopediae, dictionaries, taxonomies, comprehensive philosophical systems.
Some Enlightenment thinkers were skeptical of the fetishization of the book (as many today are skeptical of the festishization of the internet). Kant “feared that books were beginning to think, as he put it in 1784, for humans” (15). As the eighteenth century progressed, this skepticism was supported by the fracturing of the empire of erudition into “a world of specialized disciplines and concomitant experts” (14). How, if at all, could knowledge be unified? How to exercise some quality control on its distribution? What technologies – 0r, more importantly, what virtues and habits – were necessary to preserve and advance knowledge?
Wellmon argues that the research university, with its built-in disciplinarity, was the solution to the problem. Transforming the university into a research institution rescued it from declining enrollments and increasing irrelevance. Summarizing Schelling’s vision of the university, Wellmon writes, “information overload produced distracted, ethically unreflective people. It not only constrained the advancement of knowledge but also threatened the integrity of the human mind, the only sufficient response was a fundamentally difference conception of the university’s purpose. It had to be reconceived as not merely a more efficient or technologically capable institution but as the source and embodiment of a distinct way of life, namely, science. Only science as a practice with its own goods and ends . . . could address the effects of information overload. The task of the university was to form better people of knowledge who could navigate the oceans of print” 16).
Wilhelm von Humboldt likewise saw the problem as primarily ethical: He “embedded academic professionalization – the imperative to publish, division of intellectual labor according to specialization, a focus on details – in a set of ideals. Implicit in this was the claim that these institutional practices together constituted a distinct way of life. Specialization gave the student an orientation, a source of meaning, a ground of authority. By tying the logic of science to the institution of the university, science became a viable form of life replete with its own set of virtues, practices, and ends,. And above all science stood for a devotion to something that exceeded the self” (17).
Wellmon writes in defense of the research university, and he writes also to calm the anxieties of the early twenty-first century, anxieties about the purpose of the university in an age of information overload. His message: Don’t panic; we’ve been here before.”