What today’s critics of the university get right…and wrong.
Since at least the nineteenth century, research universities from Berlin to Baltimore have been indispensable institutions. They have conserved, created, and circulated knowledge not just for the specialized scholars within their ivied and bricked walls but also for the communities outside them. Research universities authorized and legitimated knowledge. They helped separate fact from fallacy. The research university, as Daniel Coit Gilman, the founding president of Johns Hopkins, put it in 1885, was a civilizing force. Alongside the family, commerce, and religion, it moved civilization forward. It was the motor of modernity.
But all that, as the sages of Silicon Valley tell us, is being disrupted. The research university, they say, has ossified into a bureaucratic behemoth that no longer creates knowledge—or innovates as the disrupters would put it—so much as inefficiently processes and distributes it. For the prophets of entrepreneurship, innovation, and start-up-ism, the research university is a vestige of a predigital age. Like journalism, manufacturing, and music before it, the research university too will soon be destroyed and reinvented in the digital revolution.
Peter Thiel, the PayPal co-founder and shaman of Silicon Valley’s humanistic hypercapitalism, is so confident in the impending irrelevance of the university that he now pays smart young kids to skip a university education altogether. Since 2011 Thiel Fellowships have provided $100,000 grants to around thirty young people every year to “build new things.” In exchange for a two-year grant, Thiel Fellows agree either to forego or drop out of university and commit to solving the world’s problems. Thiel’s commitment to funding technology and not tuition is emblematic, as James K.A. Smith has recently observed, of a broader “cult of creative innovation” whose centre may in the future be somewhere in Northern California but is now firmly ensconced in university administrative offices around the country. For example, the University of Virginia, where I teach, has centres, programs, courses, and even a magazine dedicated to innovation.
In his book From Zero to One, Thiel provides a pithy summary of Silicon Valley’s presuppositions. First: creativity is a salvific force. It doesn’t just solve problems, it engenders miracles or, as Thiel calls them, technologies. Human creativity is an autonomous force that “rewrite[s] the world.” Second: technology is progress. Technological developments are always and necessarily advances— advances on what and whether such advances have anything to do with ethical or political goods are beside the point. Third: the task of thinking is to come up with solutions. Scientific, technical, or humanistic knowledge has value only insofar as it leads to a solution for a particular problem. Fourth: the start-up or the incubator is the new locus of social change. “Small groups of people bound together by a sense of mission,” as Thiel says, change the world. And most of these happen to be groups of young men living near San Francisco.
For Thiel, innovation happens outside of space and time. It is an elemental, protean force frothing up from the entrepreneur’s unencumbered mind and unfettered imagination. The tech entrepreneur, the twenty-first century’s virtuous hero, creates independent of traditions, practices, and communities. All he—and it’s almost always he—needs is some start-up capital, a garage, and an unbounded belief in his own creative powers. For Thiel’s techno-saviour, universities— like democracy, politics, and social norms—just get in the way.
Technology, Print, and the University
If we were to grant Thiel’s premise and imagine a world without universities, what might be lost? What might be gained? To put these questions more historically, what was Gilman celebrating in 1885 when he claimed the research university was an essential social institution? What was a research university?
The research university emerged in late eighteenth- and early nineteenthcentury Germany, when Prussian intellectuals and government leaders worried that the very idea of a university, whose origins stretched back at least six centuries to Bologna, Paris, and Oxford, was on the verge of collapse. In 1795, the Wednesday Society, a secret salon of Prussian civil ministers and intellectuals, entertained a provocative proposition from one of its members, a Reformed pastor named J.G. Gebhard. Universities, he asserted, should be abolished. “In our age,” he wrote in an essay circulated among the group before one of their Wednesdayevening meetings, had become “dispensable.” Their “purpose” could be achieved by other means, by which he meant other media, namely, print. As printed encyclopedias, lexica, periodicals, and monographs became more affordable and readily available, the university was losing what many saw as its monopoly on knowledge.
Gebhard’s frank proposal prompted a lively debate among his Wednesday Society colleagues about the purpose of the university in an age of print. They quickly moved beyond his vague imperative—abolish universities— to a more nuanced discussion of the ends of universities. What was the purpose of a university? And, perhaps more importantly, what kind of technologies and institutions were needed around 1800 in order to create and share knowledge that people could trust? Could the medieval model of the university survive the political, technological, religious, and economic revolutions of modernity? Gebhard and his colleagues’ concerns about the future of the university, however, revealed deeper anxieties about the fate of knowledge in an age of the proliferation of print. What counted as real, authoritative knowledge?
Gebhard’s provocation was not unprecedented. One of late eighteenth-century Germany’s most renowned educational reformers, Johann Campe, had only years earlier described universities as an “ill” that could not be healed. “All attempted cures past and future are only palliatives that just conceal the damage from us.” He agreed with Gebhard. Universities had to be abolished.
These critics of universities made two basic arguments. First, intellectuals such as Campe and Gebhard argued that universities were guild-like, juridical corporations. They were not interested in serving the needs of the state, the public, or even knowledge. They were only concerned with protecting the interests of its members. Much like medieval and early modern guilds, membership in a university afforded special privileges, such as exemptions from civil courts and rights to certain types of dress. Universities were medieval, cloistered institutions. Second, they argued that knowledge, as another critic put it, did not need the “organized framework” of the university. The emerging networks of printed books, journals, encyclopedias, and newspapers constituted a form of communication that was not only more efficient but also, given the pitiful state of universities, more productive and accessible. Print technologies had already displaced universities.
Wilhelm Teller, a theologian and a member of the Wednesday Society, echoed these concerns but suggested that the crisis of the university was less about its failure to address social needs or technological change than it was about its failure to support what he termed “true knowledge.” Over the course of the eighteenth century, the university had ceded its position as the central institution of knowledge to the state and, increasingly, the print market. Without an institution dedicated to preserving and caring for knowledge as its own good, knowledge would be beholden to economic and political ends.
In alternating tones of nostalgia for a lost institution and prophecy of one to come, Teller warned his Wednesday Society colleagues that if the universities continued their decline, scholars would have no institution, no social structures to cultivate and sustain their practices, traditions, and unique virtues. Working alone in their studies and publishing for a faceless, unknown public, they would never be able to accrue the “respect and prestige” that was necessary for them to create and share their knowledge. Unmoored from the university, scholarly knowledge would be indistinguishable from the printed wares of the “tradesmen,” who pedaled their books simply for profit. The only hope for a knowledge that wasn’t immediately subordinate to the interests of the state or the market was a reimagined university. Teller acknowledged that the university’s guild-like structure and deeply conservative character had to be reformed. But the idea of the university—its norms and practices—could not simply be abandoned. The university had become a bulwark for the authority of a distinct type of knowledge, and it was needed now more than ever to filter out “true knowledge” from all the dross circulating in the print market.
The difference between the medieval university, the Enlightenment university, and the university of the future was that the authority of the medieval university was bound up with the church, whereas the Enlightenment university was more intimately bound up with the state. By orienting the university to a church-based canon, advocates of the medieval university model tethered the advancement of knowledge to prior doctrinal commitments. Both state rulers and church authorities protected theologians from challenges to orthodoxy and helped create the conditions in which theologians were not, institutionally at least, forced to reconcile the claims of Christianity with new empirical knowledge. Similarly, by tying the ends of the university to the needs of the state, advocates of a more utility-oriented, Enlightenment model not only undermined the university’s particularity but also surrendered the responsibility for legitimate knowledge to the state and a reading public whose capacity to evaluate knowledge many scholars were beginning to doubt.
The problem facing a potentially new, modern university, as Teller saw it, was how it could lay claim to an epistemic authority not immediately grounded in either the church or the state. The university’s primary purpose was to authorize knowledge, but what was to ground its authority if not the church or the state—the individual, the market, knowledge itself?
In his response to his Wednesday Society colleagues, Teller argued for a uniquely universitybased form of knowledge. He described universities not only as bulwarks against the “fragmentation” of knowledge but also as institutions that selected, organized, and distinguished knowledge from the endless circulation of information in print. The very guild-like structure of a university shielded scholars from external demands to produce knowledge that was immediately useful to the state or market.
Not all of the Wednesday Society’s members agreed with Teller, however. The famed German publisher Friedrich Nicolai dismissed Teller’s argument that universities should be the centre of the “progress” of knowledge. With the proliferation of print, information had become ubiquitous and affordable. A distinct and self-sufficient “world of learning,” wrote Nicolai, already existed outside the university—print. And this world of print, what some termed a Bücherwelt, was open, accessible, and non-hierarchical, everything the university was not.
The disagreement between Nicolai and Teller was an inflection point in the history of knowledge. Whereas Nicolai envisioned the unfettered circulation of knowledge in print, Teller imagined a filtered system of knowledge based in the university. Unlike printed objects, universities were not simply material repositories for objectified knowledge. They were communities that sustained particular practices, habits, and skills. The authority of a university, or at least the one Teller imagined, lay in the types of people it formed. Universities, wrote Teller, distinguished between “merely having” knowledge and “being formed” by it. The true scholar did not simply “store knowledge in his memory” as though he were a walking encyclopedia. The process of learning changed him. The scholar was a “thinker” who embodied a particular way of thinking and of being in the world.
After the 1795 Wednesday Society debate, several Prussian intellectuals and government bureaucrats began to imagine not just a new university but a different conception of knowledge— how it was created, sustained, and legitimated. They extended Teller’s suggestion that authoritative knowledge, knowledge that could be trusted, was bound to practices cultivated in close community, through interactions between students and teachers. Knowledge, or what Germans called Wissenschaft, was personal. It came not from a detached, universal method or the unfettered circulation of information in print but rather from skilled activity practiced in communities and passed on through traditions and techniques over time. Knowledge was not simply something out there in the world that could be collected and redistributed as though it were a raw material. A person didn’t so much possess knowledge as practice it. It was an activity, and if practiced repeatedly and well, it was a craft, an art.
In 1807, the German idealist philosopher J.G. Fichte drafted a proposal for a new institution of higher education in Berlin. A university, he wrote, should form “artists of learning.” The university should not simply transmit knowledge through networks of print; instead, it should gather young people together, pair them with master teachers, and form them in the art of knowing. Anticipating Michael Polanyi’s arguments about science and personal knowledge over a century later, Fichte argued that knowledge required knowers. It required the practices, skills, and virtues to form people who could engage in the activity of creating and sharing knowledge. And therefore it required an institution that could sustain these communities and their practices, skills, and virtues over time. Fichte did not reject print technologies. He embraced them and considered printed books essential to the university and knowledge more generally, but he insisted that books, like all technologies, had to be embedded in institutions and norms that could help people use them well. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, there was a gap between print technologies and social norms.
Throughout his proposal, Fichte detailed particular exercises and disciplines that he thought essential to such an intellectual apprenticeship— from small, scheduled conversations and lectures to essay-writing tutorials and academic journals. The goal of all these exercises and disciplines was to bring students into a more self-conscious, more determinate relationship not just with a set of propositions and collection of facts but with the activity of learning and knowing. The student was an “apprentice,” who was to be transformed into a more reflective, articulate, and self-sufficient scholarly self—one capable of making independent judgments born of a closely cultivated skill. “Everything learnable,” wrote Fichte, “becomes a secure possession, with which you can do what you please.” For Fichte, the standard of success for an intellectual apprenticeship was whether the “budding artist [could] craft” something distinct from the material he encountered in a lecture, a book, or a conversation.
Fichte’s notion of the scholarly artist meant that knowledge was not something that could simply be transmitted from one repository— either personal, in a professor’s head, or material, in a universal book—to another—such as a student’s head waiting to be filled with information. Real knowledge was a doing, not an inert, transferable object. It was a practical skill exercised and acquired over time. And, like an art, it could not be fully specified in detail. There was no step-by-step set of instructions for its proper transmission or creation. Its rules could not be fully articulated. It could only be communicated through the personal example and performance of a teacher as master scholar, a performance that entailed personal interaction and contact, as well as imitation and mimesis.
Fichte’s comparison of knowledge to an art also required students to recognize and submit themselves to the authority of a teacher, who as a scholarly master exemplified the scholarly life and the art of knowledge. The student engaged the teacher as an image that he was to imitate and form himself in accord with. Such ethical mimesis required not just submission but also trust—trust that the teacher was, in fact, what Fichte termed a “living example” of the scholarly life, that the teacher cared for and loved his students, that he wouldn’t abuse the student’s trust. The relationship between student and teacher, then, was a moral one, inextricable from the deepest desires of who students wanted to become and who teachers understood themselves to be. Such a vision of the scholarly or intellectual life was an inversion of Descartes’s vision in Discourse on Method, the isolated thinker who transforms himself without attachments to books, others, or the world.
Fichte’s refusal to separate ethics from epistemology, the practical from the theoretical, was also why he considered the greatest threat to academic freedom to be not interference from the state but rather the failure of students to commit themselves fully to their scholarly vocations. The university, as he put it in a fiery inaugural lecture as the rector of the University of Berlin in 1811, was a community in which the “learning subject” was transformed and emerged as a new person. Echoing Germany’s pietistic traditions, Fichte described university education in the terms of Protestant conversation— a person was remade in the image not of Christ but of the charismatic scholar teacher. “One studies at a university,” he continued, “not in order to reproduce in words what has already been learned for exams for the rest of his life, but rather to implement what has been learned in whatever cases might come up in life and thus to convert it into works; not just merely repeat it but rather to make something else from out of and with it. The ultimate purpose is thus in no way knowledge but more the art of using knowledge.” The ideal university should therefore be “a school in the art of putting scholarly reason to use.”
Fichte’s plan for a modern university, one that was never realized but deeply influenced the norms and practices of the modern research university, should not be mistaken for a brand of liberal self-fashioning. The purpose of Fichte’s ideal university was not a romanticized vision of self-improvement. The university community and its practices of intellectual apprenticeship were, on Fichte’s account, intended to cultivate a respect for knowledge (Wissenschaft) and a desire to transcend the self. The ultimate end to which scholarly reason was to be put was, as Fichte wrote in The Vocation of the Scholar, an encounter with the divine. No practice, scholarly or otherwise, was a sufficient end in itself. All practices had to serve “life” and thus the broader ethical purpose of Fichte’s own vision of the moral life: an encounter with the divine through reason.
Schelling and Liberal Arts
In 1803, four years before Fichte submitted his proposal, another German philosopher, F.W.J. Schelling, told a lecture hall full of students in Jena that the true scholar learned “in order to create.” “Only through this divine capacity of creation is a person truly human. Without it, he is but a pitifully assembled machine.” The true scholar was a creative artist, but like Fichte’s, Schelling’s scholarly artist created within constraints. Like any artist, he did not create from nothing. He created knowledge by working within historical constraints as embodied in master teachers, the limits of authoritative texts and traditions, and the pedagogical exercises of the university.
Schelling’s “academic genius” was not the solitary figure of a sentimental romantic poetry. He was a member of a historical and local community of scholars bound by a common purpose—cultivating and creating knowledge. His scholarly vocation required membership in a community that sustained and cultivated the traditions, practices, and standards that directed and supported his creative attention. And, for Schelling as for Fichte, the university was just this community.
Without community and the purposeful skills and practices it maintained and shared, scholars, like bees without a hive, were “spiritless.” They had no relationship to the dynamic traditions and practices that bound scholars together and helped them to create and share knowledge.
Like many of his contemporaries, Schelling’s account of knowledge and the university was oriented toward a particular form of life. The epistemic and ethical challenges of the late eighteenth century called not for a better print encyclopedia but rather for a different kind of person. Knowledge or scholarship consisted not of a set of specific propositions, methodological prescriptions, or static taxonomies. It was a practice that depended on the crafting of a scientific character—marked by industriousness, an openness to communication and exchange, rigour, a critical disposition, and an unrelenting commitment to science as a coherent activity. This character was formed through an immersion in particular forms of inquiry, a habituation to certain ways of seeing the world, and the conjoining of thought and action.
Innovation and Universities
As the digital disruptors plot their revolution of higher education, they, as well as their critics, would do well to recall the norms and practices that have long sustained and distinguished universities. Thiel certainly has. His conception of “innovation” and start-upfunded social change is actually quite conservative. Although the Thiel Fellowship explicitly distinguishes itself from universities, it invokes many of the norms and ideals that have long characterized research universities. “What makes us different,” claims the Thiel Fellowship’s website, is a shared sense of purpose or mission and a commitment to community and apprenticeship. “You can’t do it alone.” Despite their revolutionary language, Thiel and many of his Silicon Valley colleagues are trying to recover and reconstitute intellectual communities. And they cannot seem to avoid the institution they claim to disdain: the university. It is no coincidence that Google, as do other tech giants, calls its headquarters in Mountain View a “campus.”
And yet Thiel longs, as he wrote in “The Education of a Libertarian,” for an “escape” not only from universities but also from democracy, politics, and culture itself. Any interest he may express in the intellectual practices, virtues, and habits of a particular institution is incidental. For scholars, universities are communities that cultivate and sustain practices and virtues for which knowledge is a legitimate good, a coherent end in itself. For Thiel, in contrast, universities and the knowledge they create, curate, and critique are merely a means to a technological revolution that would ultimately obviate the need for politics, institutions, and culture. Whereas universities sustain a hope for a knowledge that exceeds any individual and forms as much as it informs, Thiel’s ideal start-up sustains little more than an unhinged belief in the power of a single individual to change the world with a shiny new machine.
Thiel disdains not just universities but all institutions, but he conceals the ways in which he hopes to institutionalize his own interests, values, and moral imagination. Like the rest of his colleagues in Silicon Valley, Thiel has a moral stance toward others and the world. The constant appeal to disruption only obscures a widespread belief in technological salvation and in the limitless potential and inherent right of creative individuals to remake themselves and the world in their own image. The disruptors need to be recognized for the overconfident moralists they are.
And yet contemporary research universities are no refuge for the disrupted. Universities across the country are competing with each other to remake themselves in the image of Silicon Valley. None of this is fundamentally new. Universities have a long history of adapting to modern bureaucracies, market imperatives, and technological change. They have never been fully autonomous institutions.
Contemporary research universities, however, are in a historically unique and increasingly dire position. The collapse of state funding for public universities, the ever-expanding reliance on adjunct labour, the increasing disregard for liberal education in the humanities and sciences, the increasing monopoly of market values, the erosion of faculty self-governance and correlative expansion of bureaucratic structures are eroding the historical norms and practices of the university. Those committed to knowledge, community, democracy, and the necessity of politics can acknowledge these criticisms without embracing Thiel’s desire to transcend institutions such as the university through technology.
To sustain and cultivate the elements that made the research university an essential social institution for centuries, we must burnish the practices and virtues that, however dim, are still visible in the university today.
If the research university is to fulfill its role, it must recognize and cultivate a commitment to open debate, detailed argument, a critical disposition, and a desire for knowledge.
This article originally appeared in Comment Magazine in the Fall 2016 volume, 49-57.