In “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?”, the eighteenth-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant responded to a big question buried in a little footnote. But you wouldn’t know it, because contemporary editions of Kant’s famous essay no longer reproduce the parenthetical directive that Kant’s original essay printed right under the essay’s title in the December issue of the Berlinische Monatsschrift in 1784: “S. Decemb. 1783. S. 516.” (See December 1783, p. 516). And, in fact, page 516 in the December volume of the Berlinische Monatsschrift 1783 has a footnote: “What is Enlightenment? This question is nearly as important as: what is truth? And should certainly be answered before one starts to enlighten! But I have yet to find it answered anywhere.”
Before he philosophized with a hammer, Friedrich Nietzsche counted Greek metre. In 1868, the University of Basel appointed, or “called” as German academics put it to this day, the twenty-four-year-old Leipzig student a professor in ancient Greek language and literature. For several years, Nietzsche played the professional philologist, publishing erudite articles, arguing with fellow scholars over minutiae, and introducing students to the discipline of philology. By 1875, he had had enough. In detailed notes for a planned but never completed book titled We Philologists, Nietzsche excoriated his fellow philologists and the system of education that had produced them. He insisted, as he put, that he had nothing “against the science of philology itself.” His concern was tangential to the complaints, already common in the late nineteenth century, about hyper-specialization but also more basic: how had Greek and Roman antiquity come to be the basis for modern, elite German education? “That there are scholars who devote themselves exclusively to researching Greek and Roman antiquity,” he considered fair and even praiseworthy. But why did these same specialized scholars, of whom he was one, teach Germany’s future elite in Gymnasien (secondary schools that served as the primary path to university admission)? And why were these two ancient cultures, separated from the present by millennia, the models for modern Germany? Because, explained Nietzsche, the modern philologist’s indefensible, almost sacred prejudice for Greek and Roman antiquity had led to the conflation of the (Roman and Greek) classical with das Humane. To study these ancient languages and literatures was to study the human.
In late December, Chris Martin interviewed me for “Half Hour of Heterodoxy,” the podcast run by the Heterodox Academy.
In 2016, Jonathan Haidt gave a talk at a number of American universities in which he made the provocative argument that universities must choose either truth or social justice as their primary motive for operating. He argued that universities used to be centered around truth, and that going forward some universities could continue to do that, whereas others could be frank about declaring social justice to be their primary motive. He did not argue that students couldn’t pursue social justice at a university but simply that the university itself had to choose one primary goal. Today I’m talking to Chad Wellmon, an expert on the history of universities, about whether universities truly were motivated by the pursuit of truth or whether history is in fact more complicated.
I’ve known Chad since 1995 when he and I were freshmen at Davidson College and in the same humanities class. Chad is now an associate professor of German Studies at the University of Virginia. His interests include European intellectual history, and media and social theory. His most recent book Organizing Enlightenment was about the foundation of the modern research university. He’s also the co-author of the upcoming book Permanent Crisis: The Humanities in a Disenchanted Age. We begin today’s interview by talking about Chad’s recent essay How Professors Ceded Their Authority. He’s on Twitter at cwellmon.
Listen to the podcast here:
3:30 Early universities as guilds; research universities as mercantile institutes
11:45 The early 20th century
14:45 Have extracurricular activities really served moral purposes?
24:05 Are current university presidents like CEOs?
26:05 Students’ pursuit of social justice through administrative appeals
31:35 We can’t be a massive counseling center, so what can we do?
Paul Reitter and I are finishing up our new book Permanent Crisis: The Humanities in a Disenchanted Age. Last month (November 2018), I turned my attention to revision and the key elements of the larger story we’re telling. In a talk I gave at the University of Richmond, I made an initial stab at something like an introduction. Here is the text of that talk. [The featured image above is from Ben Schmidt, “The Humanities are in Crisis,” The Atlantic (August 23, 2018).]
In 1929, just four years before the National Socialists assumed power and ten years after Germany and the Allied Nations had signed the Treaty of Versailles, the self-identified humanist philosopher and pedagogue Eduard Spranger reflected on a past decade that which saw Germany’s first democracy and a flourishing of artistic, literary, and philosophical imagination and thinking as well as festering resentments against the (for many) humiliating terms of Germany’s capitulation to England and France and the gradual increase in political violence. But Spranger, in a lecture before the Prussian Academy of the Sciences, discussed none of this; instead, he wrote about the “crisis” of the humanities––something that many German intellectuals and scholars in the first decades of the twentieth had come to regard as an underlying cause of a culture that seemed near collapse. And Spranger gave dates and names.
Soon after the sociologist Max Weber delivered his lecture on Scholarship as Vocation in 1917, claimed Spranger, younger intellectuals and scholars had organized themselves in opposition to what they understood to be Weber’s basic claims in that now famous lecture: that scholarship (Wissenschaft) was meaningless [sinnlos] and that it should be conducted without presuppositions or value-free [Wertfreiheit]. They objected, however, neither to the purported incapacity of the natural and physical sciences to provide meaning––their total silence in response to questions about how one ought to live; nor, to the insistence that natural and physical scientists conduct their research and thinking free of presuppositions or values. (Both bad readings of Weber but…) Natural and physical scientists sought the invariant structures of the natural world in order to make predictions about the future. And so they had nothing to say about how one ought to live; and they certainly shouldn’t project their, necessarily human, values onto that inert mechanism known as nature. None of this, suggested Spranger largely agreeing with his younger contemporaries, was controversial.
On November 15, 2018, I delivered the 23rd Annual Holmes Lecture sponsored by Anselm House at the University of Minnesota. Andrew Hansen and his colleagues invited me to talk about the university as a public good and why I remain committed to it. What kinds of knowledge can a research university properly pursue and where are its limits? How can communities outside of the university—including Christian and other religious communities—participate in and even augment the work of a pluralistic research university? I ended up writing something new and more personal than usual, more first than third person. Following my lecture, the Executive Vice President and Provost Professor Karen Hanson and I discussed these issues with the audience.
Here is the lecture:
In 1904, while touring the eastern half of the United States, the German sociologist Max Weber encountered an institution that would intrigue him for decades: the American college. Between delivering lectures and finishing the final drafts of what would become The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905), Weber visited Columbia University, Harvard University, Haverford College, and Northwestern University, among others. On their pretty, well-kept campuses, he found, as he wrote to his wife, Marianne, a fascinating “wild muddle” (“ein wildes Durcheinander”) of education, religion, and socialization. The American college was neither a finishing school for the wealthy nor a training academy for professionals; it was a social institution that performed liturgies, cultivated character, and helped to sustain the culture of a uniquely American capitalism.
[Featured image: Harry Campbell for The Chronicle]
In 2007, the Higher Education Funding Council in England, the government body responsible for distributing funding to universities, revealed a national system to measure and compare institutions of higher education––the Research Excellence Framework (REF). Designed to assess the quality of research in institutions of higher education in the United Kingdom, the program sought to produce “indicators of research excellence,” provide a basis for the distribution of funds, produce a sustainable framework for research, and “promote equality and diversity.” Ultimately, the REF studied and quantified research carried out in 154 UK universities between 2007 and 2013 and reported its results in 2014. The study included, as the council puts it, over 191,150 “research outputs”––journal articles, books, or conference proceedings.
Although universities in the United States and Canada have not yet been submitted to such a national exercise, many have begun to assess themselves. Several top universities have used Academic Analytics, a database of PhD programs and departments at 385 universities in the United States and abroad. Academic Analytics primarily provides data about academic publishing: books, articles, and citations. “Objective data,” claims the company, supports “the strategic-decision making process” at universities.