In 1637, René Descartes recounted a “fable” of how he came to think well. From his youth, he had read the books of the ancients, exercised his rhetorical skills, and observed the debates of philosophers and theologians. But in all this learning he found no rest or certainty, only endless disputes and puffed-up opinions. “Nothing solid,” he concluded, “could have been built on such unfirm foundations.” Once he escaped the control of his schoolteachers, he abandoned the “study of letters” and resolved to seek no knowledge other than what he could find in “the great book of the world”—collecting experiences and testing himself “in the encounters that fortune offered me.”
Ten years ago, the Higher Education Funding Council for England decided to “assess” the quality of research in universities across Britain by putting in place a new system, the Research Excellence Framework. In 2014, the Council and its institutional partners released a report that included evaluations of almost 200,000 “research outputs” — including journal articles, books, and conference proceedings. Since then academics on both sides of the Atlantic have ridiculed the REF, as the framework is known, as a bureaucratic boondoggle that values quantity over quality.
In 1917 a group of German university students invited the renowned sociologist Max Weber to Munich to participate in a lecture series entitled “intellectual work as vocation” [geistige Arbeit als Beruf]. The students met weekly in the backroom of a bookstore as the Bavarian chapter of the National Federation of Independent Student Groups, a loose association of students established around 1900 to make sense of the radical changes German universities had undergone in a matter of decades.
Around 9 p.m. on Friday, I opened my kitchen door to chants and flickering lights. After telling my kids to stay inside, I scrambled over a stone wall and down a brick stairwell to find torch-bearing men and women clad in white polo shirts and khakis, chanting “You will not replace us” and “Anti-Black.” They marched in cadence, two by two, as far as I could see.
The modern research university is under intense scrutiny. Some critics argue that with student debt at unsustainable levels, it is ripe for “disruption” by new digital technologies and the Internet. Some state legislatures seem eager to remake public research universities as institutions whose sole focus is teaching— the teaching, that is, of preprofessional and vocational fields. And within the academy, the professorial critique of the university has become a distinct genre. Continue reading
Over the past two decades, long-running debates about the purposes and practices of humanistic inquiry have been refocused as a debate about the uncertain fate of the humanities in a digital age. Now, with the advent of digital and computational humanities, scholars are discussing with a new urgency what the humanities are for and what it means to practice them. And many suggest that the surfeit of digital data is unprecedented and are calling for new methods, practices, and epistemologies.
Americans don’t trust their institutions. According to a recent Gallup poll, only 32 percent of Americans expressed a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in fourteen key institutions. Americans doubt whether their basic institutions––from organized religion and the news media to Congress and the medical system––are providing them with the knowledge and expertise that sustain a democratic society. And levels of confidence are clearly on the decline: In 1993, when Gallup first conducted its survey, 38 percent of Americans expressed faith in their institutions. Continue reading