Big Humanities and the Ethics of Knowledge

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.

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The Limits of Expertise

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

The University, Virtue and the Limits of Critique

[This is the text of a talk I delivered at “Virtue and the University,” a conference held in May at Christ Church College at Oxford.] 

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.

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The Invention of Philosophy

In the preface to the second edition of the Critique of Pure Reason, Immanuel Kant, the eighteenth-century German philosopher who published his magnum opus at the age of fifty after ten years of publishing silence, solicited help from his readers. The initial reviewers of what would become one of modern philosophy’s canonical texts couldn’t understand it. Kant’s critics highlighted his “terse writing style,” disregard for the “greatest part of the reading public,” and irredeemable abstractions that hovered “too much in the clouds.” Continue reading

Whatever Happened to General Education?

Finance, football, and fraternities—not philosophy or physics—are the pillars of the modern American university. It’s been that way for more than a century: In On the Higher Learning in America (1918)—published fewer than forty years after the founding of Johns Hopkins, America’s first research university—Thorstein Veblen, the early-twentieth-century American sociologist who coined the term “conspicuous consumption,” dismissed American universities as little more than “competitive businesses.” In Plato’s “classic scheme of folly,” he wrote, long before preening professors decried the corporatization of universities, America’s burgeoning institutions of higher education had turned the ancient Greek’s scheme on its head. Businessmen had overtaken universities and were managing the “pursuit of knowledge.”(1) An early reviewer of On the Higher Learning, writing in the New York Times, warned readers that the book was a “gas attack” on a sacred institution.(2) And, almost a century later, in the fall of 2014, Veblen’s rambling but idealistic tirade brought one of my students to tears.

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Epistemic Inequality

Andrew Piper and I recently completed the first essay in a larger project on knowledge norms and publishing. “Publication, Power, Patronage: On Inequality and Academic Publishing” will be out soon in Critical Inquiry. Our hope for the broader project is to help mitigate the profound ignorance that we scholars, ourselves included, have of our own institutions. We are also trying to imagine what epistemic equality might look like, both as a concept and an institutional reality. Continue reading

On What is Missing

From 2014-2016, I chaired an effort at the University of Virginia to reform undergraduate general education. It was a brutal. But in May of last year, my colleagues in the College of Arts and Sciences voted, with 83% in favor, to pilot a new curriculum. This past fall I gave my first talks reflecting on the process and the challenges (conceptual, ethical, historical and political) of curriculum reform. Here is a video of talk I gave at Baylor University in October. It also includes a wonderful response from Alan Jacobs and a great Q&A.