Don’t Look to Universities for Moral Clarity

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.

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Introduction to “Rise of the Research University”

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

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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