'Organizing Enlightenment'

Author of new book on the creation of the research university discusses the role of disciplines and information overload -- from the 18th century to the rise of MOOCs.

May 8, 2015

German intellectuals created the idea of the research university, and, with it, academic disciplines. In Organizing Enlightenment: Information Overload and the Invention of the Modern Research University (Johns Hopkins University Press), Chad Wellmon explores this history and its impact on academe in the United States, right up through the creation of massive open online courses. Wellmon, associate professor of German studies and faculty fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia, discussed his new book in an email interview with Inside Higher Ed.

Q: Higher education existed in many nations by the time the Germans created the research university. Why did it develop in Germany?

A: During the 18th century, German thinkers and intellectuals came up with a unique solution to a common problem of technological and cultural change. Throughout Europe, especially in England and France, complaints about too many books and too much information had a long history. In Germany over the last third of [that] century, these claims became ever more pronounced. And while there had been a long tradition of textual ways of dealing with these worries -- think of Ann Blair’s work on note taking and other scholarly practices -- German thinkers began to debate the very idea and ethics of knowledge. And these debates led to the idea of a new institution of higher learning with a specific role in relation to the changing media environment.

Central to these debates was the notion that knowledge was not some ready-made thing that dutiful scholars simply collected and displayed in printed tomes of erudition. Knowledge was a problem that could never fully be solved. As opposed to mere “facts,” as they put it, knowledge had to be crafted, shared and cultivated over time. It required research, not simply erudition.

This concept of knowledge entailed a distinct picture of the ideal scholar. It had clear ethical consequences. A real scholar, as opposed to a hack -- or what Immanuel Kant termed “businessmen” -- contributed to the historical progression of knowledge over time. However specialized and particular a scholar’s work, he could still console himself in the belief that he was contributing to something bigger than himself -- what the Germans called Wissenschaft.

This ethic came to be embodied in the ideal of what I term the disciplinary self and its distinct virtues: industriousness, attention to detail, a critical disposition and a commitment to the collaborative development of knowledge. Most accounts focus on the political and institutional histories of the research university. But I’m interested in how these earlier epistemic and ethical ideals were initially formulated and then gradually institutionalized in hiring practices, standards of evaluation, publishing expectations and the graduate seminar -- all the practices, norms and virtues that make up the modern research university.

Q: You discuss the idea that German scholars were concerned about information overload in the 19th century. In the age of the web, it's hard to imagine information overload in that time. Would you explain how those scholars could feel that this was a problem?

A: In the last decades of the 18th century, German writers and thinkers increasingly complained about “plagues” and “floods” of books. They were, as many saw it, awash in print. And to be sure, between 1770 and 1800 there was a clear increase in printed material, something on the order of a 125 percent increase in print titles. But to claim there were too many books was implicitly to claim there were too many books to engage in a particular way. It was to presume the normative value of one form of reading or one way of pursuing knowledge over another. Worries about information overload, both in 18th-century Germany and today, are more fundamentally manifestations of underlying anxieties and proposed solutions.

In this sense, my book is a history of a cultural anxiety. In an age of media surplus and easily accessible information, what counted as authoritative and legitimate knowledge? Which sources should be trusted and which not? The anxieties about the proliferation of print were not really about the number of books or the sheer quantity of printed words but more fundamentally about epistemic authority. Similar to our own concerns about a digital deluge, late 18th-century Germans were anxious about changes in the technologies and institutions that created, transmitted and evaluated knowledge.

Q: How did the creation of the research university lead to the creation of disciplines?

A: Disciplines and disciplinarity have always been at the core of the modern research university. Of course, the organization and classification of knowledge has a history that long precedes the rise of the research university. Just think of the proliferation of organizational schemas and categories from Hugh of Saint Victor’s Didascalicon to the elaborate, never-ending work of 18th-century German encyclopedists whose texts were sprawling with categories, classes and subdivisions. But disciplines aren’t just abstract taxonomies of knowledge. They are formative practices. Disciplines don’t just organize ideas and concepts; they form particular types of people. They entail institutional and social practices and an underlying ethos aimed at producing a certain type of person who can then produce a certain type of knowledge.

With the rise of the research university, these distinct knowledge practices -- certain traditions of literature, methods, virtues -- were institutionalized and made more sustainable. The innovation of the research university was to unify the two historical senses of discipline -- as subjective formation and objective category. It tied epistemic categories to intellectual practices.

Q: Today many colleges and universities boast of encouraging interdisciplinary work -- and many academic meetings feature people talking about the dangers of silos, etc. Is there a value in disciplines -- inspired by the German model -- that is getting ignored?

A: I think so. Disciplines have always had deep cultural functions. Disciplinarity and specialization are not new problems to be solved, but answers to an older problem of media surplus that we still inhabit. Disciplines help us manage and deal with ubiquitous and easily accessible information. They are institutionally based search-and-filter technologies. They help keep knowledge from becoming too abstract by providing standards of excellence, intellectual communities and authoritative traditions.

And by tradition I mean that disciplines are embodied as opposed to simply theoretical forms of knowledge. If we think of disciplines as traditions, then we’re immediately dealing with questions of authority, transmission, language, concepts and, especially, critique. Traditions are never univocal or monolithic. Disciplines are defined by perpetual internal conflict about what belongs and what doesn’t, what is relevant for today and the future. The boundaries and standards of disciplines are highly flexible and are constantly being redrawn and rearticulated. The limitations and frustrations over disciplinarity are, in my experience, more often about the reduction of disciplines to departments, an innovation imposed by the American research university in the late 19th century. The practice of history or biology, for example, is not reducible to an administrative unit.

Q: Johns Hopkins University is credited with bringing the research university model from Germany to the United States. As you look at the university today, do you see the German roots still visible in the U.S.?

A: I should note that well before these ideas and norms were adopted and adapted by American university reformers such as Charles Eliot at Harvard, Daniel Coit Gilman at Hopkins or Henry Tappan at Michigan, there was no one German model. Both in Germany and in the United States, there have long been vestiges of an idealized research university in the form of distinct norms and virtues, and these are perhaps the most important legacy of the story I tell.

Of particular importance is the idea that the research university has its own cultural logic and normative structure -- one not immediately reducible to economic or political interests -- that legitimates its claims to create and share a certain type of knowledge. Gilman, the first president of Hopkins, claimed that the research university formed scholars to be careful observers, careful and attentive laborers, habitual publishers, and cooperative seekers of knowledge -- these were the principles of acquiring, conserving and sharing knowledge.

And it is this cultural function that puts research universities in the same historical lineage of technologies that extend from the invention of writing and the codex to the printing press and the modern scientific lab. The basic notion adopted and adapted in an American context was a particular ethos of knowledge that saw the research university as standing in for a whole way of organizing and cultivating the desire to know -- a set of norms, virtues and purposes that have guided the institution in Germany, the U.S. and beyond for two centuries now.

Q: In your afterword, you note the MOOC hype of a few years ago. Are there lessons from your book that apply to the way American academics today debate the best ways to share knowledge?

A: In 2012 a small band of University of Virginia trustees and well-placed alumni, touting the potentially “disruptive” effects of digital technologies, undertook an unsuccessful coup at my university. As it turned out, they had read a few articles in The New York Times and Wall Street Journal and concluded that a revolution was imminent. MOOCs were salvific technologies that would remake universities and higher education. That hasn’t happened. But it wasn’t just the businesspeople who rapturously insisted that universities had to reinvent themselves. Many academics have long anticipated digital technologies that would upend the smothering authority structure of the research university. And Arizona State seems intent on trying. But I’m not sure ASU, for example, is interested in tying its MOOC business to its research university. I think they are two different undertakings.

I won’t make any prognostications, but I would say that technology prophets both inside and outside the university tend to overlook or disregard what I take to be the central feature of the modern research university. Universities don’t simply deliver content or distribute information; they bestow epistemic authority. And they do so by sustaining intellectual practices and their standards of excellence and goods. They create knowledge by forming people into distinct communities. Research universities have been organized around the premise that knowledge is not just an inert object to be efficiently distributed. It is rather an activity that one engages in -- and into which one is cultivated.


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