Modern institutions talk about themselves. When a corporation refashions itself—undergoes a complete makeover not merely to look different, but to play an entirely different role—this revolution is fundamentally a matter of talk. Such a transformation took place in the university in the nineteenth century. It took place with much announcing and promising, and because the culture was ready for a new university serving entirely new purposes in line with the whole new drive of the world now dawning, this explaining was just the thing. In fact it was designed to convince. Today, there are people who look upon our universities as splendid and steadily improving accomplishments, while others look at the reams of readerless studies that fill academic journals, the bandwagon thinking that facilitates publication, and the new–new–thing mentality that keeps the syllabus almost as changeable as the fall TV lineup, and see a naked, destitute joke. The first crowd, who are in the majority, do not think there is any interesting tale to tell about the university in the nineteenth century, other than as the rise to today. But they ignore a question that the second group sees as pivotal: What is an educated person? The first crowd is increasingly concerned with the protection of funding, accreditation criteria, the academic/administration relationship, the corrections and revisions and inclusions and disposals recommended to make the university more inclusive, more diverse, less archaic. They assume there is no need to answer our question, because it has already been answered: education just is what the university does.
One pitfall of much discussion about the university is that it is about “the university.” Whatwe call “the university” is really a highly diverse collective of schools and scholars, pursuing very different kinds of learning. To be educated, however, was not traditionally the outcome of just any sort of learning. Until the late nineteenth century, it was hardly possible to imagine an “education” that did not address certain questions—questions that, in effect, constituted the substance of the humanities, especially in those regions that deal with created representations of human life: the works taught in departments of philosophy and religion, picturing the “first things” of a human life, or of English and art history, regaling us with all forms of human business.
Let us limit the focus to these texts and works and look back at what happened to their study in the nineteenth century, especially after about 1870. At that time philosophy and theology shifted from the center of the university to become mere departments, while the history of art and literature became new university “disciplines.” We call this the “professionalization” of study, a development that followed upon the creation in nineteenth–century Germany of what is known as the modern university.
The first universities in the Middle Ages were founded in part to instruct the student in wisdom, “the truth in which the supreme good is perceived”—for thinkers like Augustine, this was the very “road of life,” the way of genuine happiness. It used to be that the university was inhabited, as Julien Benda once explained, by a “race” of people “whose interests are set outside the practical world . . . and hence in a certain manner say: ‘My kingdom is not of this world.’” By 1800, however, the idea had arisen that what this medieval institution obstructed was precisely “learning”: bondage to church and state had reduced it to a training ground for clerics and civil servants. The modern university therefore repudiated the preeminence of creed to devote itself solely to the interests of learning itself, assuming the role of an autonomous servant to society at large. It would now produce knowledge with the same means/end effectiveness, the same pride in the delivery of a quality product, that one found in the manufacture of brass clocks and biscuits. In this era study indeed takes on “a new rigor,” a true professionality. But this rigor contained within it certain ambiguities—not illicit Cartesian uncertainties that cried out for positivism but the questions following any change in institutional role: What standards do I apply in this new context? To whom am I answerable? What requires my attention most seriously? Education was advancing, modernizing, but with an ideal that needed clarification, and this clarification was indeed supplied—furnished by the keynote of life in this very period.
The university became the producer of well–made knowledge and its purveyor to society. It proposed, and society accepted, a relationship in which genuine knowledge would be made available to society in exchange, in effect, for academic freedom. The boom, the hustle, the rise of everything that now surrounds us—buildings, networks, commerce, industries—gave this new education the okay, and the result is arguably the most successful institution in the world today. “Except perhaps for big–time soccer,” writes Jaroslav Pelikan, “the university seems to have become the most nearly universal man–made institution in the modern world.”
Yet in this thinking and in the idea of knowledge at its root, the whole business of education lost its place. The humanities embarked, eager to deliver, on a revolutionary path and simply fell into step with the buzz of the age: progressive manufacture. Learning was transformed, taking leave of a view of education that, as Gertrude Himmelfarb has put it, “would speak to the souls as well as the minds of students.” Such an outcome holds no mystery: learning is now a traffic in information, in material that has achieved commodity status precisely by disengaging itself from the problems of human life.
A return to history is necessary to clarify that what we have accepted as a straightforward success story was in fact a situation of good intentions, high ambitions, hazy means, and tragi–comic allegiances. Three German universities are the models of the university as we know it today: Halle, Göttingen, and Berlin, the latter two (founded respectively in 1737 and 1809) becoming, as the Encyclopaedia Britannica tells us, the prototype “institutions of modern learning and research” where “laboratory experimentation replaced conjecture” and “theological, philosophical, and other traditional doctrines were examined with a new rigor.” These institutions were new not because they repudiated tradition; theology remained one of their most important faculties. The new idea here was the idea of independent study—research, writing, and teaching not subservient to religious dogma and not beholden to the interests of the state.
F. W. J. Schelling’s design for the new university stressed “intellectual freedom, not shackled by scientifically irrelevant considerations.” He sought to overcome the unthinking reliance on an inherited “erudition” that takes the place of “knowledge itself,” and indeed “becomes an obstacle to true knowledge,” which requires the contact of each science with “its original object.” Universities, said Schelling, had become “no more than institutions for the transmitting of knowledge,” but the “purpose for which they were founded” encompassed more: teachers were not just to communicate existing wisdom but “also to enrich science with discoveries of their own.”
Each division of learning was now to consider its field “an end in itself.” “The more a scholar conceives of his particular domain as an end in itself,” Schelling believed, the more universities will achieve the rank of “real scientific institutions.” Wilhelm von Humboldt, head of the Prussian education system, announced for the University of Berlin in 1809 “the principle that will become dominant in higher establishments of learning”: Wissenschaft als solche zu suchen—”the pursuit of study as such,” which is nothing less than a new idea of learning.
Consider, as an instance that is by no means atypical, the study of art. At earlier times, art had figured little in academia, showing up only where art provided material suiting projects higher and greater than a “study of art” undertaken for itself. Before the nineteenth century such an idea had occurred to no one. So what did it mean, in the lack of any such tradition, to be trained in such a study? What would this training focus on? What was the untutored amateur missing?
Each branch of study, answered Schelling, must pay attention to “its original object.” But this is not the naïve “objectivity” pilloried by so many postmodern theorists. As Humboldt wrote in 1821, “Understanding is not merely an extension of the subject, nor is it merely a borrowing from the object; it is, rather, both simultaneously.” In Humboldt’s day, Wissenschaft was understood to mean “study,” unfettered investigation pursued under Kant’s motto of the Enlightenment: Sapere aude!—”Have the courage to use your own intelligence!” Don’t be led; look and see. Study meant objectivity, taking a free look at the work of art, but these theorists also believed that this study was a new and improved medium of Bildung, that “formation” by which the individual attains his or her true human stature.
The Humboldtian university still upheld the ancient idea that education was about the shaping or cultivation of the person into a fully human being. “Everywhere the idea of the university, as it has developed in the last two centuries, concerns the transition from doctrina to research,” says philosopher Hans–Georg Gadamer. “Taking part in scientific research is not however a preparation for a profession in which science is to be applied, but rather means ‘education’ [Bildung].” The ends of the modern university, then, had not changed, but the means were being revolutionized, and this is where trouble crept in. Humboldt’s Wissenschaft was understood both to perpetuate the tradition of “liberal education” and at the same time to indicate a rigorous quality of research, more rigorous than what had reigned before philosophy had emphasized the study of a thing “in and for itself.” Yet this more exacting study of things, this objectivity, is not altogether as self–evident as it sounds. “Good scientific method” was a rather vague concept, a poorly defined abstraction that readily attracted useful oversimplification at the expense of true education.
In the university’s sudden focus on the effectiveness of specific sciences everything in the human studies changes, though this very transformation seems to be a simple, rational adjustment in the managing of the university’s traditional purpose, liberal learning. This is a particularly fateful illusion. In the “professionalization” of university “disciplines,” we have in fact the transition to a new idea in education: method. “Method” is a poorly understood concept, passing for a benign generality when in fact it possesses a distinct and pivotal specificity. It is a concept of techne. Wherever we have method, we have a condition of “legitimacy,” and what it took to provide that legitimacy actually derailed the project of learning. To show this, we need merely return to Kant.
Kant concludes his Critique of Pure Reason with what he calls the “Doctrine of Method”:
Inasmuch as we have been warned not to venture at random upon a blind project which may be altogether beyond our capacities, . . . we must plan our building in conformity with the material which is given to us. . . . We have found, indeed, that although we had contemplated building a tower which should reach to the heavens, the supply of materials suffices only for a dwelling–house, just sufficiently commodious for our business.
In the emerging vision of a rational world, we would endorse as legitimate only those practices (such as medicine or the highly successful natural sciences) whosemeans are suited to their ends. Any discipline whose means cannot achieve its ends—Kant has in mind traditional metaphysics, but the rule is applicable to all science—will be identified as a failure and compelled either to improve its methods or fold up. Study, which aims to do justice to its objects, will now have to pass this test. What distinguishes the old study from the new? Not merely paying closer attention. Every viable form of science will submit to, as Kant put it, a “standard . . . whereby knowledge may be with certainty distinguished from pseudoscience.”
This, it must be emphasized, is a turning point in the history of the university. It is nothing less than the involvement of education in a vast paradigm shift. In the nineteenth century, one now begins to hear, rather frequently, this reasonable term “method.” Methods are not just procedures, but specifically cognitive procedures—procedures that aim to secure knowledge, that new thing which unites the multiplying branches of the modern university. Knowledge is the overarching concept of the university, and from the point of view of method, knowledge is a generic condition that can be successfully produced, in just the way that all the technai (said Aristotle) are fully fit to produce their goods. The university will make its knowledge well. Knowledge has now been technicized, understood as the “result” of specifically cognitive approaches, and the university is now the home of these approaches. It is the home—as Kant himself defined it—of “technicians of learning”:
Whoever it was that first hit upon the notion of a university and proposed that a public institution of this kind be established, it was not a bad idea to handle the entire content of learning . . . by mass production, so to speak—by a division of labor. . . . Only the scholar can provide the principles underlying their functions. . . . Accordingly they can be called the business men or technicians of learning.
This is one of the most profound reversals the history of education has ever seen. It is in fact the implosion of the idea of liberal knowledge, which is essentially opposed to all technique. The new idea, to repeat, is not the idea of the “advancement of learning,” which we have already had from figures such as Francis Bacon. It is the systematic advancement of learning with reference to a “standard whereby knowledge may be with certainty distinguished from pseudoscience,” a standard of cognitive legitimacy. Each science now conducts itself—assumes its place in the modern university—according to a universal requirement for knowledge credentials built upon a contrast with the dilettante.
To understand the business of knowledge—to understand what precinct the university now belongs to, and what education has now become—we need to look at how knowledge was reconceived in the nineteenth century. As John Henry Newman claimed in The Idea of a University, “A University . . . by its very name professes to teach universal knowledge.” Knowledge—undifferentiated, divided into fields but no longer into Aristotelian types or kinds—ultimately winds up at the pinnacle of human achievement, and there it remains today. “It could be,” says a PBS advertisement of recent years, “that we are here to remind each other of what is not to be missed or ignored but celebrated and, finally, known.”
But it is one thing to bring together and protect different types of practice under a single roof, buffering them from the pressures of the world, as Kant had intended for the university in The Conflict of the Faculties. It is quite another to unite them all, technically, under a single concept. This Kant accidentally encouraged, and all those involved in shaping the modern university—Humboldt, Newman, John Stuart Mill—followed his lead, whether it was truly in their interest or not.
When Newman argues repeatedly for the idea of “knowledge as its own end,” he appears to be restating the core defense of the liberal arts tradition that runs back to Aristotle and Socrates. But in fact he drives home an entirely new idea. For precisely while arguing for the centrality to the university of nonproductive forms of study (Aristotle called sophia “useless”), his own idea of the university embraces every branch of knowledge simply as knowledge.
What an empire is in political history, such is a University in the sphere of philosophy and research. It is, as I have said, the high protecting power of all knowledge and science, of fact and principle, of inquiry and discovery, of experiment and speculation; it maps out the territory of the intellect, and speculation . . . and sees that the boundaries of each province are religiously respected. . . . It acts as umpire between truth and truth, and, taking into account the nature and importance of each, assigns to all their due order of precedence.
But with respect to what can the university protect the “power of all knowledge”? Newman explicitly rejects any submission of the sciences to a higher principle such as religion; he is a consummate defender of the separation of the disciplines. Each science serves knowledge by its own methods. Newman clearly sees the connection of method with the trades and professions (which is where the idea comes from), but he is also ready to believe in a method for knowledge itself. “I say then, if we would improve the intellect, first of all, we must ascend; we cannot gain real knowledge on a level; we must generalize, we must reduce to method, we must have a grasp of principles, and group and shape our acquisitions by means of them“ (emphasis added). John Stuart Mill makes precisely the same alliance between liberal learning and this penetration into the structure of knowledge. For Mill, understanding how “the real facts of the world” are discovered, and “by what tests [man] can judge whether he has really found them,” is “doubtless . . . the crown and consummation of a liberal education: but before we restrict a University to this highest department of instruction—before we confine it to teaching, not knowledge, but the philosophy of knowledge—we must be assured that the knowledge itself has been acquired“ (emphasis added).
Knowledge in the nineteenth century came to function precisely like a manufactured product: it is a good, a well–made thing. At the same time, nineteenth–century thinking about knowledge was dominated by the Kantian categories of subjectivity and objectivity, and Kant’s explanation of the dynamics of knowledge was indispensable to the modern academic who found himself under pressure from bourgeois society to demonstrate the genuine possession of a skill (his method)—the capacity to produce a “real knowledge” not obtained by the dilettante, just as the genuine physician (unlike the charlatan) produces real health. Kant inadvertently made that demonstration possible. Under the mounting modern pressure of success, Kant, “the liberator of science from all the metaphysical slag of rationalism,” became, as Gadamer explains, “the guarantor of scientific philosophy”: “philosophy became epistemology” and fleshed out a sound conception of “knowledge” for the age of technique.
Any prospective science could now show its power, justify its place, guarantee its legitimacy if it satisfied three conditions: first, if it maximized objectivity, in the sense of attention to the object; second, if “bad” subjectivity (like the commitment to certain conclusions prior to investigation) had been excluded from the study; and third, if (under the right conditions) the conclusions arrived at were evident not only to the scholar but to “everybody else” who considered the assembled case, which is precisely how Kant had characterized objective knowledge in natural science. Knowledge was to be publicly visible, confirmable by others in the same way that the report of a “warm room” is confirmable when the room is in fact warm. Knowledge has a profile, and the new human studies were designed to deliver on it.
Why did this particular picture of knowledge gain currency? Not because of the natural sciences, or “positivism,” but because of the rise of techne, the issue of technical success that the human sciences willingly embraced as their own. To the theorists of the modern university, the objects of the human studies (works of art or literature or philosophy or religion) would only be served better, known better, if we concentrated on the methods of knowing. The conception of knowledge outlined above was sucked into the humanities by their desire to measure up to productive technai like medicine and the natural sciences and achieve the same conditions of demonstrable productivity. And so these specific areas of inquiry were fraught with a particular problem that they would have to overcome.
In all the areas I began by discussing—philosophy, religion, literature, art—a genuine question existed as to whether knowledge was even possible. Is there even such a thing as “knowledge of art”? Today this question seems peculiar, but a century or more ago it was intelligent, for philosophy and religion had never been generators of knowledge as it was now defined, and the study of art and literature had never been university “subjects” at all.
Consider art. Art appears to resist the generation of knowledge, for studying it demands interpretation and interpretation is notoriously variable and far from knowledge–like. On top of this, examples abounded of a kind of subjective writing about art that could never be acknowledged by university dignitaries, and this put the study of art in a uniquely difficult position.
It was necessary to dispel suspicions that conclusions about art were merely speculative, to show that there was a serious difference between academic study and the writing of the dilettante and journalist. Art, as Leo Steinberg notes—and here it is not different from literature, or indeed philosophy and religion (when they aren’t treated as history)—is an inherently problematic subject matter: “The attempts to cope with more private or more freely metaphorical and evasive aspects of art become professionally suspect. They tend to be left to art writers, popularizers, critics, psychologists—that is, to men who have neither the habits nor the responsibilities of the historian’s hard–won methodology, so that their contributions to the literature of art serve to confirm the discredit of the whole enterprise.”
But once knowledge had been clarified, as every proponent of the modern university wished, this problem vanished. New objective, anti–subjective questions are asked that fall in with the cognitive program, delivering visible “conclusions” that are entirely compatible with the accumulating results of the other sciences. For there was no room at the heart of modern, industrial society for an institution of the size and stature of the university that continued to hold itself above, in Benda’s words, “the tendency to action, the thirst for immediate results, the exclusive preoccupation with the desired end.” So within a century the “humanities” were transformed from the sum of all the varied projects of humanism and its rivals—the clarification of ideals, the pursuit of wisdom, the hunting and gathering of lots of truth, wherever truth might lay—into effective producers of a legitimated product across the entire spectrum of their self–appointed business, which was nothing less than the sphere of human creation itself.
The new kinds of questioning addressed to these creations transformed the humanities into reliable factories of a newly conceived knowledge and the universities into sources of skilled labor to run those factories. The technique that built the modern world—its machinery and bureaucracy and systems—would now produce its knowledge and understand its art with the same mentality as it weaved and fished and mined. But the new cognitive method that delivered this “knowledge of art” meant it was really a new product—new not merely in being rigorous and well–defined, but also in terms of its shape, its content, its field of engagement as well. For the first time, we have a knowledge about art or literature that is validated by everyone—that everyone can see is knowledge. For the first time, we have interpretations of religion and philosophy that are conceived with an eye for confirmation rather than in an uncertain dialogue with the interpreter. The whole encounter with a work of art unfolds in a new field of sense–making determined by what the group can see. No longer do I understand art or religion by approaching it with a question of life (necessarily, my life). What I need is an accessible, convincing argument. As Kant advised, the industry has tooled itself for “mass production.”
The classic expression of liberal learning revolves around four issues. First, learning of the liberal sort is not training: it does not confer the know–how required to generate an outcome or fabricate a given product (as Aristotle put it, to “make” or produce something such as a bridle or a building). It is conducted because it is valuable in itself:it is a direct involvement, in Aristotle’s scheme, with the self–justifying telos of the good, “what sorts of thing conduce to the good life in general,” rather than an indirect involvement, as is the case with professional training. Second, it is supposed to help one live well, as both Newman and Mill argue. “Liberal Education,” says Newman, “is simply the cultivation of the intellect, as such, and its object is nothing more or less than intellectual excellence; . . . for why do we educate, except to prepare for the world?” Writes Mill, “The claims which each [of the departments] has to a place in liberal education” depend upon “in what special manner they each conduce to the improvement of the individual mind and . . . how they all conspire to the common end, the strengthening, exalting, purifying, and beautifying of our common nature, and the fitting out of mankind with the necessary mental implements for the work they have to perform through life.” Third, liberal education is not a body of knowledge that can be imparted to the student; it is the examination of the issues raised in various sources—an examination of texts that engages the student’s thinking about these matters but does not merely implant the “answers” to the questions. These texts are not “taught”; they are read, and reading is dialectical. That is, the sources are “taken seriously,” as when one listens to a person who may know something. In this personal dialogue the reader and the text address each other’s questions. This is the reason why, fourth, liberal learning is oriented more to teaching than to research: there are no “gaps in the knowledge” of this form of learning; countless texts that answer the vital questions at the heart of each life already exist.
In the ancient schema of knowledge, liberal learning corresponds only to some of the five “modes of knowing” that, for Aristotle, combined to make the knowledge needed in a complete human life. What has to do most directly with the good is, in Aristotle and Plato, both sophia and phronesis, philosophic wisdom and practical wisdom. They are different from technical knowledge (techne), which is the productive knowledge imparted in training. The two forms of wisdom have to do with the good in respect of each person. With phronesis (having judgment in “things human”) “there will be many wisdoms,” since each person must make a different decision about what is to his or her “own advantage,” given that individual’s self–understanding and affinity for the good. With sophia (knowledge of the good in itself), all people will learn to recognize the good as their own particular nature fits them to do. In phronesis and sophia one finds all four themes of the liberal knowledge tradition: the good, life–oriented knowledge, process and not product, and a dialogue that each person must conduct for himself. Wrote Gadamer in his The Idea of the Good in Platonic–Aristotelian Philosophy,”Here, in the question of the good, there is no body of knowledge at one’s disposal. Nor can one person defer to the authority of another. One has to ask oneself, and in so doing, one necessarily finds oneself in discussion either with oneself or with others.”
The technai, however, were excluded by Aristotle from this territory: “Practical wisdom cannot be . . . art [techne].” The idea of the good must then be approached not by one road but by several, some of which are farther away from the good than others. How, then, did the modern university—the so–called home of liberal education—manage to rebuild itself on the technical model alone? The modern university, and precisely in the humanities, the very territory of liberal knowledge, shifted its interest from phronesis and sophia to technique, and thereby gave up, without even knowing it, the project of learning. The university betrayed that tradition, reducing it to the crudest interests of nineteenth–century progress. The university became, like a textile mill or a lumber yard, a depot for the whole of society, which was now enjoined (with liberal arts arguments) to pick up this well–made knowledge—merely having it would form the individual. There was a dignity in the possession of knowledge, no matter what the stuff had now become.
This idea of the dignity of knowledge sounds like the time–honored ideal of the liberal arts tradition, but it is not that idea, as thinkers like Newman fatally failed to note. By his embrace of the universal concept of “knowledge,” Newman’s own arguments sped the end of the tradition he admired. Newman was, precisely like Humboldt, a figure caught between two ages and engaged in the attempt to carry the ancient idea of formation, Bildung, civilization, the “ennobling of the character” (Schiller) into the modern age along the tightrope of technique—an unperformable feat.
In its own efficient fashion, technique has coursed through every vein of human life, and indeed could hardly have missed one. In the two hundred years in which it has swept the globe, transformed the landscape, dotted every room with stuff, ordered and refashioned human life, technique has certainly come to the aid of the human mind, as it has to human muscles, human vision, human pleasure, human dexterity. For the promise of technique in the modern period is absolute: there is in principle no desire for which the genie of method cannot be called upon. It was inevitable that the acquisition of knowledge would also be technicized, for in a technical age the very same things depend on it as depend on the gathering of ore and the netting of fish. I am certainly sympathetic to the idea of The University in Ruins, evoked by the late Bill Readings, but it is the wrong metaphor. The university was torn down and then richly rebuilt in the manufacturing sector, right in the midst of its chaos of values.
And not merely was the space of education left vacant by this generation of free–market goods, answering to no idea of human self–transformation. The creation of the modern university involves not the understanding of its objects but their effective expulsion from the endeavor of learning. By a remarkable irony, through this so–called knowledge, the tools that humankind has painstakingly fashioned for understanding and communicating what it means to be human, for recognizing what a human life demands—religious texts, works of philosophy, paintings, poems—have been hollowed and broken, so that we now “know” them only as the experts use them: as hooks for dead information. The known work of art is a testimony to facts that are as much use in direction–finding, in staying a course on the road of life, as a Hollywood movie or a swankier lawnmower.
The modern human sciences reduce the tradition to rubble because they transform the objects that were the very center of liberal learning into grist for the production of a general commodity. With modern knowledge we are not “satisfying a direct need of our nature in its very acquisition”—the idea of learning from Aristotle to Newman. Nothing can be done with this knowledge except to have it; it is simply that which we know, the material we keep in our heads. As Thomas Merton so eloquently put it, the modern person is one who “has no longer any knowledge of anything except himself, his machines, and his knowledge that he knows what he knows.” The modern university itself inaugurates a new tradition in which the culture will now do without the real voice of philosophy, art, religion, myth, literature. What the educated person is now to learn is what the sciences produce; to be educated is to know what the disciplines deliver, and to be truly learned is to be busy making more.
Questions were once asked in the encounter with art, philosophy, Scripture, and poetry—questions about living. Before there were experts “an encounter with an author, character, plot, stanza, live or archaic torso,” as Richard Rorty put it, could speak directly to a life question and make a difference to the reader’s “conception of who she is, what she is good for, what she wants to do with herself.” Where, in our society, do the answers to these questions come from? It is a question worthy of real reflection. How do we learn what to want? The university fails most not by ceasing to address such questions (with what could it now do that?) but by appropriating for its own merchandising purposes the tradition from which the answers come. The group–designed methods of knowledge that “legitimated” these disciplines do not take us anywhere near questions of this sort. And that is why it is the faculties of arts, which have come to equate knowledge with professionalized knowledge, and not the natural sciences that have destroyed education. Yale’s Frank Turner uses the right language: “Here is the treason of the clerks at the close of the twentieth century.” The modern university has replaced the sources of human life with its own amusing arguments and cases. What we have done, by handing these works to a realm of expertise, is to give technology an invitation to manage the territory of the soul. One might as well hand this task to Coca–Cola or Microsoft or General Motors or Disney.
The core of the university is not knowledge. There is no such thing as “knowledge,” as something that can be attained (in an area like the human sciences) by controlled procedures, professionalism, “disciplinarity.” Once “knowledge” in general has been both validated as an end in itself and identified as the product of appropriatemeans, the “liberal” arts have decisively lost their territory and are merely herded in with the “useful” arts in another sector of human life altogether.
Knowledge is a commodity; education, however, means learning. To learn from the sources, it is necessary not to “know” them. One has to go off alone with them, where there is no audience, where group conditions no longer hold, where one’s real questions may be asked. The task of the human sciences is to create a social space for this thinking, in which the individual is not left alone. It is to provide a place for the student to talk through an understanding of the meaning of texts in their exact bearing upon the human journey. And it is to make this possible against the tide of the modern world: to show the limit of technique, to create an alternative to consumption as a mode of life, and to free the individual to ask real questions of the witnesses to real human life—poets and thinkers and artists. And therefore it is the task of the university to attack itself.
What we are looking at is the simple dribbling away of a long–lasting inheritance in the true understanding of knowledge, as something manifold and answering to all aspects of the human being. It would be one thing if the Aristotelian divisions of knowledge had been found wanting and were overturned—but there was no critique of the idea of a nontechnical knowledge, an idea at the very heart of the university tradition; the concept was simply dropped by the way, in the excitement of modernization, of perfected means. As each new publishing season shuffles the university syllabus, we can see, if we look, that technical culture has entirely won—rebuilt the world as a place of manufacture and consumption in which our own existing self–images and sympathies are simply reflected back at us, in the sad trick of advertising, and nothing speaks to the soul at all. “Not a knowledge of reality, but a knowledge of knowledge,” as Thomas Merton put it. Take it all as the gift of “education,” courtesy of the technicians of learning.
Edward Tingley is an editor at the Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal. This essay is adapted from his newly completed study An Industrial History of Learning: Art and Knowledge in the Age of the Commodity.