Organizing Enlightenment: Information Overload and the Invention of the Modern Research University
Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015
368 pp., $44.95
Anti-Education: On the Future of Our Educational Institutions (New York Review Books Classics)
NYRB Classics, 2015
160 pp., $15.95
"The Centrifugal Experience of Knowledge"
Marshall McLuhan famously wrote that "the 'content' of any medium is always another medium." The content of print is speech; the content of the telegraph is print; the content of the music video is the radio song. The point may be more generally true of technologies and institutions, in such a way that the advent of a new technology or a new institution allows us to become conscious of the nature of its predecessor. So once the internet becomes the primary means by which written messages are exchanged, people become fascinated by typewriters, pens, notebooks, posted letters—all the technologies and practices that the internet has displaced.
Similarly, the movement of much education and scholarly research online—online lectures, courses, and degrees; digital images of museum collections and archives; PDFs of scholarly articles; digital texts of primary sources sliced and diced in every imaginable way—has led to deep reflection on the structures, methods, and institutions of earlier generations of scholars. The topics may be narrow—Anthony Grafton's The Footnote: A Curious History (1997)—or vast—James Turner's Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities (2014)—or somewhere in between—Adrian Johns' The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making (1998)—but they have in common an interest in scholarly method and the material and social and institutional contexts in which scholars worked.
If there is one theme that all these investigations share, it may well be summed up in the title of Ann Blair's Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age (2010). We who believe we live in an age of "information overload" may be surprised, and even consoled, by understanding how many people felt precisely the same way three or four or even five hundred years ago. (Or we can go much further back if we choose: saith the Preacher in Jerusalem, "Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.")
One of the most compelling entries in this new genre appeared in 2015: Organizing Enlightenment: Information Overload and the Invention of the Modern Research University, by Chad Wellmon, a professor of German at the University of Virginia. (Disclosure: Chad and I have become friends in the past couple of years.) I have said that this scholarly genre is interested in technology and in institutions; among the several distinctive and illuminating features of Wellmon's book is his insistence that an institution, in this case the research university, can best be understood as a technology.
Early in the book he writes,
The ideal of the German research university was a response to a pervasive Enlightenment anxiety about information overload. This anxiety was particularly acute in late eighteenth-century Germany. Just as today we imagine ourselves to be engulfed by a flood of digital data, Germans of the late eighteenth century saw themselves as having been infested by a plague of books, circulating contagiously among the reading public.
A few decades earlier, other answers to the problem were proposed and pursued: while the Enlightenment, in its various versions, certainly promoted key ideas such as freedom of thought and emancipation from bondage to superstition, "Enlightenment also referred to an array of technologies—encyclopedias, dictionaries, taxonomies, philosophical systems—designed to manage the centrifugal experience of knowledge."
Perhaps the best example of the ideals of the "encyclopedic" strategy for mastering information is the Système Figuré des Connaissances Humaines—"Figurative System of the Varieties of Human Knowledge"—that accompanied the great Encyclopédie created in Paris between 1751 and 1772. The "figurative system" is a great, horizontally branching tree that begins by dividing all knowledge, as Caesar had divided Gaul, into three parts: Memory (the ruling discipline of which is History), Reason (Philosophy), and Imagination (Poetry). From there a detailed set of subdivisions give the sense that, no matter how overloaded we are by information, such information will always find a place in a rational and orderly system.
Wellmon points out that this system had many advantages, but was by no means perfect. Divisions and subdivisions could ramify forever, new data could always be added, at the risk of making the "figurative system" no more comprehensible than the masses of disorganized data it was supposed to deal with. This problem could be avoided by acknowledging that no encyclopedia can cover everything—but then, at what degree of limitation does it cease to be encyclopedic?
And two further problems were perhaps still more serious, at least in the minds of some 18th-century intellectuals: encyclopedias built on the division of knowledge into branches could, in theory at least, do an excellent job of identifying and organizing what people already know; but what good were they for generating new knowledge? Moreover, what strategies did they possess for distinguishing, in an age of wildly proliferating print, actual knowledge from the nonsense and half-truths that the printers and booksellers and journalists of Europe were all too happy to peddle? As Immanuel Kant wrote in his famous essay "What Is Enlightenment?", "It is so easy to be immature. If I have a book that has understanding for me," that is, does the work of understanding for me, " … surely I do not need to trouble myself."
It is at this point, argues Wellmon, that the modern research university emerges. He presents in powerful detail the case that the university as we know it today arose in Germany as an attempt to continue the knowledge-organizing work that the encyclopedists had begun, but to provide a network of practices that could reliably assess existing truth-claims and discover yet-unknown truths, and—this is essential to that founding conception—to put all of these practices in the service of creating wise and virtuous young men.
The choice of the university as the social institution within which to pursue these reforms and social goods was by no means an obvious one. Throughout the 18th century, German universities were suffering declining enrollments—Wellmon notes that there had been a total of 4,400 students in 1720, 3,400 in 1790, and only 2,900 in 1800—and seemed to do very little teaching, serving instead primarily as social clubs for rowdy young men. Many German political and social leaders thought the universities should simply be shut down. The remarkable thing, I found myself thinking as I read Wellmon's narrative, is that a handful of first-rate thinkers saw the state of the universities as an opportunity to be exploited rather than a disease to be eradicated.
Wellmon argues that the key figures—Kant, Wilhelm von Humboldt, Friedrich Schelling, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Friedrich Schleiermacher—all discerned, though in varying ways, that there was a connection between the moral vagaries of German youth and the proliferation of print. The sea of words rose and swelled, and people riding on it became morally seasick, woozy, disoriented. In Wellmon's telling, Schelling was the one who most clearly saw the interrelations of the various phenomena. A long quotation is necessary here:
For Schelling, the eighteenth-century university reproduced the effects of information overload in institutional and pedagogical form. It not only hindered the advancement of knowledge but also threatened the integrity of the individual by producing distracted, unreflective young men. The university, especially the Enlightenment university that valued utility above all else, had been complicit in fomenting this epistemological and ethical crisis, and it was incumbent upon a vanguard of thinkers to reimagine the university as not simply an efficient institution, but rather the institutional embodiment of a distinct practice, namely, science. Only science as a practice, as a source of internal goods and virtues, not better textbooks or more complex encyclopedias, could address the epistemic and ethical effects of information overload. The task of the university was to form subjects of knowledge capable of navigating the oceans of print. It was to transform a student's vision of the world and shape their character, to fuse epistemology with ethics.
The German word for science, Wissenschaft, is rather broader than what we today would call science: the Wissenschaften are the academic and scholarly disciplines, including not just the natural sciences (Naturwissenschaften) but also the social sciences and humanities (Geisteswissenschaften), politics and law (Rechtswissenschaften), and so on. Wissenschaft is not just reading or even studying, but the disciplined, orderly, critical, systematic pursuit of a particular body of knowledge.
This enterprise, properly pursued, is in the strongest sense "character-forming": "It was to transform a student's vision of the world and shape their character"—and when Wellmon writes of education as a shaper of character, he always has in mind that complex, powerful, and distinctively German word Bildung. It is telling that the root of this word, Bild, means "image": what education, properly speaking, does for you is to form you in a particular image of virtue or excellence until that form stabilizes you and you become who you properly are. Many literature students learn about the Bildungsroman, commonly translated as "novel of education," but what that word really means is "novel of personal growth and character-formation." The Bildungsroman tells the story of how a chaotic and vacuous youth is shaped by powerful experiences in such a way that he or she becomes a fully-formed and stable adult.
The dream of Schelling, Fichte, and the others was to create a university (virtually from whole cloth) that through its dedication to the Wissenschaften would become an environment in which genuinely virtuous character could be formed. No longer would the young men of Germany go to university for merely social purposes; no longer would they be the passive consumers of print, without form and void, like the chaotic world of books and magazines and newspapers. In the sophisticated, complex technology of the new universities the future of the German people would be forged.
In addition to writing Organizing Enlightenment, Chad Wellmon has also recently edited, along with Paul Reitter, a series of early lectures by Friedrich Nietzsche: Anti-Education: On the Future of Our Educational Institutions. This is a curious document, but one that illuminates some of the directions Nietzsche's thought would later take—and also gives us a glimpse at the German university half-a-century after its reinvention.
It is a work whose thought is difficult to assess because it is essentially a dialogue and was never completed. Nietzsche distances himself in curious ways from what is said in the lectures: he begins by imagining a narrator, a young man, still a student—though only a few years younger than Nietzsche himself, who was 27 when he delivered these lectures. And the narrator, though he occasionally expresses himself, chiefly records a set of long, agitated speeches an elderly philosopher makes to one of his young disciples. It certainly possible that Nietzsche dissents from at least some of what the philosopher says, though none of the characters in the dialogue dissents in any major way. Perhaps if Nietzsche had been able to complete the series of lectures some challenge would have been mounted by someone: near the end of the fifth lecture new figures are about to appear on stage.
But all this is speculation. Moreover, some of the old philosopher's key ideas are developed in more intellectually vigorous, more subtle, and less bombastic form in an essay Nietzsche wrote just two years later, "Schopenhauer as Educator." So I think the best provisional hypothesis is that the ideas of the philosopher in Anti-Education are substantially Nietzsche's own, though they would later undergo refinement.
We may summarize those ideas as follows: first, a fierce distinction must be made between education as it is practiced in 19th-century Germany, including what goes by the name of "classical" education, and genuine Bildung. For Nietzsche, Bildung certainly involves personal formation and the establishment of noble character, but is also closely connected to the ability genuinely to encounter civilization in its best and most challenging aspects.
What typically went by the name of education, by contrast, was an endeavor willing to "give up its own highest, noblest, and loftiest claims and content itself with serving … the state." And what does the state want from its educational institutions? "As much knowledge and education as possible—leading to the greatest possible production and demand—leading to the greatest happiness: that's the formula. Here we have Utility as the goal and purpose of education, or more precisely Gain: the highest possible income." (To anyone who teaches in an American university today this will be a familiar refrain indeed. And it is not just outsiders who chant it.)
This "servitude" is something that must happen at the social as well as the individual level. The student, but also the German culture as a whole, must submit to a threefold authority: that of the "need for philosophy," that of "the instinct for art," and that of "the standard of Greek and Roman antiquity." If this triple obedience can be achieved by more than a handful, then something can be achieved that the philosopher greatly desires: the full flowering of the "German spirit" (deutschen Geist, a phrase that appears more than a dozen times in the lectures)—which is a very different thing than the growth and European dominance of the new German state.
It is, of course, impossible not to flinch for a moment when the philosopher declares that "just as great leaders need followers, so too must the led have a leader"—ein Führer. But perhaps it softens the blow to see how the philosopher's image of the ideal leader is an orchestral conductor, who is able to bring out the greatest gifts of the musicians and their variety of personalities and inclinations, and draw forth from them the most beautiful music—something that Germany's existing educational instructions simply cannot do.
And with this image the lectures come to an abrupt stop.
How might Nietzsche have finished his lectures? According to his correspondence, he failed to do so not because he ran out of time but because he didn't know what to say. The narrator and his friend, who had encountered this philosopher by accident when they brought their pistols to a park to engage in some target practice, have listened attentively—but has the philosopher moved them? Has he provided for them a compelling picture of education as Bildung—one that, despite their occasional interest in art and ideas, they have not yet followed? The lectures end as a crowd approaches the park where the philosopher has been lecturing to his tiny audience—and that crowd is made up of (oh how the innovators of an earlier generation would be dismayed!) young men who belong to the narrator's fraternity. Presumably they would be unlikely even to grasp the philosopher's picture of true education. Did Nietzsche fail to finish his lectures because he couldn't imagine a meeting of those minds that wouldn't be either Utopian or despairing?
Why is it so depressing to think about universities? There seem to be a multitude of reasons: universities are too rich or too poor, pompously intellectual or grossly anti-intellectual, absurdly élitist or nastily populist, hopelessly irrelevant or shamelessly chasing after relevance, too expensive—but never too cheap.
The range of complaints suggests that there is no general understanding of the purpose of the university and therefore no possible agreement about whether it is living up to its obligations. And American universities in recent decades have responded to this discordant chorus of complaints by adding on new programs, departments, institutes, schools, initiatives … As Wellmon writes near the end of Organizing Enlightenment about the university where he teaches,
The University of Virginia, for example, is an institution of knowledge, but it is also a health care provider, entertainment center (its basketball arena hosts everything from Bruce Springsteen concerts to monster truck rallies), sports business, start-up incubator, sustainability coordinator, and industrial and government research center, not to mention a mental health provider, food service, and employment agency for more than twenty thousand students.
In part, this expansion of tasks, functions, and options results from something that very much concerned Nietzsche's philosopher: The transformation of the university into an arm or agent of the State. The leaders of public universities have for decades understood themselves as needing to market their wares to a constituency of taxpayers. But the percentage of public universities' operating budgets provided by state legislatures has been plummeting, which has left those institutions joining private schools in competing for students. That has, in turn, required them to treat students not only as their constituency but also (and primarily) as consumers. And what do most young American consumers want? Ample recreational opportunities, interesting food, competitive athletic teams to participate in and cheer on, and at the end of it all a good job. (Remember Nietzsche: "Here we have Utility as the goal and purpose of education, or more precisely Gain: the highest possible income.")
Perhaps none of this is incompatible with the production of good citizens or useful instruments of the state, but none of it aims at such things. Still less does it comport with any of those noble invocations of greatness of spirit and strength of character Wellmon's great reformers advocated: No Bildung on offer here. If Nietzsche was right that, almost from the start, the modern research university abandoned, or at best neglected, Bildung in order to serve the State, then what happens when its ties to that same state grow attenuated? What is the university now for? Apparently it is for whatever its students want. But given the plurality, not to say superficiality, of our culture, this will mean that the university is for nothing in particular, and must be prepared, whatever it is for today, to be for something else tomorrow.
In 19th-century Germany, university students were rare birds, and drawn largely from the higher strata of society—yet even so every reformer, from Schelling to Nietzsche, lamented the absence of true intellectual and moral seriousness. In America today we have committed ourselves to providing a university education for an unprecedentedly high percentage of our young people. Among such a vast crowd, it's inevitable that there will be a great variety of purposes, interests, and goals. It is simply not possible in such circumstances to think of Bildung as a central component of university education. That would require not only a coherent but also a widely agreed upon set of moral norms, but this the contemporary multiversity necessarily disavows: A single set of moral norms is incompatible with the desire to offer all things to all people.
With the identity of the university so completely in flux, it seems manifestly in need of some new reformers—but who might be the Schellings and Humboldts of our time and place? I think they will be people who are content to work at the margins: either in unpromoted, uncelebrated corners of that vast and ever-ramifying creature that is the research university now, or in smaller institutions: liberal arts colleges, seminaries, perhaps even in community colleges. Here the unique diversity of the American higher educational system—or, blessedly, non-system—comes to our aid. People who work in very different types of institutions can speak to one another, exchange ideas, try out in one community of learning models and methods that have been developed for another. Students can learn not only from their own teachers but from people who teach elsewhere, by reading their books or listening to them speak or by writing them letters. Perhaps a love of learning awakened, even if only accidentally, in one institution can be fulfilled in another.
And it may not be the worst thing in the world that Bildung has never truly had a formal institutional home. It is, after all, in the very nature of Bildung that it cannot simply be taught, like the periodic table or the number of lines in a sonnet. Only by a kind of divine accident may those who need it recognize, through a glass darkly, what they lack. They do so typically while pursing certain practices and disciplines for reasons wholly extrinsic to personal excellence: they work for a good grade, in hopes of a good job, to please their parents, and in the midst of their drudgery something larger and better begins to break through. The teacher cannot plan this, or force it to happen; but she can be attentive to the signs of its emergence and ready always to fan the faintest embers into a lively flame, even when there is no explicit professional advantage for her in doing so. The willingness to ignore professional advantage is what she and her student, when they're at their best, have in common.
Education in this rich and deep sense cannot be mandated, cannot go into a bullet-pointed plan; it can only be hoped for. ("Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees?") And however confused the university currently is, it still offers rich opportunities for those hopeful enough to discern and seize them. Enough of the lamentations. In times far darker than these, W. H. Auden wrote words that we who care about the true and deep education of young people can make our own:
Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.
Alan Jacobs teaches in the Honors Program at Baylor University.