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James Turner

Humbling the Lords of Epistemology, part 2

(continued from previous article)

In the end, Damrosch's superficial attention to history clouds his diagnosis and vitiates his prescription. Neither kinder, gentler professors, nor more flexible dissertations, nor more cooperation in the classroom can do much to erode specialization and glue together the fragments of knowledge. The "rituals of training and acculturation" into specialism that he laments will not crumble on contact with collaboration, for the evolution of specialization owed little to the agonistic individualism of the professoriate. Rather, it stemmed from a newer but deeper root-growing directly out of the basic structure of modern academic knowledge and its epistemological prejudices. We can no more combine specialization with "generalizing" scholarship than crossbreed a rabbit with zinc. Overcoming "The Triumph of Specialization" requires more than "Changing the Culture of the University." It requires reconstructing knowledge itself.

The division of academic learning into "disciplines" in the late nineteenth century was the revolution that spawned our peculiarly modern fragmentation of knowledge. Damrosch understands that "disciplinary nationalism" dates only from "decisions made a century ago when the American university assumed its modern form," and he sees vaguely that this development lies at the origin of the problems he laments. But he fails to grasp the character of this historic shift-to which he devotes two badly informed sentences-and so cannot see the sheer incompatibility of disciplinary knowledge with any kind of "generalizing" that might really mitigate specialization. For it is not merely "specialization" that characterizes modern knowledge but "disciplinary specialization."

Disciplinary specialization developed from the breakup of an older model of academic knowledge. In nineteenth-century American colleges, this model took a specific form borrowed more or less from Scottish universities and the Scottish Enlightenment more broadly. But ...

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