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Along with the rise of other bureaucratic institutions such as the corporation, the modern university helped define twentieth century modernity. So successful has this institution been that it has become almost impossible to remember that universities did not always play such a prominent role in society, or to imagine that their role might be altered in the future. That, however, is beginning to change.
A new challenge to the university in its present form has begun to emerge. The sources of that challenge are both structural and ideological, and are related to the social transformations precipitated by the information revolution. The university's tendency to fragment knowledge into specialized disciplines, the domain of "experts," is now seen as unnecessarily rigid and exclusive compared to the rapid flow of information on the internet. What's more, peoples' new attitudes toward knowledge have fed the ideological wellsprings of pro-market liberals and libertarians who have long been suspicious of the authority of knowledge-elites as well as their claim to produce a "product" whose value could not be calculated in market terms and which, in fact, has often sought to transcend and critique the market.
The book presently under review, Alan and Marten Shipman's "Knowledge Monopolies: the academisation of society" is an entry in this broader critique. Intended as a political pamphlet, it is an aggressive attack on the university institutions. While its main concern is the British system, its claims about universities extend beyond the British context. The authors' attitude toward these institutions becomes clear in their telescoped narrative of the "improbable rise" of the universities. As they tell it, the growth of the universities, at least in Britain, was the result of an illegitimate process. The Shipmans argue that when universities began their expansion in the late nineteenth-century they had already proven themselves to be "moribund" and marginal. Originally significant for the role that they had played in helping secular liberals to wrest authority away from the church, the Shipmans believe that the universities had done very little in terms of producing important advances in knowledge. The most significant ideas, they argue, had been produced outside the universities by genius polymaths, citing the likes of Da Vinci, Freud and Darwin. What enabled the universities' "improbable rise," then, was state-intervention. Animated by the idea that social knowledge might aid policy decisions, the state decided to fund the growth of the universities at public expense. Under this subsidy, according to the Shipmans, the universities grew until they developed the ability to convince the general public and the state itself of the necessity of academic knowledge--just long enough, in the authors' economic terminology, to create an artificial demand for academic knowledge.
Once in existence, moreover, the Shipmans judge the university's effect on the society to have been deleterious. They present a dystopic picture of a "knowledge society" dominated by an "interpretive elite" whose authority replaced that of "church and state, community and family." Quite apart from producing knowledge of general value to society, they argue that the university served the ambitions of this elite, providing it with the institutional means to ensure its growth and continued authority. What particularly irks the Shipmans is the continual creation within the university of highly specialized and esoteric subjects of study. By their account, such disciplinary specialization in the academy have been a way to accommodate the ever-growing number of number of aspiring knowledge-elites. Meanwhile, to support this "irresistible force of specialization" the universities have put their PR engines into high gear in order to ensure that the public continues to acknowledge the necessity of the growing number of specialized knowledge domains. The overall effect, they suggest, has been a society convinced of its dependence on an ever-growing body of fragmented, specialized and esoteric knowledge that, even as the average person becomes better educated, remains paradoxically elusive. The incredible productivity of the universities--which the Shipmans occasionally refer to as "knowledge factories"--ensures that just as soon as the public has grasped and attempted to apply a given set of specialized concepts, the experts will have deemed them out of date, and perhaps dangerous.
From the Shipmans' point of view, a central problem is the way in which academics, philosophically speaking, have come to approach knowledge. Above all, the Shipmans lament the loss of the ideal of achieving a unity of useful knowledge about the world. In their minds, the major innovation of the university has been its turn toward what they refer to as "constructed" knowledge--that is, a turn away from philosophers term an "ontological" reflection on "the nature of the world" to an "epistemological" focus on how people construct their understanding of the world." For the Shipmans, this emphasis on how people imagine the world amounts to a denial of the existence of a reality outside the academically constructed ones, a denial that has encouraged the tendency to partition knowledge into specialized subjects of study all focusing on one or another dimension of how people think. The Shipmans would prefer that academics be "realists," constructing a unified body of useful knowledge based on a singular view of the way the world "is."
Although the Shipmans' tone feels unnecessarily strident and their critique repetitive, its authors raise some import points about university institutions and the state of knowledge in western societies. In the end, they make a seemingly reasonable suggestion: that universities realize, as many businesses have, that in the information age "success" comes from "opening up," from removing the bureaucratic divisions of knowledge, and encouraging a free flow of information. They would like to see, in other words, a reduction in the insular and specialized nature of academic knowledge, and, more importantly, they want academics to engage in an open discourse with the general public and to "take responsibility" for the knowledge they produce. One imagines, for instance, that the Shipmans would like academics to spend more time editing Wikipedia.
The Shipmans may in fact be correct that a change is due, especially given the shift in our attitudes toward knowledge in age of the internet. But there are very serious problems with the Shipmans analysis that ultimately make their text deeply problematic. Their shrill tone is partly also a compensation for a series of distortions--or what in their realist terminology might be called errors--in characterizing the university and its history. The growth of the modern university system, after all, has not merely been the result of an artificial state-driven process. Why then did a similarly bureaucratized university system emerge in the United States, where state support was more limited? Rather, the modern universities grew both in Britain and elsewhere along with the modern bureaucratic state. Both institutions were a response to the complex problems that humans faced in urban industrial societies--for example the need to manage large urban populations and infrastructures, to gain control over the violent fluctuations of the business cycle, or to develop ways to think about the broader patterns of social activity.
The Shipmans are right to note that the way people thought about the world changed, but such shifts in the modes of cognition resulted from fundamental transformations in historical experience, for instance as mid-western farmers realized that the prices their crops received at market were linked to events in New York or beyond, or as people in cities began to perceive themselves as part of a larger social mass. In some cases, academic elites sought to guide the way people thought about such phenomena, but in doing so they too they were reacting to these new historical experiences.
This, though, is precisely the point which eludes the Shipmans. They want to find a perpetrator to blame for the perceived fragmentation and futility of academic knowledge, but the universities have not forced our present approach to knowledge upon us. The problem, if one wants to see it as one, runs deeper. After all, it is not only academic knowledge that has become more fragmented. Just think of our hundreds of cable television channels, our many thousands of blogs and online news-sources, our infinitely sophisticated and specialized genres of music, our many strange and hybrid modes of spiritual belief. This is all part of our "post-modern" culture, a culture which is eager to ignore the "real" world and to construct new ones within which the imagination can play. In fact, if I were to make a counter-claim to the Shipmans' it would be that it is the market, which has now learned to sell "products" whose artificiality it makes no attempt to disguise, that has provided the structural basis for the perceived lack of integrity in our contemporary systems of knowledge.
Given the possibility that the problem they have identified lies beyond the university, it may be that the Shipmans have picked the wrong target for their critique. It is clear from their bibliography that they have drunk deeply from the stream of thought often called "critical theory" which has, among other things, long encouraged a critical awareness of the unique forms of power that lie within modern forms of institutionalized knowledge; but they have missed the deeper point of these critiques--namely that our philosophical and institutional approaches toward knowledge are deeply entrenched in historical experience, in new conceptions of the self and the social world that developed slowly over time. Such studies suggest that if we are to control the direction of things at all, it is most likely going to be through a careful tweaking of the way in which we think. The Shipmans are therefore wrong to suggest that a focus on epistemology in the university has developed in order to indulge in the construction of a kaleidoscope of false disciplinary images of the "real" world. The focus on epistemology emerged out of a desire to gain some critical distance from precisely that process that troubles the Shipmans: that process, as one scholar recently put it, in which people imagine a world for themselves and then "flee and stumble happily forward into terra incognita." The fact is that, like the Shipmans, many academics still harbor the dream of generating knowledge about how the world "is." The trouble, though, is that many academics now realize that such claims regarding the world, however "scientifically" wrought, usually reveal them selves to be constructions, and this is a truth about the human world, the reality of which, may extend beyond the minds of academics.
© 2007 Ethan Miller
Ethan Miller is a PhD Candidate in U.S. history with a particular interest in the intellectual and cultural history of the nineteenth- and twentieth-centuries. He is currently working on a dissertation that discusses the emergence of the idea of culture among professional anthropologists in the U.S. in the early twentieth-century.