I’d like to thank the Friends of the Sojourner Truth Library for inviting me to give the inaugural Dennis O’Keefe Memorial Lecture. This event is a most fitting way to honor the memory of our friend and colleague. Dennis was excited about the power of ideas.
He genuinely treasured intellectual discourse with faculty and students. Indeed, Rob Miraldi of our Department of Communication and Media has recounted to me how at the end of each academic year, when Rob checked out books for his summer research, Dennis would read the titles of the volumes and launch into a discussion of Rob’s scholarship. Dennis had immense curiosity and a penchant for making friends—a winning combination. So there is no better way to preserve his legacy than by bringing people together to think about important subjects.
My speech tonight is entitled “Shaking the Foundation: Are the Assumptions that Underlie the University Still Valid?”
What follows are musings, the kinds of thoughts that keep college presidents awake at night…
However, I should note at the outset that my remarks are not about New Paltz or SUNY. Any attempt to read messages into these particular tea leaves will be frustrating and futile.
Five months ago, I was asked to be part of a presidential roundtable in Washington to consider long-range problems facing American universities. Not the challenges of this year—like getting the Higher Education Reauthorization Act passed. Not the challenges we’ll face over the next five years—like mounting pressure to publish graduation rates
and student learning outcomes. Instead, we focused on future challenges—like preserving access and globalization. One particular topic emerged that day that provoked my thinking, that I’ve continued to wrestle with—and that I want to share with you tonight.
Many of our assumptions that underlie how colleges are structured, how they do their work, and how they earn the support of their various publics, are more vulnerable than in recent memory. Assumptions that we’ve long made about the ways knowledge is constructed, spread, shared, used and valued may no longer be valid. Consider these core propositions of our work and our institutions:
Let’s test each of these assumptions in turn, to see how secure they are. First, that:
Knowledge is constructed—that is, developed and verified--by experts.
Education is premised on the idea that some people have more knowledge than others, and that those who have knowledge will share it with those who are less enlightened. Indeed, the etymological roots of the word “education” can be traced to the Latin “ex duco,” meaning to “lead out”—leading out from the darkness of ignorance into the bright realm of understanding.
Mastery of and proximity to knowledge is the coin of the realm in the academy. That’s why at the top of our pecking order are professors, who have the most expertise and who are engaged in the creation of new knowledge. Just below them in stature are graduate students, who as professors-in-training are the next generation of scholars. Below them are undergraduate students, who are novices in the church of learning.
The pursuit of demonstrated expertise underlies every aspect of academic life. We insist upon certifying that learners have acquired expertise before they rise to higher levels. And the current experts determine if they are ready. That’s why we give exams. That’s why we assign grades. That’s why libraries build collections by choosing which sources of information are important to have and to share. Peer review of scholarship is how experts verify the quality of what other experts have done. Academic journals and scholarly presses are specialized venues to share and debate expert thinking with other experts. They aren’t aimed at the average reader, even the average college graduate. As easy as it is to mock academic jargon, it too is a form of code or shorthand that experts use to speak with and evaluate one another.
In short, in the university, if you want to know what is correct, you go to the experts.
This reliance on expertise is not without its pitfalls. Experts can become too attached to their own ideas or too hidebound in their thinking—which is why academic freedom helps us counter the tyranny of established notions. Experts can become too detached from “real life”—which is why we always look for new academic blood and why debates within and across disciplines are so important. Experts can also become too enamored with credentials as a convenient way of certifying expertise. Recall that in seminaries a teacher needs an ecclesiastical warrant to teach theology. The university equivalent of that warrant is the terminal doctoral degree. In his 1903 article, “The Ph.D. Octopus,” William James railed against an emergent “Doctor-Monopoly in teaching” that was contributing to [quote] a “state of things in which no man of science or letters will be accounted respectable unless some kind of badge or diploma is stamped upon him.”1 A century later, this has not changed.
Notwithstanding these soft spots though, the university continues to rest upon the assumption that knowledge is constructed by those who are most nowledgeable and that knowledge is verified by those same experts.
But I see this foundation being questioned. For example, consider the emergence of Wikipedia, the popular “free (online) encyclopedia that anyone can edit.” With anonymous authors writing about whatever topic they want, Wikipedia articles are especially vulnerable to bias and inaccuracy. As the New York Times asked, “How on earth can anyone be trusted to get the story right when any version of the story is only as accurate, or even as serious, as the last anonymous person to log on and rewrite it?” 2
And even though some academic publications believe that Wikipedia is generally accurate,3 many would argue that it is still a “nightmare embodiment of relativism and the withering of intellectual standards.” 4
It’s troubling that people would prefer to rely on Wikipedia because it is convenient and cheap as opposed to more authoritative sources. With its amateur editors and unreliable content, Wikipedia “is the 17th most-trafficked site on the Internet; Britannica.com, with its 100 Nobel Prize winners and 4,000 expert contributors, is ranked 5,128.” 5 Little wonder then, that last spring the history department at Middlebury College banned the use of Wikipedia citations in student papers.6 But the public is still increasingly accepting of knowledge that is socially constructed by people without verifiable expertise.
We’ve long assumed that…
Knowledge emerges out of a diversity of voices and from a robust but civil contesting of ideas.
We think of the academy as the quintessential marketplace of ideas.7 Within that market, we zealously nurture academic freedom so that any idea, any explanation, can be proposed and argued. The academy believes that through the interplay of ideas, better, less provisional understandings of our world and our lives emerge. Sometimes our deeper understanding comes incrementally. Sometimes it comes in massive paradigm shifts.8
But no matter how new knowledge emerges, we believe our ability to get to a place of richer and deeper understanding is enhanced by civility of discourse. How knowledge is shared and spread is often as important as how it is constructed. Civility is a basic and defining ground rule of academic engagement, in the classroom and the faculty common room, in symposia, and on the pages of journals. Civility is necessary because you can’t listen to someone’s argument and can’t give it due consideration if you’re shouting at each other or if personal animus clouds your thinking. No matter how fiercely you disagree with your intellectual opponent, you must still listen to his or her claims. You can and should critique them fiercely on the merits. But when the exchange is over, you and your critic should still be able to go out for a beer together!
We fought long and hard to get to this position and it is never entirely secure—as controversies over academic freedom from the time of Galileo to Stanford’s Edward Ross at the turn of the 20th century9 to recent Brigham Young faculty who claim that they were dismissed for impugning the teachings of the Mormon Church attest.10 But those of us who worry about the civility of academic discourse and the freedom to propound new ideas see some disturbing signs.
It is simply unacceptable to demonize your intellectual or ideological rivals. You may have read recently that the University of California Regents withdrew an invitation to former Harvard president Larry Summers to speak at a dinner after female professors from UC-Davis complained about his previous remarks that women may lack the same
abilities as men in mathematics and science. 11 I think Summers’ statements on this topic were intellectually sloppy and wrong. But the proper way to respond to his arguments is to shred them intellectually—not to attack him personally.
I see rising currents of anti-intellectualism both in the United States and abroad that are antithetical to the way we have long shared knowledge in the academy.
In all the foregoing ways, our proven methods of building and spreading knowledge seem vulnerable. But I have further concerns about challenged assumptions.
I see increased questioning of the premise that:
Knowledge is valuable in and of itself and has more than instrumental purposes.
The university presidents I respect believe that a liberal arts education remains the most enduring and useful foundation for undergraduate students. I will not subject you to a lengthy exposition of my passionate views on this subject tonight. But for purposes of advancing my argument, let me note some salient features of a liberal education to show the fluid and unpredictable nature of learning.
Nan Keohane, former president of Duke and Wellesley, has argued that a liberal education is important because it:
According to the recent Harvard University Report on General Education:
“[T]he aim of a liberal education is to unsettle presumptions, to defamiliarize the familiar, to reveal what is going on beneath and behind appearances, to disorient young people and to help them to find ways to re-orient themselves. A liberal education aims to accomplish these things by questioning assumptions, by inducing self-reflection, by teaching students to think critically and analytically, by exposing them to the sense of alienation produced by encounters with radically different historical moments and cultural formations and with phenomena that exceed their, and even our own, capacity fully to understand.”18
One can argue that the skills and values imparted by a liberal education may serve important practical purposes—but such an education is nevertheless premised upon a belief that learning cannot be purely instrumental. For you never know what direction your life or world will take.
And just as our students’ lives will veer off on unanticipated paths, so too does the course of a scholar’s research. The knowledge we create may have important practical applications, but it is typically conducted for its own merit and not for instrumental purposes.
At my old academic home, the University of Chicago, scholars have been working since 1975 on the Hittite Dictionary, compiling every known use of every known word in this long-defunct language. They’re up to the letter “T” now. In case you didn’t know (and rest assured you’re not alone!), Hittite civilization flourished in Asia Minor from the 17th
to the 12th century B.C.19 Obviously, there aren’t any more Hittites. No one is writing anything new in Hittite. So why work on this dictionary? I suppose studying the structure and content of the Hittite language could be useful because it might reveal linguistic patterns that help write new computer languages. But such instrumental reasons are not why Chicago scholars have spent decades on this project. They do it because it’s part of the record of humankind—indeed, because the development and preservation of languages and civilizations are precisely what makes us human. At their best, universities are premised upon a reverence for such wholly non-instrumental
But not everyone inside or outside the academy shares such love of knowledge for its own sake. One of America’s fastest-growing schools is the University of Phoenix. It specializes in career-oriented, immediately usable, practical degrees for adults who want to fit education into their busy lives. This is not necessarily a bad thing—but it is not the
same as a real university education. At the University of Phoenix, no one is thinking about the Hittites, and they’re not building a great Philosophy department. The university and its students have one basic concern: getting jobs (or better, higher-paying jobs).
Phoenix’s President Emerita Laura Palmer Noone said in 2004 that [quote] “Students tell us that…they don’t want simply to know what the theory is, they want to know how it translates into the real world.”20 And that’s exactly what the University of Phoenix does—for 300,000 students at 250 campuses and learning centers across the country.21
When students or their parents only care about “What can I do with that degree?’ or even worse, “How much can I earn with that degree?” they are unfortunately falling into the same “Knowledge should be Instrumental” bind. While we all need to put bread on the table, and no one would gainsay a first-generation college-goer who is drawn to a degree and career that can help improve the lot of his/her family—nevertheless, great universities have long been committed to the idea that knowledge is used in ways that aren’t predictable and may not even be remunerative. From my perspective, this assumption seems less secure and less widely-shared (in a word, shakier) than it has often been before.
My presidential anxieties about the ways knowledge is to be used are related to—and may even pale when considered against—current challenges to the ways in which universities and their denizens have historically valued knowledge.
I would posit that:
Colleges and universities are premised upon a search for truth and deeper understanding.
This is the fundamental point of the academic enterprise—particularly the research and creative work done by faculty. Of course, our search for true knowledge never ends and it is never supposed to end.
In the last several decades we’ve come to see more clearly that our understanding is always provisional and imperfect. This is as true in the arts and humanities as it is in the physical and biological sciences. We’re easily blinded by the conceptual lenses of our ideology, gender, race or socio-economic status, our disciplinary training, and the results of our prior research.
But despite these pitfalls, we keep looking for truth and a deeper understanding of our lives and our world. Why? Because the search itself is what being a human being is about. I recall here an episode of the television show The West Wing when one character questioned why the government should spend billions of dollars on space exploration. Writer Aaron Sorkin had another character deliver a passionate response:
“Cause it’s next. Cause we came out of the cave, and we looked over the hill, and we saw fire. And we crossed the ocean, and we pioneered the West, and we took to the sky. The history of man is hung on the timeline of exploration, and this is what’s next!” 22
This spirit animates the work of great universities across all fields of study. This spirit leads us to broaden, to deepen and to share our imperfect knowledge and understanding. But this spirit is today more openly and easily contested. In our proper desire to expose and correct for the political, cultural and personal biases that create sloppy thinking—that may even limit all thinking—we must nevertheless beware of throwing the intellectual baby out with the bathwater.
Cognitive relativists would have us believe that “There is no unique truth, no unique objective reality.”23 Admittedly, this and other postmodern critiques are all too easily twisted and ridiculed. But carried to a logical extreme, relativistic arguments can lead to nihilistic implications for learning and life, redolent of O’Brien’s speech to Winston
Smith in Orwell’s 1984. O’Brien says: “You believe that reality is something objective, external, existing in its own right….But I tell you, Winston, that reality is not external. Reality exists in the human mind and nowhere else.”24
If students, faculty, and the general public come to uncritically accept such premises, then the academic enterprise itself is suspect.
Having shared my concerns that central intellectual foundations of the university are being shaken, an obvious question presents itself: What are we supposed to do? What’s the solution?
Good speakers leave the audience a bit hungry, wanting more. But I worry I may leave you feeling famished. For I haven’t yet crafted a brilliant plan to shore up the foundations of our universities. As I said at the outset of my remarks, I’m still wrestling with this problem—and I invite you to wrestle with it too. If I had a brilliant answer I’d
be writing a great book about it in my spare time (or at least on my next sabbatical).
But I can share with you where my thinking has led so far—and it starts with another book I’ve never used before now in my teaching or scholarly work. That’s the Book of Jonah, from the Old Testament.
Notwithstanding First Amendment strictures on the separation of Church and State, I a going to venture a tiny bit of Biblical interpretation. If my rabbi and faculty colleague Bill Strongin were here, he might cringe at my foray into hermeneutics. Yet more evidence why it’s risky to give the podium to a guy with a degree from Harvard Law
School rather than Strongin’s alma mater, Harvard Divinity School.
Here’s my quick exegesis of the Book of Jonah. God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh to prophesy that city’s impending doom. It’s an ugly task, and he doesn’t want to do it. So he flees on a ship. But God creates a great tempest on the seas. Once the other sailors figure out that Jonah’s presence on their vessel is the reason for the storm, they toss him overboard. He’s swallowed by a great fish, and after it spits him out, he finally goes to Nineveh. He chastises the populace, they repent their evil ways, and the city is saved. But now Jonah feels angry and ungrateful and annoyed. He complains to God that his time and effort were wasted, maybe even feeling that things didn’t work out as he
expected after all his tribulations. So God teaches him another lesson. He makes a shady plant grow over Jonah, and then he ruins the plant, leaving his prophet out in the hot sun again. Jonah mourns the destruction of his plant—which he then comes to see is an ironic parallel to the potential destruction of the city.
What lessons, if any, should the academy draw? Most obviously, the lesson that when challenges arise, you can’t run away from them. When things aren’t going well, you can’t just kvetch and moan. So instead of resenting that our expertise is undervalued….instead of bemoaning the loss of civil discourse….instead of pining for a time when the public appreciated liberal learning…and instead of feeling misunderstood and angry, let’s start solving our problems and buttressing the foundations.
We can draw confidence and hope in the extraordinary resilience of universities. As Clark Kerr noted:
About seventy-five institutions in the Western world established by 1520 still exist in recognizable forms, with similar functions and with unbroken histories, including the Catholic church; the Parliaments of the Isle of Man, of Iceland, and of Great Britain; the governance structures of several Swiss cantons; the Bank of Siena; and some sixty-one universities......[These universities] are mostly still in the same locations with some of the same buildings, with professors and students doing much the same things, and with governance carried on in much the same ways.25
The university endures because it has proven an exceptionally adaptable and valuable entity.
When we consider new challenges to how knowledge is constructed, we should recognize that there is always going to be a new idea or approach du jour. Sometimes those ideas become movements or paradigm shifts that have profound intellectual and institutional impact (think here of the Great Awakening schism between the emotional “new light” preachers and the conservative “old lights” that resulted in the creation of Princeton University). But more often those ideas prove passing fads. The ultimate fate of ideas should—and I believe will—be determined by the broadly-gauged and disinterested views of experts. Much important knowledge can come from outside the academy, and academics must vigorously resist the temptation to construct and live within a selfrefererential (or self reverential!) world, but for centuries scholars have repeatedly risen to the challenge of rooting out flawed and stupid ideas. It takes courage and perseverance to do this, but these have always been found in reasonable abundance in the academy, and I am confident that there are rich veins of such qualities yet to be mined. It is up to us as scholars and teachers to sort out the reliable from the unreliable information, to point us to sources that can be trusted and away from those that cannot—and to honestly distinguish real knowledge from claptrap.
Superior sources of information are already emerging to correct for the flaws of pure socially-constructed “knowledge” on the Web. Last year, one of the founders of Wikipedia broke ranks to form Citizendium, a “citizens’ compendium” that values expertise by incorporating the voice and authority of scholars along with user-generated
content.26 Contributors to this site have to use their real names to log in and editors have to show credentials. In his book The Cult of the Amateur, Andrew Keen says that Citizendium [quote] “acknowledges the fact that some people know more about certain things than others—that the Harvard English professor does, in fact, know more about literature than a high school kid.”27
Notwithstanding the promise of this concept, however, Citizendium had only nine approved articles as of April 2007!28 This makes the point that our world of everdeveloping and rapidly-disseminating knowledge will push academics to speed the pace of scholarly discourse. Multi-month or year-long delays for publication will be
unacceptable, and academic verification of quality must occur more swiftly. When we consider new challenges to how knowledge is spread and shared, we should recognize that in addition to a fierce and renewed commitment to civil academic discourse, we can use the way that new disciplines evolve and the growing importance of interdisciplinary scholarship to help bring us together. Many of the most important and interesting questions of our time—How does the human genome work? How to preserve our fragile environment? How to understand and correct for the effects of racism?—can only be solved by drawing on the varied perspectives and insights of a host of different disciplines. So we must get better at talking across (and diminishing) artificial and increasingly anachronistic barriers between scholarly fields and departments. This will help us listen more carefully—and with better effect—to each other. It will teach us to reserve judgment until we have learned more from more sources. And just as intellectual modesty and circumspection should lead us to draw upon a variety of voices from different fields, so too should we strive to make room for a variety of voices within academic disciplines and departments. We cannot afford to have ideological litmus tests for who gets hired or promoted, or for what gets taught or researched. The questions before us are simply too critical, and the need to listen to a broader set of voices is too pressing.
When we consider new challenges to how knowledge is used, we should first acknowledge that universities need to make a more compelling case to prospective and enrolled students, to their parents, and to the general public about the value of knowledge for its own sake and the serendipitous nature of research. Because our graduates can expect to change their careers several times, no specialized course of study can adequately prepare them for professional success and personal fulfillment. Given this uncertainty, we should embrace the intellectual skills and self-awareness that only a true liberal education furnishes. If we believe that an engineer who listen to Haydn and thinks about the consequences of diverting the Colorado River will someday make a better citizen and leader than her non-liberally-educated counterpart, we should be more purposeful about ensuring the intellectual breadth of our graduates. Further, in considering the university’s role in broader society, we must embrace the positive aspects
of such symbiosis. Academe should always remain something of an ivory tower, where impractical notions are encouraged and other-worldly ideas emerge—but even an ivory tower need not be fortified with a moat, a portcullis and a garrison of angry guards! As Derek Bok asks: “[Are] universities contributing as much as they can to help society enjoy efficient corporate management, technological progress, competent government, effective public schools, and the conquest of poverty with its attendant afflictions of crime, drug abuse, alcoholism and illiteracy?”29 We should acknowledge that the answer is “no,” and try to change it. Even the most basic, unapplied research and scholarship can shed light on these questions and improve our lives.
Finally, when we consider new challenges to how knowledge is valued, we should unabashedly assert that universities will not abandon their fundamental search for deeper understanding—no matter how provisional that understanding may be or how cloudy the glass through which we try to view it. As John Searle has argued, “It is an obvious fact that our epistemological efforts are undertaken by historically situated people, subject to all the usual imperfections, not merely of prejudice but of intellect. All investigations are relative to investigators. But it does not follow, nor is it indeed true, that all the matters investigated are relative to investigators.”30
Here, as in the rest of the hard work that lies ahead in shoring up the foundations of the academy, the academic freedom that is properly accorded to scholars and students and institutions can steel our spines. We should always be mindful that the primary reason why universities are so strong and resilient is the same reason why society is comfortable giving us (and our inhabitants) a special measure of independence and autonomy, of trust and respect. It is because through our search for knowledge and our sharing and preservation of that knowledge we make the world a better place. No other enterprise I know has such complete nobility of character. And even though the foundations of that structure may be shaken and, even if the university’s beams and walls may need reinforcement from time to time, the academy can and must flourish.
1 W. James, “The Ph.D. Octopus” Harvard Monthly, March 1903.
2 J. Dee, “All the News That’s Fit to Print Out,” New York Times, July 1, 2007, p. 34.
3 According to Nature, the number of errors in a typical Wikipedia science article is not substantially more than in Encyclopaedia Britannica. Nature, Vol. 438 15 Dec. 2005, p. 890.
4 Dee, n. 2 supra, p. 34.
5 A. Keen, The Cult of the Amateur (Doubleday: 2007), p. 44.
6 S. Williams, “Consider the Source: As A Matter of Fact, Wikipedia Isn’t Always Right on Long Island,” Newsday, April 17, 2007, p. B4.
7 Abrams v. United States, 250 U.S. 616, at 630-631 (1919) ( “the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market…”) (Holmes, dissenting).
8 T. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. (University of Chicago: 1970).
9 Bookrags.com: “Biography of Edward Alsworth Ross.” Retrieved Oct. 14, 2007
10 “Academic Freedom and Tenure Brigham Young University.” 83 Academe 52 (September – October 1997).
11 K. Mangan, “A Law Dean Is Hired, Fired, Then Re-Hired.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, v54,i05, Retrieved September 28, 2007, (http://chronicle.com/weekly/v54/i05/05a02501.htm).
12 R. Looney, “Reforming Pakistan’s Educational System: The Challenge of the Madrassas,” Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies, Fall 2003, Volume 28, Number 3, pp. 262-263.
13 J. Adler , “Doubting Darwin: How Did Life In Its Infinite Complexity, Come To Be? A Controversial New Theory Called ‘Intelligent Design’ Asserts A Supernatural Agent At Work.” Newsweek, February 7, 2005. Vol. 145, Issue 6.
14 Roll Over Confucius” The Economist. January 25, 2003. Vol. 366, Issue 8308, pp. 40-41.
15 N. Keohane, “The Role of Elite Higher Education,” in P. Altbach, P. Gumport, Patricia and D. Johnstone, Eds., In Defense of American Higher Education (Johns Hopkins University: 2001), p. 184.
16 Ibid, p. 185.
17 Ibid, p. 188.
18 The Task Force on Higher Education, Harvard Report of the Task Force on General Education, President and Fellows of Harvard College, 2007, p. 1-2
19 The Chicago Hittite Dictionary Project. February 7, 2007. University of Chicago Oriental Institute. September 30, 2007. (www.oi.uchicago.edu/research/projects/hit)
20 A. Woolley, “Education: Higher: Praising Arizona: What Can the UK Learn From A University Where Everyone Pays Fees and Academics Do Little Research?” The Guardian. London (UK): May 18, 2004, pg.22.
21 The Facts About the University of Phoenix. February 18, 2007. University of Phoenix. Retrieved October 16, 2007. http://www.phoenix.edu/about_us/the_facts/the_facts.aspx
22 A. Sorkin and K. Falls, “Galileo” The West Wing, aired November 29, 2000.
23 E. Gellner, Relativism and the Social Sciences (Cambridge University Press: 1985), p. 84.
24 G. Orwell, 1984 (Penguin Putnam: 1950), p. 205.
25 C. Kerr, Higher Education Cannot Escape History (SUNY Press: 1994), p. 45.
26 J. Schofield, “Wikipedia Reaches A Fork In The Road And Takes It,” The Guardian (London, UK) September 21, 2006, p. 6.
27 A. Keen, supra n. 5, pp. 186-87.
28 A. Semuels, “Aiming For A Kinder, Smarter Online Encyclopedia,” Los Angeles Times, April 9, 2007, p C1.
29 D. Bok, Universities and the Future of America (Duke University Press: 1990) p. 7.
30 J. Searle, “The Storm Over the University,” in Paul Berman, ed., Debating P.C. (Dell Publishing: 1992), p. 111.