Sunday, August 17, 2014

Wither Academia: Is a new academy being born?

This is slightly revised from some remarks I made at Howard Rheingold’s Brainstorms community.
An observation. A thousand years ago the Christian church was the institutional center of intellectual life in the West. Then a culture-wide shift in ideas and values (& info tech, the printing press) took place, the so-called Renaissance. In the wake of those institutional changes, the church no longer served to ANCHOR intellectual life. That function shifted to largely secular colleges and universities.

Well, we've been undergoing a similar society-wide shift for, say, the past 50 years. In this context, the university system is in the anchor position that the church was in then. What's going to push the university system to the side?

It's a tricky question. Many disciplines, for example, require heavy capital investment in equipment and facilities (scientific and engineering labs, etc.). I don't see other institutions emerging to take over there, at least not across the board. In some fields, computer engineering for example, yes, the industrial investment is large and much cutting edge research takes place there (think of IBM). Maybe in these capital-heavy fields the universities will become custodians of equipment, but the real thinking will take place elsewhere.

And it’s the thinking that matters. Who does it, where are the based, how do they interact?

Right now there’s a revolution taking place in continental philosophy around some ideas flying under the flags of Speculative Realism and Object-Oriented Ontology. The blogosphere is critical to these people. Some of the primary discussions are taking place on and between blogs which also, of course, reference discussions written up in more traditional forums. One of the central figures in this movement is Graham Harman. He’s located at American University in Cairo, which is not exactly the geographical center of the elite university world.

One of the most vigorous and productive of these bloggers is Timothy Morton, professor of literature and ecology (or environment, I forget which), at UCal Davis. He posts prolifically to his blog, live-blogs conference presentations, and posts streaming video of conferences. Here’s his blog, Ecology without Nature.

No, the old university system, the one in which we got trained, that’s dead. It doesn’t know it yet; it just feels ill. But it’s dead. It’ll take awhile for that to become fully apparent and awhile to make funeral arrangements and construct memorials. But that’s what will happen over the next two or three intellectual generations.

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