Why was the modern research university created? In his latest book Organizing Enlightenment: Information Overload and the Invention of the Modern Research University, Chad Wellmon, Associate Professor of German Studies and History at the University of Virginia, tackles this question, arguing that the research university was a technology created to assuage anxieties about a surfeit of scientific knowledge. In Wellmon’s account, the research university arose as an alternative to previous technologies that were invented to solve this problem, but which failed. My goal in this blog post is to selectively summarize Organizing Enlightenment, and explain its relevance to the mission of Heterodox Academy. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that Chad is an undergraduate classmate and friend of mine.)

In Europe, the problem of excess information manifested itself during the 18th century, during which there was an explosion of periodicals. In the period between 1700 and 1720 the number of periodicals in Germany rose from 58 to 119. By 1790, the total had risen to 1,225. It was not only the raw numbers that rose, it was also the genres of books and periodicals, creating a need for new technologies to manage this information.

Early attempts involved comprehensive cataloging. Indexes like the Universal Subject Index cataloged all periodical articles published within a certain time span. With clinical detachment, each index entry pointed to a single article, without attempting to link pieces of knowledge to one another or to a meaningful center. Lexicons and encyclopedias followed, also based on the idea that collection was enough. The lack of meaningful arrangement or linkages—entries were alphabetical—belied the belief that readers would find the ordered universe of knowledge underneath the mass of tabulated entries. Criticizing such atomistic attempts at organization, Kant argued that scientific knowledge had a center and an intrinsic order, and that science was a technology for “processing and treating scientific cognitions” accordingly. A new technology was necessary.

But medieval and early modern universities could not process new “scientific cognitions.” They were grounded in a Christian theological tradition, and their financial and political well-being hinged upon loyalties to church and state. Allegiances in these universities were to a local body, and the theology faculty sat atop the internal hierarchy.

To escape the fetters of religious orthodoxy, scholars founded new German universities, such as those at Göttingen, Halle, and Breslau. At Göttingen, however, the goal was to produce public figures who could serve the populace—to “provide the state with able and diligent doctors, teachers, as well as all other possible civil servants” in the words of Christoph Meiners (1801), philosophy professor at Göttingen.

Several philosophers of science noted the inadequacy of universities like Göttingen. Notable among these critics was Friedrich Schelling, who in a series of lectures in 1802 described how a young man upon arriving at a university is confronted with too many options at hand, finding himself “without compass or lodestar.” The university is a “chaos, a vast ocean in which he can distinguish nothing.” Schelling believed that the university mirrored the broader media environment of the time, lacking a meaningful center or ethos. Schelling proposed a new model of education in which students would adopt the practice of integrating every bit of information into the larger whole, and members of the university would engage in the practical activity of making these connections and publishing findings. The ideal graduate would be one committed to a particular science, having internalized the high standards of research in that scientific community. This graduate would also have the capacity to view all particular knowledge in connection to a larger structure.

This vision led to a proposal for a new research university in Berlin, brought to fruition by William Humboldt, the head of the newly established “Section for Culture and Public Education”. The Royal Friedrich-Wilhelms-University in Berlin was thus founded, with an emphasis on Bildung, a German term often translated into English as “self-formation,” “cultivation,” or even “education”. Bildung denoted the university’s mission of producing a particular kind of scholarly person.

Yet no scholar could embody comprehensive expertise in every subject, so the university rapidly fragmented into disciplines, each of which carried its own definition of a cultivated scholar. What united these disciplines was a drive to maintain meticulous standards of scholarship, to connect new findings to a larger body of knowledge, and to resist compromises that would serve the church, the state, or some other authority. This German model was adopted in America, first at Johns Hopkins University (1876) in Baltimore, then the University of Chicago (1890) and beyond.

Wellmon notes that the research university did not successfully assuage anxieties of information overload. If his book has pragmatic value for the 21st century, Wellmon argues, it lies in its uncovering of the fact that the research university was not just a next-generation encyclopedia in human form but rather a new kind of institution for the production of a new kind of professional. It was an institution “designed to sustain a particular practice and its virtues, habits, and purposes.”

Organizing Enlightenment helps us understand how research universities veered away from older universities, which were usually tightly linked to a religious order or mission. As Jonathan Haidt has noted, many American institutions have instilled social justice as their ethos in recent years. For small undergraduate institutions, this turn doesn’t represent a radical deviation from their original purpose since these colleges, almost of all of which had religious ties, had an ethical mission from the outset. With American Christianity itself gradually transforming into moralistic therapeutic deism, a philosophy of empathy, fairness, self-esteem, personal autonomy, and happiness, it should not be surprising that small colleges inculcate a desire to make the world just and equitable and make every individual maximally autonomous.

If research universities also adopt this ethical mission, however, they face a tradeoff. Scientific findings don’t always play nice. To take just one example, they can make us question whether people in general have autonomous selves, and more troublingly reveal how apparently autonomous actions are the result of genetic processes that vary based on one’s sex and (conceivably) one’s ancestry.  These findings are, on one hand, equitably “oppressive” because they address the behavior of all people, and not just members of victimized groups. Nevertheless, in some quarters it borders on sacrilege to suggest that the causes of inequality can be traced to something other than injustice. If misunderstood, genetic findings can also suggest that victims are blameworthy for their plight. These findings do not forestall attempts at making the world more just and equitable, but they do inhibit the currently institutionalized technique, which is to uncover and combat matrices of oppression.

If research universities are to continue their mission of producing critical, discerning scholars, they must encourage faculty and graduate students to avoid evaluating scientific research based on its compatibility with ideological goals. There are obviously some limits to this ideal. Regardless of scientific proof, we don’t want scholars who analyze the benefits and drawbacks of genocide as a solution to societal ills. Nor do we want scholars who, in the name of ideological neutrality, suggest that all ideological parties are equally respectable or equally disreputable. Such false equivalence is a problem in American mass media.

How then should we train or encourage scholars to be ideologically detached? Some members of Heterodox Academy, including me, have advocated for the inclusion and recruitment of libertarian, conservative, and centrist professors, but the presence of multiple ideologies doesn’t always create ideological detachment; it can create conflict and bitterness instead. I believe the lesson of Organizing Enlightenment is that graduate students in every discipline—but particularly the social sciences—should learn that the task of research is an end in itself. Research is indifferent to one’s other pursuits. Sometimes those other pursuits are moral or religious, and in these cases, real dissonance or discomfort may ensue. But just as scholars can learn to manage the disappointment of failing to support a dearly loved hypothesis, scholars can also learn to manage the disappointment of uncovering a finding that is ideologically unpalatable. Managing this discomfort is a professional skill that scholars can and must acquire.

Opinions expressed are those of the author(s). Publication does not imply endorsement by Heterodox Academy or any of its members. We welcome your comments below. Feel free to challenge and disagree, but please try to model the sort of respectful and constructive criticism that makes viewpoint diversity most valuable. Comments that include obscenity or aggression are likely to be deleted.