Why the University is Not a Strip Mall of Knowledge
An manifesto for humanistic education

By Mikhail Epstein, Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Russian Language and Culture


Money Changes Everything
Commerce, philanthropy, and the culture of the academy

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The last issue of the Academic Exchange addressed some disturbing trends around the corporatization of the academy. As a fellow at the Center for Humanistic Inquiry this year, I am exploring the creative potential of the humanities, currently challenged by the processes of technologization and corporatization of the university. While the humanities’ potential as a creative force in culture possesses many dimensions, here I will speak to their educational mission.

Two questions about education are critical for the self-determination of the university in the twenty-first century:

1. What keeps computer-based educational technologies, such as distance learning, from replacing the university as a real place, as a community of collaborators and interlocutors?

2. What makes the university different from a shopping mall, a commercial server for buyers of diplomas and professions?

In my view, these two questions interconnect and have one answer. The university is neither an informational network nor an intellectual supermarket because it is a humanistic institution. Its purpose is to educate humans by humans for the sake of humanness. Techno-logization or commercialization of education would undermine the dialogical nature of the humanities as the thematic and methodological core of the university curriculum. In the 1920s, the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber and the Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin introduced the concept of dialogism, which assumes that truth cannot be found inside an individual consciousness but is born between people, in a moment of dialogical interaction.

Education is, to paraphrase Bakhtin, where real dialogic thinking happens. The dialogic dimensions of humanistic education are especially complex because humans are both the object and
subject of the knowledge-seeking process. Only human sciences,
such as cultural and literary studies, philosophy, psychology, history, and linguistics, are fully open—both cognitively and dialogically—to their human subjects and audiences.

For example, when I read a humanistic work (such as literary
or historical study) I inevitably compare myself with its subjects or even identify myself as a potential “character” in the discourse. It tells me something about myself, or about other humans who share with me this essential (not necessarily “essentialist”) property of being human. Thus, the activity of the human sciences differs from
technological or political activity (as practical counterparts of natural and social sciences) because the human sciences aim to engage
creative and responsive individuals in events of creative communication. To technologize the humanities—to replace actual universities with computer-based distance learning, for example—means ignoring these specifics.

Education is one of the most mysterious and intimate moments in life—a truly existential experiment and revelation about self and other. Usually, professional activity is presented in premeditated forms and predetermined genres (such as paintings or dances in the creative arts, for example) as an outcome from which the professional has already distanced herself (even if she is singing or dancing). In education, on the contrary, the mystery of human creativity is revealed most intimately and spontaneously as the self-creation of a personality, here and now, through her dialogue with others. Therefore, education becomes not only a social but also an existential event. To be precise, we might describe education as a rare case of “existential sociality” because here social and existential dimensions do not exclude but presuppose each other.

Socrates called himself a midwife of truth; and, in a sense, every truly educational act is Socratic. You cannot be a midwife at a distance, without touching the newborn. The most valuable and edifying questions in the class are those that find me unprepared and prompt me to suggest things that never occurred to me before. For students also genuine education starts not when they report the contents of their assignments, but when, on the basis of received knowledge, they begin to think—that is, to explore the possibility of new knowledge. Sometimes they even arrive at ideas that never before occurred to them or perhaps to anybody. This is what I call existential sociality: when, in the dialogical presence of others—and because of their otherness—we find somebody unfamiliar inside ourselves, somebody who surprises us with unpredicted thoughts.

If this existential sociality of education explains in part why
distance learning or virtual universities cannot replace universities located in actual time and space, another aspect of education explains how the university differs from a commercial server of knowledge. Genuine instruction requires three in’s that cannot be copied for mass output and consumption: intuition, inspiration, and invention. Though “reproducibility” is considered a standard requirement for academic research, education involves irreproducible moments of human interaction here and now. It is “becoming-through-knowledge” rather than acquisition of knowledge as such. Sometimes in the classroom I ask myself: can my instruction be computerized, transferred to a disk, offered as a digital package? I hope the answer is ‘no.’ Education is an improvisational activity, a social event of co-thinking, where each participant is as unknown to others as he is unpredictable to himself. The sharing and reproducing of knowledge is only a preparatory step to the event of co-thinking.

I would suggest that knowledge relates to thinking as mass relates to energy. Education is not just the transference of the mass of knowledge from one head to another or to many heads. It is the process of unloosing, of splitting this mass in order to produce the energy of new associations, linkages, configurations. This “neuronal fission” that spontaneously happens in the interaction of minds may be even more powerful than nuclear fission: it liberates the energy of creative thinking that, among many other things, has built nuclear reactors.

We do not need to diminish the value of the market economy that has shaped the ethos of modernity, or the value of information technology that has shaped the ethos of postmodernity. I suggest, however, that the next historical period may witness a new ethos in which we attempt to revive humanity as a disappearing species that needs preservation and cultivation. Perhaps artificial creatures of the future may develop their own ecological awareness and treat their human progenitors as benevolently as we now treat wildlife. Then, in the coming era of humanless production, robotic enterprises, self-managing plants and electronic networks, the university can become the sanctuary and preserve of humanitas. This may be a rather pessimistic view on the fate of humanity as an endangered species, but it is quite an optimistic view of the role of the university as the ultimate refuge of this species.