Commerce, philanthropy, and the culture of
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
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
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
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.