July 25, 2023
4 min

LIS as an answer to the crisis of the university

Dr. Ash Brockwell
Steve Fuller
There exists a mental health crisis across Higher Education

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Faculty Away Day, 14th July 2023

Steve Fuller is Auguste Comte Chair in Social Epistemology at the University of Warwick. His latest book is Back to the University’s Future: The Second Coming of Humboldt (Springer 2023).


The university has been subject to internal strife and external pressures throughout its 900-year history. What makes its current troubles distinctive is that they go beyond political ideology and financial security, and straight into a conceptual ambiguity at the heart of the institution since its inception. The ambiguity is neatly epitomized in the noun and verb, ‘discipline’. Resolving this ambiguity is at the heart of the LIS mission.

‘Discipline’ was a term that the early universities originally inherited from the monasteries. It was concerned with spiritual self-mastery to do God’s work more effectively. Over the centuries, this sense of discipline was secularized as the ‘liberal arts’, the aim of which is to fashion autonomous individuals who can stand up for themselves in public life. The ‘Masters’ degree is a reminder of this legacy.

However, a rival sense of ‘discipline’ quickly emerged, shifting the focus from oneself to other people and things. Thus, the early universities granted ‘Doctorates’ in theology, medicine and law as licenses to administer, respectively, to the spirit, the body and the polity – all now understood as ‘domains of objects’ modelled on parcels of land. Starting in the nineteenth century, this conception of intellectual real estate was extended to all academia, resulting in its members now normally required to hold a PhD to be allowed entry.

The power of expertise in today’s world draws on this second sense of discipline, whereby ‘discipline’ is a transitive not a reflexive verb. Instead of disciplining yourself when presenting to others, now your sheer presence disciplines others. It is not by accident that the complementary term to ‘expert’ is ‘lay’, which is rooted in ‘laity’, the Roman Catholic word for ordinary believers, who should defer to priestly authority on matters of faith. Thus, true to its etymology, ‘credentials’ are ultimately about making yourself believable.

Nowadays we think of the MA and the PhD as successive postgraduate degrees, but we can already see that their original champions approached knowledge somewhat at cross-purposes. In today’s jargon, the former were about ‘transferable skills’ and the latter ‘subject-based content’. It’s the difference between, say, studying mathematics to reason more effectively and to perform well on maths exams. While the two are not mutually exclusive, they pull in different directions. One is about extending one’s personal equipment for future use and the other about conforming to a standard already set by others.

In the early universities, this difference was palpable in both teaching style and public activity. The Doctors tended to belong to the Dominican order and served as inquisitors of the heresies that were often sowed by members of the Franciscan order, the main source of the Masters. When Doctors were teaching the accumulated reasoning of Church doctrine, Masters were deconstructing its logic, often introducing innovations that permitted alternative – and sometimes heretical – interpretations of that same reasoning.  

Fast forward and consider how this story might apply to economics, perhaps the most powerful social science discipline in both academic and policy terms. Its power has two sources. One is its mathematical adventurousness in trying to measure and calculate the full range of human phenomena. The other is the set of substantive assumptions about the human condition that orients its research. Masters would extend the former to subvert the latter, whereas Doctors would circumscribe the former within the latter.

LIS is clearly on the side of the Masters. Learning the tools of a trade is the best way to expand the trade’s horizons from beyond its own closed shop policies. Thus, there is more to economics than what professional economists say, but you need to understand how they make their claims to say something different with equal credibility. The curriculum of the early universities made this possible in the Trivium (logic, grammar, rhetoric) and the Quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy), which taken together enabled students to acquire mastery over their thinking, speaking, hearing and seeing – regardless of subject matter. Clearly, something more is needed for today’s world.

In that spirit, I tentatively propose a ‘Quinquivium’, a set of five methods that cut across the content of academic disciplines and can be deployed outside academic comfort zones, and which LIS is already well-positioned to achieve:

  1. Human observation, from near and far – both ethnography and historical understanding.
  1. Human interaction, from near and far – both interviews and questionnaires.
  1. Statistical reasoning, critical and generative -- both hype-management and risk-taking.
  1. Computer modelling, critical and generative – both hacking and programming.
  1. Multimedia management – achieving a synaesthetic effect by integrating text, audio and video.  

In addition, I would suggest a first course that plays the role of philosophy in Wilhelm von Humboldt’s modern reinvention of the university in early nineteenth-century Berlin. Philosophers such as Hegel provided a prospector’s map of the current state of knowledge and suggested how it might be explored and developed by students in the future. Given the shift from print to digital media, such instruction might be understood today in terms of instilling a strong sense of curation and perhaps even connoisseurship towards the superabundance of information at students’ disposal.  

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March 20th 2023

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