The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 15, No. 2 (Summer 2013)

Knowledge, Virtue, and the Research University

Chad Wellmon

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 15.2 (Summer 2013). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Summer 2013

(Volume 15 | Issue 2)

Four Contemporary Responses

Recently, a broad literature has chronicled, diagnosed, and attempted to solve what many have referred to as a “crisis” in higher education.1 Some authors tie the purported crisis to an out-of-touch faculty or lackadaisical students, while others blame a conservative or liberal political culture or the public’s general distrust of universities. Amidst all of these anxious arguments, however, we can discern four basic types.

The first type is technocratic. These books tend to be sociological, data-driven critiques of the university as an institution. Exemplified by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s recent Academically Adrift, they cast a pall on the university by focusing on particular problems: low graduation rates, skewed admissions policies, indifferent faculty, disengaged students, or uncontrollable costs.2 In response, the authors of these studies offer specific, procedural suggestions for solving the university’s various problems.

A second type of argument could be called qualified utopian. As one author argues, the university is quickly becoming an antiquated and irrelevant institution that needs “bold” solutions.3 These books see universities facing existential threats and call for intrepid entrepreneurs with the clarity of vision to cast aside outdated assumptions and forge a brand new institution. They especially point to the unprecedented capacity of new digital technologies to disrupt universities. A “tsunami” of digital innovation threatens to render the university irrelevant, just as it did the newspaper and music industries.4 But the same new technologies, if embraced, can also reinvent the university of the twenty-first century.

These two types of arguments provide cogent analysis, rousing critiques, and the promise of a different and better institution. The particular problems laid bare by the technocratic accounts are serious and need to be addressed. Likewise, universities do need a coherent response to the rapidly changing technological environment. The proposed solutions are generally piecemeal and could conceivably be carried out within existing institutional frameworks. But defenders of the university need to offer a clear account of why the crisis of the university is actually a crisis. Why should the university not be allowed to dissolve into a different, more efficient, more modern institution—one more technologically enhanced, economically lean, and socially relevant? What is the purpose of (or even need for) a university in the digital age when there are more efficient means for transmitting knowledge? Particular solutions need to be framed in terms of a comprehensive account of why the university as an institution is worth defending.

Two other types of arguments do offer such an account. They also raise crucial questions about the future of the university, especially its role in democratic societies. The first type of argument could be referred to as the collegiate argument. Exemplified most recently by Andrew Delbanco’s College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be, these books argue that universities ought to reclaim a unique college model that formed students into particular kinds of people.5 These authors defend a tradition of humanist knowledge and its celebration of human experience over the endless accretion of research.6 Knowledge, they contend, is a good in itself and not simply a function of its technical use. Furthermore, the college’s basic humanism should inculcate in its students a devotion not only to “personal advancement but [also] to the public good.”7

As even Delbanco notes, however, the world of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American college, to which many authors appeal, is not our own. The singularity of purpose and moral vision that defined it was a function of a homogeneous (white, male, Protestant) culture that reinforced the very ends of the college.

The appeals of authors like Delbanco and Anthony Kronman, however, are not simply nostalgic. They raise difficult questions: What kinds of shared commitments and purposes can contemporary universities embrace? Are sectarian institutions the only universities capable of espousing what Alasdair MacIntyre calls a “unity of vision” defined by shared values?8 Furthermore, the best of these books distinguish the college from the university and implicitly raise the question of how scalable the college model is. How can a large public university provide a college or liberal arts education to 20,000 students? Given finite resources, is a college or liberal arts education a necessarily elitist enterprise? Is this necessarily bad?

There is a certain continuity between these celebrations of a college model and a fourth type of argument, which we could call democratic. Following a tradition that extends from Thomas Jefferson’s Rockfish Gap Report through William Harper Rainey’s The University and Democracy to Martha Nussbaum’s recent Not for Profit, these arguments claim that the university should form students into democratic citizens.9 The college model of individual discovery and formation extends out, so to speak, to the formation of students for citizenship and civic responsibility. These appeals constitute a particularly American combination of an ancient liberal arts tradition with democratic ideals.

Like the collegiate arguments, the democratic arguments demonstrate the complexity of the challenges confronting universities by showing how they bear directly on an imperiled pluralistic democracy. Nussbaum, for example, exhorts universities to cultivate in students “the ability to think about the good of the nation as a whole, not just that of one’s own local group.”10 Like Delbanco, however, she has less to say about the sources and contours of such a common good.

In encouraging universities to inculcate virtues like empathy, imagination, rational argument, and respect, Nussbaum raises a more basic question concerning, as Aristotle put it, what the “ultimate good” toward which liberal arts students should be formed is.11Can universities articulate a vision of a common good in such a radically pluralistic society as our own? As Nussbaum makes clear, just because we live in a pluralistic society does not mean that we hold nothing in common. Our democracy needs common ends and certain kinds of citizens. One of the contemporary university’s central questions, then, concerns the ethical sources of democratic commitments and belonging from which to draw.12 What particular notions of belonging and solidarity—elements central to any democratic community—can the university cultivate? Questions about the moral ends of the university are bound up with questions about democracy as an ethical resource.

If these challenges were not fundamental enough, authors like Delbanco point to more basic institutional barriers. While many universities claim that they are committed to educating democratic citizens, many faculty members, writes former Harvard President Derek Bok, “display scant interest in preparing undergraduates to be democratic citizens, a task once regarded as the principle purpose of a liberal arts education and one urgently needed at this moment in the United States.”13 Second, and just as importantly, the broader public seems to have lost confidence in the university’s capacity or interest in training democratic citizens. If the actions of the titans of finance and the politicians of democracy are any indication of how elite institutions form their graduates, then, reason many critics of the university, universities have either failed to form democratic citizens, or perhaps democratic citizens are not nearly as moral as many had hoped.

These four types of arguments raise crucial questions, but they do not address one of the central ideological features of the modern research university that often render attempts to speak of its ethical ends incoherent: the fact that it has historically conceived of itself as an autonomous or semi-autonomous social institution.14 Nobody has so felicitously defended this account of the university as Stanley Fish, a Milton scholar turned law professor and public spokesman for the university. Beginning with his admonitions against turning the classroom into a site for political advocacy, Fish has steadfastly refused to ground the university in anything but itself.15 Whereas many justify the university through appeals to its economic or social utility—studying literature or history will make students critical thinkers and thus better citizens—Fish argues that the university’s only justification is internal. The only way to defend the university is to tell the story of the university on its own terms—that is, the story of an institution that is self-regulating, autonomous, and internally coherent.16

Central to this account is the assumption that the university is self-normed. The university’s standards of behavior and success are determined by professional standards of conduct that bear little to no relationship to external notions of what is good or bad. On this account, a university professor is like a plumber. Both belong to a specific professional guild that determines not only the boundaries (who gets in and who is excluded) but also the standards of success. The value and excellence of a particular practice—repairing a clogged pipe or writing an article—are determined in accord with standards internal to the practice itself.

Understood from this highly functional perspective, the university is an autonomous institution, and it would make little sense to appeal to broader ethical norms or notions of the good, because the university’s governing norms are assumed to be independent of other cultural notions of the good.

Understood in this light, attempts to tie the university to broader notions of the good, public or otherwise, challenge the highly normative claim that the university is a strictly functional institution. Faculty members’ oftentimes confused, sometimes incoherent, and always-erratic attempts to speak of the university’s moral purposes or ethical ends—and the unease with colleagues who do so regularly and confidently—make historical and institutional sense. The arguments made on behalf of the university more recently ring hollow for many both inside and outside the university because the university has detached itself from any vision or claims about a common good. The university purports to be its own end. (The obvious exception to this description, of course, is many of the sciences and policy-oriented social sciences that cast themselves as technological instruments that solve social problems.)

But this detachment––even if it is primarily ideological––has had consequences. Why should the public care about an institution that has isolated itself? University faculty’s reluctance or inability to speak clearly and forcefully about the ethics of knowledge and the university is leading, or already has led, to an erosion in the public’s belief that universities are more than mere technologies for transmitting knowledge and credentializing aspiring laborers. The contemporary public, especially in the United States, is losing confidence in the university’s ability, capacity, and willingness to safeguard and carry out the deeply ethical project that is the human knowledge project.17

The Moral Sources of the University

Along with the church and the state, universities are among the oldest and most central social institutions of Europe and western culture. From their beginnings in Bologna, Paris, and Oxford, universities have always been cultural and social institutions that created, evaluated, and authorized knowledge. These activities brought them into complex relationships with a broader culture, be it thirteenth-century Paris or nineteenth-century Berlin. But universities have always had clear sources from which to draw their norms, ends, and virtues, which they could then adopt and adapt to clarify their own particular ends. Every historical crisis of the university—from the challenge to the scholastic universities by Humanism in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, to the near collapse of the Enlightenment university around 1800 in Germany, to Charles Eliot’s transformation of Harvard College into Harvard University at the end of the nineteenth century—centered on debates about the proper ends of a university and the normative sources that would fund these ends.

The medieval university, for example, was a unitary corporation of students and masters bound together by Christian values and scholastic practices, like the lecture and the disputation.18 Initially without buildings or infrastructure, the first universities in Paris and Oxford appealed to Christian values and theology as the supreme science to ensure the university’s universal authority. As a studium generale, the medieval university welcomed students from, and granted them rights to teach, anywhere in Christendom.19 It consistently laid claim to an authority that transcended local interests and divisions. 

Undergirding this claim to authority was the legal and financial support of the Church, a universal curriculum and language (Latin), and ethical forms and virtues taken from Christian traditions. Most of the medieval university’s basic values and virtues were grounded in generally shared beliefs in, for example, a cosmological order accessible to human reason, humans’ fallen nature, the value of speculative or theoretical knowledge, and the authority of tradition. The medieval university scholar was, thus, characterized by a particular ethos, and the university embodied a desire to understand the rational order of God’s creation and “general ethical values like modesty, reverence, and self-criticism.”20 Although particular universities adopted, adapted, and even resisted specific Christian theological claims, medieval universities were generally grounded in a Christian theological tradition.


Enlightenment University

Beginning in the late seventeenth century and continuing through the eighteenth century, many Enlightenment critics both inside and outside the university argued that universities were simply medieval institutions that inculcated nothing but blind submission to the church.21The confessional, medieval university obscured the true ends of knowledge and science––not contemplation of the divine but rather the practical needs and demands of a broader public and state. Over the course of the eighteenth century, some universities sought to redefine themselves as dedicated to a truth that was practical and socially useful. Universities like the University of Göttingen, established in Germany in 1737, embraced a public or state good, the pursuit of a better future, and a progress judged by material wellbeing. These Enlightenment universities were guided by different ends than those of the medieval university, which remained predominant throughout Europe until the end of the eighteenth century. The Enlightenment university’s manifold purpose was to produce 1) state revenues (through student fees) 2) more efficient members of the burgeoning state bureaucracy 3) technical solutions to particular problems, and 4) in its Jeffersonian democratic version, democratic citizens.

The Modern Research University

The modern research university emerged in Germany at the beginning of the nineteenth century and in the United States in the later part of the nineteenth century with institutions like Johns Hopkins and the University of Chicago. In Germany, the new university model was in part a response to a crisis of the university. Between 1720 and 1800 German university enrollment—once among the highest in Europe—had dropped by over 50 percent.22 By the end of the Enlightenment era in Germany, many students had begun to forego the broad-based, liberal arts and humanist education of the philosophy faculty and enroll directly in one of the three professional faculties: theology, law, or medicine.

There were two basic critiques leveled against the German Enlightenment university around 1800. First, many critics argued that in its relentless pursuit of social relevance, the university risked becoming little more than a glorified trade school. What was the purpose of a medieval institution when auxiliary institutions and schools––like mining academies, medical clinics, and veterinary schools––could more efficiently train students for specific professions? Second, some commentators began to wonder if the proliferation of print in the last decades of the eighteenth century was a real threat to the university. As books became cheaper and more widely available, what reason did a young man have to pay to listen to a professor lecture from a text? As the philosopher J. G. Fichte put it, if universities continued to present students “the entire world of books, which already lies printed before everyone’s eyes,” universities would soon become redundant and irrelevant.23 What was the purpose of a university in an age of print? What kind of authority could it lay claim to if it were to distinguish itself from the medieval university’s commitment to theology, the Enlightenment university’s commitment to the state, and the increasing authority of an expanding culture of print?

The most important response to the German university’s crisis of purpose emerged after an intense debate about the very idea and purpose of the university that raged in Prussia between 1795 and 1810. This debate culminated in the establishment of a new university in Berlin in 1810: the Friedrich Wilhelm University or the University of Berlin. Under the bureaucratic leadership of the Prussian statesman and scholar Wilhelm von Humboldt, a broad range of Prussian ministry officials, scholars, and philosophers, including the theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher and Fichte, offered a new language through which to re-imagine the purpose of the university: Wissenschaft or specialized, discipline-based science. The university, they argued, was the institution of knowledge. Not the church, not the state but, in the words of Humboldt, “the cultivation of science in the deepest and broadest sense” would be the orienting purpose of the university.24 The university should be the singular institution devoted to cultivating science or scholarship as, in the words of Fichte, a morality, an ethics, a way of life.

Although many of the research university’s basic elements had their precedent in the University of Göttingen, Humboldt and colleagues developed a clear moral language and concept for the new university model.25 They cast specialized science as an ethos, a disposition, and sought to institutionalize it in a university structure, replete with exam committees, elaborate governance structures, seminars, hiring practices, and reorganized libraries. In the contemporary research university, faculty take these practices and the ethos of specialized science for granted. They inhabit an institution that is assumed to give itself its own norms and sustain its own way of life.26  

Philology as the Exemplary Discipline

The lasting achievement of the early German research university, then, was to give specialized science an institutional form and thus guarantee its continuity and effectivity. Like any institution, the new research university developed and incorporated structures, practices, and methods to train and form students into a life of science. As Fichte put it, the true scholar pursues science as a comprehensive form of life. Driven by the “genius of industriousness,” he devotes his every waking minute to his particular science.

Throughout the nineteenth century, one discipline in particular embodied the logic and practices of specialized science: classical philology (the study of ancient texts and cultures). Not physics, chemistry, or biology but philology was the consummate discipline. For generations of German scholars in every field, the philologist embodied the virtues of modern scholarship: “industriousness, attention to the most minute of details, devotion to method…an ethic of responsibility, exactitude, as well as a commitment and facility to open discussion.”27

The primary site of this inculcation into specialized science was the university seminar, the precursor to modern graduate programs. The nineteenth-century university seminar had its origins in the seminaries and theology seminars of early eighteenth-century Pietist Germany, especially Halle, where seminaries began as institutions for training ministers. Over the course of the eighteenth century, they became institutions for training teachers, and by the early nineteenth century, they had changed once again and had become institutions for training scientists and researchers, especially philologists.28

In 1707, August Hermann Francke, a Pietist and professor of ancient languages at the university in Halle, established the first seminar in Halle (seminarium selectum praeceptorium) to train teachers for his Pädagogium, a secondary Latin school established a decade before. The seminar trained theology students from the university in antique languages, modern philology, and biblical scholarship. These students then went on to train teachers in the Pädagogium, where, as “scholaren,” they guided younger students toward piety through “edifying discourse and good example.” This included evening and morning prayer, reading of scripture, and extensive linguistic training.29

In contrast to traditional humanist learning, which focused on ancient Greek and Roman texts, Francke’s seminar emphasized exercises in ancient languages (Latin, above all) and focused almost exclusively on the study of the Bible. The epitome of Halle’s philological culture, however, was the Collegium Orientale theologicum. Established in 1702 by Francke, the Collegium trained a select group of university students in ancient languages and biblical exegesis. Besides Hebrew, students were also expected to learn Chaldean, Syrian, Samaritan, Arabic, Ethiopian, and rabbinic Hebrew. Like the seminar, the Collegium was devoted almost exclusively to the scholarly study of the Bible.

Francke’s Pietist seminars embraced the most modern of scholarly techniques and materials: students were required to study six languages and master the methods of high textual criticism and emendation. The Pietist seminars in Halle combined these objective techniques with a rigorous moral education to produce particular subjective experiences.30 As Francke put it, a better, philologically enhanced Luther Bible would help people (scholars and non-scholars alike) experience God’s word more intensely. Scholarly methods would help make better Christians. Training in objective, scholarly techniques would produce particular types of ethical subjects. This basic premise would guide the development of seminars from the early eighteenth century throughout the nineteenth century. The key difference was that the seminars that emerged later in the century eschewed the Christian orientation of their Pietist predecessors, whose ultimate end was the production of a personal relationship with God.

In 1738, a philology seminar was established at the University of Göttingen that from its beginning was devoted not to Christian piety but to the study of antiquity. The Göttingen seminar sought to form not skilled readers of the Bible but skilled readers of ancient Roman and Greek texts. And yet it shared the Pietist seminar’s methodological assumption that training in objective techniques would produce particular kinds of ethical subjects. The Göttingen seminar sought to habituate students, as the seminar ordinance put it, into “a high estimation of antiquity in general,” such that the ancient writers would be “an eternal monument of human reason and other good virtues.”31

In 1787, the German classicist Friedrich August Wolf, a student of the Göttingen seminar, founded a philology seminar at the University of Halle that from its beginning emphasized the cultivation of the student not as a Christian or humanist but as a philologist, as a specialized scholar. Wolf criticized the loosely humanist seminars for their lack of philological rigor. His seminar developed excellence in philological methods by placing small groups of students in intimate contact with a single professor, who would drill students in specific exercises.32 The goal was the formation of philological virtues, above all industriousness and exactitude. And yet in 1806, just as philology was becoming a distinct discipline, Wolf began to worry that the increasingly specialized character of philology might obscure its original ethical aims—the formation of students according to ancient virtues. Technical skill, virtuosity, was replacing virtue.

In Berlin, Humboldt attempted to resolve the tension between the production of ever more technical knowledge and the formation of a particular type of person and character by casting science as its own form of life. He sought to reconcile the tension between technical research and moral formation by embedding academic professionalization––the imperative to publish, to divide intellectual labor according to specialization, to focus on details––in a set of ethical ideals. Specialized science, he claimed, gave the scholar a moral orientation, a source of meaning and authority, and made him a member of an ethical community: a community of researchers who were contributing to a human knowledge project brick by brick, technical insight after technical insight. The university was his home, church, and nation.

Founded in 1812, the philology seminar was the first seminar to be established at the University of Berlin. Its purpose, according to its founding ordinance, was

to educate those who were properly prepared for classical philology [Altherthumswissenschaft] through a broad range of exercises that led into the depths of science, and through literary support of all kinds, so that through them this study can in the future be maintained, propagated and extended.33

The broader pedagogical goals of the seminar, so central to those in Halle and Göttingen, were subordinated to the more basic task of forming future philologists. The seminar’s goal was to close the gap between external goods (broader notions of the good external to the university) and the internal goods of philology as a science. The expectation was that students would eventually grasp and devote themselves to the goods internal to the practice of philology and excel at what philology as a distinct practice required.

According to the seminar’s logic, becoming an excellent philologist was a good in itself and thus required no further justification. Philology constituted its own way of life. By tying the logic of science to the institution of the university, science could become a viable form of life replete with its own set of virtues: industriousness, attention to detail, self-discipline and restraint, openness to debate. Above all, science entailed a devotion to something that exceeded the self: science. The university would not need the church, the state, ancient Greece, or any other sources for its norms—science would serve as the normative source for the university.

Within a decade of its founding, the philology seminar left questions about the good life and a common good aside and focused instead on historical reconstructions of particular passages, methodological and technical innovations, and debates within an increasingly restricted circle of specialists. As one German philologist put it in 1820: “we’re turning out men who know everything about laying the foundations but forget to build the temple.”34 German research universities were producing hyper-specialized scholars who had no idea why they were devoting their lives to one Greek preposition. But they did not need to because philology was self-normed. Internally, the success of the philology seminar led to ever-greater fragmentation of the broader discipline as philologists focused on increasingly specific and technical questions. Externally, philology gradually detached itself from the broader, non-technical culture. Philologists saw no need to justify their activities or commitments to a public who could not understand their work anyway.

The Virtues of Specialization

In a speech in Munich in 1918, the German sociologist Max Weber described with devastating, detached effect what had become of the modern German research university and the specialized science that it embodied: science could not bear the weight of the ethical demands that its forefathers in Berlin had placed upon it. Institutionalized science was not a way of life; it was a profession. Like any profession it had little to say about questions of value, meaning, worth, and the good. Questions about how one should live, claimed Weber, were of no concern to science. The logic of specialization was ineluctable, and attempts to glean moral guidance from science were misplaced, elegiac longings for an enchanted world that had long since disappeared. 

And yet despite Weber’s claims, which continue to haunt the research university, there was a clear moral imperative to what has been referred to as Weber’s “value neutrality” [Wertfreiheit]: 
To the person who cannot bear the fate of the times like a man, one must say, may he return silently without the usual publicity buildup into the wide and comforting arms of the church…. For me, [such a return] stands higher than academic prophecy [pronouncing values and ends in the classroom], which does not clearly realize that in the lecture rooms of the university no other virtue holds but intellectual virtuousness [Rechtschaffenheit].35

Despite his insistence on the non-normativity of science, Weber’s exhortation to act “like a man” contains a deep appeal to virtue. The question of whether one embraces the meaninglessness of science or the comforting enchantments of the church is not simply propositional––whether the dogmas are true or false––but rather and more importantly a reflection of who the scholar is as a person, a statement about the scholar’s dispositions. The capacity to exclude systematically broader questions of meaning and value, to focus simply on the “needs of the day”––the university’s rules, procedures, and practices–– these are the virile virtues of the modern scientist. These are also the virtues that characterized the nineteenth-century philologist: industriousness, attention to detail, and adherence to method. This was the very bedrock of the modern university’s moral authority. Despite Weber’s claims to the contrary, science did lay claim to value, meaning, and worth. Weber’s man of “intellectual integrity” was another formulation of the virtues of the seminar and the normative structure of specialized science.


This brief history of the moral sources of the university demonstrates that the university has always been based on normative commitments: visions and claims about what is worthy, valuable, and good. Until the emergence of the research university, however, universities had generally acknowledged the ethical resources that supported them and gave them life and purpose. The research university, in contrast, has from its beginnings in Berlin obscured its ethical orientation behind the language and logic of specialized science. It has always struggled to articulate its ends as it struggled to reconcile virtuosity with virtue, technical skill with ethical formation. This conflicted institution is the one that we still inhabit, and we have inherited its ethical incoherence.

In this light, we can understand the reticence of many faculty members to invoke the moral character of the university as systematic, historical, and institutional. Contemporary university scholars have by and large been formed in and by an institution that has historically eschewed the language of ethics and purpose. The virtues of the nineteenth-century German philology seminar are the same virtues to which contemporary scholars aspire. But contemporary faculty do not tend to understand them as virtues, as dispositions oriented toward a broader good, as constituting an ethos that gives meaning and purpose. Weber’s story about an all-powerful, highly functional modernity continues to hold sway.

And yet this totalizing story is insufficient. In their attempts to defend the very idea of a university, faculty members and advocates of the university appeal to vestiges of universities past, an odd admixture of the ethical elements of the medieval, Enlightenment, and modern research university. The university has always been a normative institution. The university has always embodied particular notions of what is valuable and authoritative, however explicitly or implicitly, and faculty will increasingly need to cultivate and marshal this ethical heritage if they want to defend the university as a relevant social force in the twenty-first century.

Second, declinist narratives that long for an institution with, as Clark Kerr put it, a “single soul to call its own” are not productive.36 These stories of institutions lost to modernity, secularization, political correctness, or any number of other social bugaboos distract us from the specific cultural demands and needs of our day. We live in a highly pluralistic society in which there are sundry and competing notions of the good, and we should be under no illusion that universities can or should be oriented toward one notion of the good as defined by one particular tradition. The world of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American college is gone. The purported unity of purpose and clear moral education of the American college was possible because of the uniformity of the community. It is neither possible nor desirable to return to nineteenth-century New Haven or thirteenth-century Paris.

Finally, just as it is impossible to return to the nineteenth-century college, so too is it increasingly difficult to defend publically an institution that stands for nothing but its own operations. How are we to convince the public to support an opaque, self-enclosed institution (especially the humanities and humanistic social sciences)? It is imperative that faculty articulate the value, goods, virtues, and authority that the university contributes to a pluralistic democracy and its citizens. Even the steadfast defender of professionalization, Stanley Fish, has wondered if there might come a time when such arguments will no longer be sufficient for the demands of the day.37

In order to refine their arguments and move the institution forward, the university’s defenders should more explicitly embrace the norms, virtues, and goods that have made it one of our oldest and most important institutions. From the medieval university, the contemporary university might embrace virtues like epistemic humility, respect for traditions, and the desire to understand. From the Enlightenment university, it might embrace a commitment to a broader social good. From the modern research university, it might embrace the virtues of the community of researchers like diligence, attention to detail, openness to debate, and the demand for evidence. The university forms particular types of people, but those who hope to defend it need to be more reflective and articulate about how and to what ends it does so.

Any compelling defense of the university as a normative institution, however, also requires a robust defense and embrace of the normative character of the individual people who constitute it. Faculty members and students come to the university with their own desires and hopes and visions of the good and the human person. In a pluralistic society, the university has to ask systematically how the manifold ends and purposes of the people who inhabit it might fit together, but it can only do that if it acknowledges that its scholars and students are full, embodied people with desires and, oftentimes, incommensurable notions of the good. Universities need to discard the ruse that its faculty can leave their notions of what is valuable and worthy at the campus gate; this is both false and detrimental to the university.

One of the most important challenges facing the university today concerns how it can encourage and support a constructive handling of deep differences about the good within the framework of its own institutional commitments and history. How, that is, can the university both form its faculty and students in its own traditions and virtues and encourage them to bring their different traditions and visions of the good to bear on big, common questions?


  1. On the perpetual “crisis” in higher education, especially in the humanities, see Frank Donoghue, The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008).
  2. Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011). See, also, Jerome Karabel, The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton (New York: Mariner, 2005); William G. Bowen, Matthew M. Chingos, and Michael S. McPherson, Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America’s Public Universities (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009).
  3. Mark Taylor, Crisis on Campus: A Bold Plan for Reforming Our Colleges and Universities (New York: Knopf, 2010).
  4. Stanford President John Hennessey as quoted in Ken Auletta, “Get Rich U,” The New Yorker (30 April 2012):, accessed April 2, 2013.
  5. Andrew Delbanco, College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012). See, also, Anthony Kronman, Education’s End: Why Our Universities and Colleges Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007) and Mark Williams Roche, Why Choose the Liberal Arts (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 2010.).
  6. Delbanco 96–101 and Kronman 91–136.
  7. Delbanco 175.
  8. Alasdair MacIntyre, Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry: Encyclopedia, Genaeology, and Tradition (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 1990) 222.
  9. See also Woodrow Wilson, Princeton for the Nation’s Service (Princeton, NJ: Gillis Press, 1903).
  10. Martha Nussbaum, Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012), 25-26.
  11. Nussbaum 26; Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. H. Rackham (Harvard University Press, 1968) I.i.4–ii.6.
  12. Jürgen Habermas’s recent reconsideration of a more traditional secularization thesis has been prompted by similar questions about democracy’s ethical resources. See, for example, Jürgen Habermas, et al., An Awareness of What is Missing: Faith and Reason in a Post-Secular Age, trans. Ciaran Cronin (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2010).
  13. Quoted in Delbanco 149.
  14. One of the few recent books to do so—Louis Menand’s The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2010—almost throws its hands up to the iron cage of the rationalized professional university.
  15. See, for example, Stanley Fish, Save the World on Your Own Time (Oxford University Press, 2008).
  16. For a taste of Fish’s more recent arguments about the university, see “The Crisis of the Humanities Finally Arrives,” New York Times (11 October 2010):, accessed April 2, 2013.
  17. Consider, for example, the annual New York Time’s article on the Modern Language Association’s meeting that always includes a mocking list of the most inane paper titles.
  18. See, for example, Walter Rüegg “Introduction,” A History of the University in Europe: Volume I, Universities in the Middle Ages, ed. Hilde de Ridder-Symoens (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992) 3–34.
  19. Jacques Verger, “Patterns,” A History of the University in Europe: Volume I, Universities in the Middle Ages, ed. Hilde de Ridder-Symoens (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992) 41–45.
  20. Rüegg 32–33.
  21. See, for example, Notker Hammerstein, “Aufklärung und Universitäten in Europa: Divergenzen und Probleme,” in Universitäten und Aufklärung (Göttingen: Wallstein, 1995), 191–205.
  22. See Charles E. McClelland, State, Society, and University in Germany, 1700–1914 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1980).
  23. J. G. Fichte, Deduzierter Plan einer zu Berlin zu errichtenden höheren Lehranstalt in Gelegentliche Gedanken über Universitäten, ed. Ernst Müller (Leipzig: Reclaim, 1990) 59. Fichte is referring here to the historical practice of the university lecture whereby a professor read directly from a canonical text and interjected his own commentary.
  24. Wilhelm von Humboldt, “On the Inner and Outer Organization of Berlin’s Institutions of Higher Knowledge,” trans. Paul Reitter and Chad Wellmon, The Rise of the Modern Research University: A Sourcebook, ed. Louis Menand, Paul Reitter, and Chad Wellmon (University of Chicago Press, forthcoming).
  25. For an excellent account of Göttingen’s innovations, see William Clark, Academic Charisma and the Origins of the Research University (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006).
  26. J. G. Fichte, Ueber das Wesen des Gelehrten und seine Erscheinungen im Gebiete der Freiheit (Berlin 1806), 1806.
  27. Lorraine Daston, “Die Akademien und die Einheit der Wissenschaften. Die Disziplinierung der Disziplinen,” in Die Königlich Preußische Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Berlin im Kaissereich, ed. Jürgen Kocka (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1999), 83.
  28. Kathryn Olesko, Physics as Calling: Discipline and Practice in the Königsberg Seminar for Physics (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991) 1.
  29. Francke, Kurtzer Bericht von den gegenwärtigen Verfassung des Paedagogi Regii zu Glaucha vor Halle (Halle: Waysenhaus, 1710).
  30. Jonathan Sheehan, The Enlightenment Bible (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006) 60–61.
  31. From the seminar’s statutes (Schulordnung), as quoted in Friedrich Paulsen, Geschichte des gelehrten Unterrichts auf den deutschen Schulen und Universitäten vom Ausgang des Mittelalters bis zur Gegenwart (Leipzig: Veit, 1885) 431.
  32. See William Clark, “On the Dialectical Origins of the Research Seminar,” History of Science 27 (1989): 111–54.
  33. Seminarordnung,” originally published in the Unversitätskalender of 1813, reprinted in Die Vorlesungen der Berliner Universität, 791–92.
  34. J. H. Voss quoted in Anthony Grafton, “Polyhistor into Philolog: Notes on the Transformation of German Classical Scholarship,” History of Universities 3 (1983): 159–92, 173.
  35. Max Weber, From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, trans. H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills (New York: Oxford University Press, 1946) 45. I have slightly altered this translation to highlight the virtue language that Weber uses in the original.
  36. Clark Kerr, The Uses of the University (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1963) 45.
  37. Stanley Fish, There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech: And It’s a Good Thing Too (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994) 242.

Chad Wellmon is an Assistant Professor of German at the University of Virginia. He has two forthcoming books on the history and future of the university, Organizing Enlightenment: Information Overload and the Invention of the Modern University (Johns Hopkins University Press) and The Rise of the Research University: A Sourcebook, edited with Paul Reitter and Louis Menand (University of Chicago Press).

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