Beyond the Academic Ethic, #2–The Liberal Theory of Science, & Professionalization.

By Stephen Turner



Stephen Turner is Distinguished University Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Florida. You can read more about him and his work HERE.


#1 Introduction


The Liberal Theory of Science

Much of the change with which we will be concerned is quite recent. It was only with what Christopher Jenks and David Reisman described in The Academic Revolution (Jencks and Riesman, [1968] 1977), the changes of the 1950s and 60s, that expectations for ordinary academics included a significant, or any, amount of “research.” The triad of teaching, research, and service which is at the core of many evaluation systems in universities derives from the teaching, research, and extension triad of the American land grant universities of the nineteenth century. But in its original form, these were largely separate functions: research took place at an experimental farm, often located hundreds of miles from the university; extension was training for farmers that occurred largely where the farmers lived; teaching was done at the university by people who did little or no “research” of any kind. Colleges and Universities focused on training. Harvard University, for the first three centuries of its existence, was essentially a training school for congregational ministers, a task it still performs. The ministry was a paradigmatic profession: a calling, but also a source of income and a status in an established institution, in this case the church. The same could be said for Cambridge and Oxford, which not only produced for the religious market but had religious tests for entry late in the nineteenth century, and whose presses still rely on revenue from the Bible market. One could multiply examples indefinitely. On the continent, the market relation was to the state — which needed educated administrators. The value of the university was not for its pursuit of truth, but for its ability to provide some sort of educational experience and some sort of certification which the market, in the Harvard case the congregations hiring the minster, valued. To be sure, there was a small minority of students who valued knowledge for its own sake and were able and willing to pay for instruction. But this small minority would never be large or rich enough to support a university, and there were never enough academic jobs for them to constitute an academic class of the scale of present academia.

The relationship with the professions produced a particular kind of university which persisted and grew over a millennia, with typical groupings of “faculties” associated with the professions, and some sort of core liberal arts faculty which provided instruction that was considered to be more elementary and general. Until the nineteenth century these faculties were more concerned with the transmission of dogma than “discovery,” and were often strikingly retrograde in relation to the knowledge available outside the university. The logic of exclusion was central to the traditional university: it was a means of certifying that those trained within it conformed to the accepted truths. This fit with the demands of certification, and exclusion helped make the certification valuable.

It is important to understand how the university and academia related to intellectual life at large. Universities were places where people were learned, and went through various tests to show they were learned. A dissertation in the sixteenth century was a recapitulation of the professor’s notes — the real test was the viva, in which the candidate demonstrated an ability to defend these views on his feet. In Britain, college fellowships were awarded based on exams, not production — and production was largely optional and in many cases non-existent, well into the postwar era. At the same time, there was a lively non-academic world of learning, and also of production — indeed, this is where the ideas normally emerged. This dual world was somewhat permeable until what William James called “the Ph.D. octopus” (1903) strangled the university — as evidenced by the career of James himself. But until the academic revolution, which occurred over a long period, led by the “research universities,” the qualifications of a professor were learning, not production. And one can see this even in the institutions of the German university, where the Habilitationsschrift must be in a different specialty than the Ph.D. dissertation, and where there was originally no expectation that professors produce beyond this demonstration of learning.

This system began to break down in the nineteenth century with the emergence of chemistry as a valuable form of knowledge not directly linked to a profession. The transformative figure is the chemist Justus Leibig, whose chemical discoveries launched an international business in agricultural products, attracted students from all over the world, and made him into a business magnate as well as a professor with a large and lively laboratory. This was knowledge that was valuable for a market other than the professions, and although its value was in a sense indirect as well, the users applied the knowledge and used the products themselves. The process of discovery could be tailored to the needs of the agricultural market. A new model was born. Liebig was not obliged to produce “impact” or monetize his research, but he did. Chemistry research itself became valuable, and science generally became valuable, whether or not there were practical applications. It was enough that sometimes something came out of it, or that training in science benefitted someone. Soon enough it did, with applications of chemical knowledge to medical issues.

It was not until the late nineteenth century that a new model emerged based on the granting of Ph.D.s and the creation of the modern set of disciplines. In the United States the origins of the modern category of research universities dates from 1915. The list has barely changed since then. But these universities were still primarily teaching institutions, with heavy teaching loads, and a scattering of productive “research” faculty most of whose “research” consisted of cataloging existing knowledge in textbooks. Pressure to publish was very limited. The choice to write was largely voluntary. Peer review was not burdensome. Book publishing outside of the textbook market was difficult, usually subsidized, and relatively rare, and there were few journals. Decisions to publish were typically made by editors, without advice. These were the conditions under which the following was true:

In the traditional university, professors were “unaccountable.” The university was a sacred space where they were at liberty to pursue with students and colleagues their fields of inquiry without coercion or interference. This doesn’t mean they were free without qualification, of course. Professors were deeply accountable, but in a sense that went far beyond the reach, ambition, and perhaps even the interests of the administrative caste — they were accountable to discover and then to tell the truth, and to encourage their students to do the same. (Srigley, 2018, n.p.)

This passage was taken from one of the many responses to the new regime of administrative control of the university through metrics and “goals.” It reiterates ideas that Shils also expresses. And it is a source of confusion, because much of the same language is used ideologically to describe the more recent past, the period after the academic revolution. This period was not free of coercion, but the coercion took a particular form.


Why did it change? The story varies from country to country and field to field, but much of it had to do with the rapid expansion of universities in the two decades after the Second World War. In much of Europe this meant the transformation of universities from sleepy places with scholars who pursued their own arcane interests to places brimming with students. In the United States something similar happened. In both cases a new model of the academic career emerged, which was less individualistic and more tied to the idea of a discipline of judging and evaluating peers. In science, there was a different process, more closely related to funding, which eventually came to affect the rest of the academy.

The point of professions is to exclude and gain benefits from excluding. And the transition to professionalization was marked by a kind of punitiveness toward not only amateurs, but deviants, people who failed to get with the new program, and so forth. Andrew Abbott discusses the reign of Peter Blau and Peter Rossi at the American Journal of Sociology in the 1950s, before the transition to the later dependence on peer-review (Abbott, 1999, pp. 140–48). Decisions were not arbitrary, but depended on conformity to the standards that they self-confidently set. There was a strong, and strongly self-justifying, sense of professional standards that just happened to be their standards, and included themselves and their friends and excluded the scholars of the past, as well as most of the “profession” of which they were a part. Something similar happened in all the fields of the humanities and social sciences.

In a sense the Old Boys’ network which the revolutionaries overthrew became more insidious than before. In the older system, it was taken for granted that appointments were culturally coded, and that merit was secondary. But because academic life itself was less oppressive, the system was less oppressive. No one could reasonably hope to be an Ivy League professor who could not act the part; but there were other places they would fit in without being excluded from scholarship. The combination of the Old Boys’ network and disciplinarization relegated those outside the network to humiliation as well as exclusion, all in the name of professionalization.[i]

At the time of the professionalization of humanities and social science disciplines there was consciousness of the change, and laments about it. These typically came in the form of criticism of the flight from teaching that this system allowed in elite universities, and the declining status of teaching. Jacques Barzun was a typical but highly visible example (Champion, 2018). The flight from teaching was of course hierarchical: it was a feature of elite institutions that only slowly spread to their imitators, and rich institutions mitigated the change by continuing to provide a more traditional “liberal arts” education to its younger students, though over time the number of people not caught up in professionalization who could do this in the old way dwindled. So the flight from teaching reinforced hierarchy and intensified the pressure to conform to the new idea of “professional.” Competition also affected salaries. For the first time academics who were considered disciplinary leaders or celebrities received enormous salaries: one chair of political science was rumored to be making $100,000 in the mid-1970s, a salary equivalent to more than $600,000 today. The era of celebrity academics had arrived, though now they needed only to be disciplinary celebrities, who were only read by other academics. The political scientist who cashed in on this status at the University of Chicago, David Easton, was not at all a public intellectual, nor did he even write about politics in a way that was remotely relevant to actual politics, despite working in the heart of the south side of Chicago, home of one of the most corrupt and powerful political systems in the country.



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