The Structure of Universities Makes the Toughest Problems Harder to Solve

The division of universities into departments based on subject areas reflects how university faculty have studied the world over the centuries, not necessarily the way the world actually is. Because of the university, the ancient, unified approach to learning about the world has shattered into innumerable fragments of specialization. From the handful of artes in the early centuries of the university, the leading institutions today have hundreds of degree programs, thousands of faculty and staff, and tens of thousands of students.

As with any bureaucracy, universities grow by meiosis. Faculty within a department tend to become more specialized. At a certain point, the people within a department who share a specialty want more autonomy and lobby to create their own department, with a budget and power to hire. When departments divide in half, each half adds staff and then perhaps splits apart again. Within the university, what used to be in the domain of literature is now carried on in English, foreign language, classics, communications, and linguistics departments.

In the last generation, many English departments have split up into one department that studies literary interpretation (still called English) and one that focuses on the teaching of writing (usually called composition and rhetoric). Further specializations have already started to form within both departments. In English departments, some faculty focus on the literary history of primary texts while others focus on theoretical approaches, such as deconstruction or queer theory. In composition and rhetoric departments, some faculty focus on the teaching of writing, such as business or creative writing, while others focus on the rhetorical analysis of arguments found in other fields of study. These are the kinds of fault lines that widen over time and cause departments to split apart.

Specialized knowledge and the proliferation of university departments accelerated during the Industrial Revolution. Industrialization brought division of labor, in which complex work that may have been done by one craftsman would be broken down into narrower tasks, each done by a worker who excelled in it. Universities responded to the needs of industry by breaking disciplines into specialties that could prepare students for practical occupations—“natural philosophy” became geology, chemistry, biology, and so on. Universities added vocationally focused programs, such as business and education.

The Romantics gave us a more integrated vision of the university in reaction to this atomization. They conceived of the university as a banquet of knowledge, and they encouraged students to sample a wide range of disciplines so that they could become well rounded citizens of the world, not just narrow specialists. Students needed to learn languages, not just professions. They needed culture and history as well as science and logic. This vision dominated undergraduate education through most of the twentieth century in the form of general education. Students would spend up to two years of a four-year program taking required courses across the sciences, social sciences, and humanities to broaden their knowledge before plunging into courses in their major. General education has weakened since the 1960s because many freshmen and sophomores need remedial help with writing and math, which occupies time they would otherwise have for richer, multidisciplinary studies. In addition, the high cost of a college education and the demand for higher skills in the workplace have shifted the emphasis to vocational studies.

The multiplication of specialties has filled up nearly all the conceptual universe that used to be the domain of literature. Students coming into a college or university accept as a given the department structure and the specializations it supports. Students assume this is how people are supposed to learn about the world. By the time they declare a major and graduate, they have absorbed the professional habits of thinking of one specialty or other. You can get a doctorate in literature without knowing anything about astronomy. You can go all the way through the curriculum to obtain a Ph.D. in chemistry without knowing anything about religion.

By contrast, most ancient poets knew about the stars and planets because the heavens constituted one of the languages by which destiny revealed itself to people on earth. Ancient chemists did not handle material substances without paying attention to the spirits that animated them. The scientific mind looks down at the way astrologers and alchemists conflate material things with subjective feelings. However, solving knotty problems such as the purpose and limits of genetic engineering requires thinking across the accepted boundaries of knowledge. Human values and imagination matter just as much as empirical facts.


How Universities Came to Dominate Knowledge

The scholastic philosophers consolidated their power over intellectual life through the institution of the university, which is designed for specialized knowledge. As their name implies, the scholastics were teachers—they are sometimes called schoolmen—who originally worked in schools attached to monasteries and cathedrals. With prosperity increasing across Western Europe in the later Middle Ages, ecclesiastical and civil organizations needed more highly trained men to help run them. This demand led to the founding of the first universities in the twelfth century at Paris, Bologna, and Oxford. Many others followed in succeeding centuries.

The scholastics filled a significant proportion of the first professorships, and places like Paris (where Peter Lombard worked), Oxford, and Cambridge (founded in the thirteen century) became the centers of an intellectual revolution. In addition, universities housed the first professional schools, for law and medicine.

The university curriculum counterpointed the traditional means of learning in small local schools, under the tutelage of a clergyman or monk, or in the homes of the secular elite, who could afford private tutors for their children. In these venues, the literary education inherited from antiquity continued. According to Ernst Robert Curtius, this method quietly succumbed to the intellectual prestige of the universities:

That downfall [of traditional literary education] is the reverse side of the brilliant period of learning brought in by the Age of the Universities. As late as ca. 1150 dialectics is still the only enemy of the study of the auctores. But even before 1200 jurisprudence, medicine,and theology are added to the roster; and, after 1250, Aristotelianism in philosophy and natural science. In the first half of the thirteenth century John of Garland [a representative of the literary tradition] is still working in Paris but he seems to have found no successors there. There are still teachers of literature—they are now called “auctorists”—but they have become very unassuming… Literature no longer brings anything in, it is not one of the artes lucrativae [“money-making disciplines”] such as theology, jurisprudence, medicine.[i]

The universities did not triumph immediately but only over a number of centuries. The tradition of the seven liberal arts, the trivium and quadrivium defined by Martianus Capella, continued into the Renaissance. Moreover, most educated people did not attend universities; primary or secondary school was as far as most people went. Nevertheless, by the sixteenth or seventeenth century, the universities had multiplied and had pumped out enough graduates to staff local schools or tutor children in wealthy homes. Universities started to dominate.

The bureaucratic structure of the university as first established in the Middle Ages shapes the way we understand the world. Universities value focused, professional inquiry of the sort Peter Lombard practiced; the faculty and students of today are Lombard’s heirs. Gaining more specialized knowledge and developing a reputation as an expert in a particular field offers almost the only way to advance in a university. If you are a top researcher in some branch of chemistry, no one questions your right to a post in a chemistry department at a major university, with generous funding for your laboratory and research assistants. But you cannot teach in a law school unless you have a law degree. It would hurt the law school’s reputation and jeopardize its professional accreditation.

[i] Curtius, pp. 261-262.

Knowledge Breaks Apart Without the Text

The lack of art in modern analytical writing begins with the scholastic philosophers in the 11th century, who saw ideas as distinct from the text in which they are expressed. For example, the scholastics actively discouraged Bible reading, even among advanced students and teachers. Instead, the central text of Christianity became Peter Lombard’s Four Books of Ideas (mid 12th century), which extracted the basics of Christian doctrine. The Bible texts would only confuse people, the scholastics thought; it was much more convenient to go straight to a clear, concise summary of Christian beliefs and key issues. Accordingly, doctoral students would not research what we today call primary texts but would write their dissertations on Peter Lombard or other secondary sources.

The Humanists and their intellectual descendants down to the present day saw this practice as evidence of the scholastics’ backward intellect, pedantry, and jealous guarding of their own authority. On the contrary, the scholastics viewed themselves as progressives, and their approach to knowledge simply corrected the errors that had slipped into education through reliance on the pagan auctores and the poetic form of reading they imply.

We share their view of knowledge even today. At all levels of education, we assist learning with textbooks—you can think of Peter Lombard’s Ideas as the first textbook. A textbook presents extracts of knowledge that purport to establish the fundamental principles of a given discipline, whether literature, organic chemistry, marketing, or some other field. In public schools, panels of educators collaborate to write textbooks that become de facto standards. School boards and administrations choose textbooks explicitly to inculcate in students the closest approximation to the truth of a given subject. As a result, textbooks often enjoy near monopoly power, which enables publishers to charge exorbitant prices for them, commonly approaching $200 today. They’re also flat and artless.

Textbooks alter the way people read. When you see students studying, they typically hunch over thick textbooks—for chemistry, math, law, and so on. The textbooks feature thin, glaring white paper and small, black type. They smell like chemicals. Students highlight passages with fluorescent yellow or pink markers. They can then go back and read the highlighted passages to refresh their memory before an exam. Students accept that reading means mostly reading for information and that pleasure is irrelevant.

Unhooking ideas from words made specialized knowledge possible. In the ancient world, authors couldn’t stray far from the rhetorical expectations of their audience. People could study natural and social phenomena; they could accumulate observations and speculate about them. But the work produced from these studies seldom goes beyond reporting and cataloging. The analytical method that the scholastics developed allowed them to delve into theological questions. Other scholars could apply the method to other topics.

In addition, scholars could develop other analytical methods and models to explore the world. If scholars didn’t have to produce “art” in Plato’s sense, they could invent any methods they wanted without worrying about disappointing readers’ expectations. In fact, each scholar could devise a method appropriate for his particular topic. Thus, scholasticism enabled the innumerable economic models, data models, climate models, and so on that we have today. As a consequence, the fields of knowledge grow increasingly apart. Any literate person could read Strabo’s Geography or Ptolemy on astronomy. The general reader today cannot easily digest the latest scholarship on these subjects because they lack the specialized knowledge and understanding of methods, which have become so elaborate over the centuries.

The Art of Language at the Center of Education

High culture maintained a continuity from the ancient world into the Middle Ages. Literary life and education had revived in the fourth and fifth centuries after the near collapse of the Roman empire in the third century. The later Roman emperors such as Diocletian and Constantine restored order and prosperity. During this time, the empire became Christian. Although some wanted to get rid of pagan learning altogether, the faction that saw value in the classical authors prevailed.

Church fathers such as Augustine and Jerome wanted Christians to be good readers so that they could get the most out of the Bible. That meant honing their reading skills by studying the best Greek and Latin writers, who were pagan: Virgil, Cicero, and the rest. Not only were these authors skillful with language, their books contained ethical lessons that the church approved of. These writers formed the auctores, a Latin word meaning not just “authors” but also “authorities”—that is, those whose work should guide us. The Greek and Latin texts that survive today largely reflect what the early churchmen in the fourth and fifth centuries picked out as canonical from the whole corpus of classical antiquity. They gave ancient literary culture centuries more life.

Martianus Capella put his stamp on the Roman style of eduction for 1,000 years with his work The Marriage of Mercury and Philology, written in the 420s or 430s. In this allegory about the education of a public speaker (the type of education that any Roman official or professional would have had), Mercury stands for the raw talent of eloquence while Philology stands for study. Her handmaidens are the seven liberal arts, which Martianus describes in two groups. The trivium consists of grammar, logic, and rhetoric; the quadrivium consists of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music.

From the fifth century to the Renaissance, these are the subjects that students across Western Europe studied. They did not represent different disciplines or departments; they were not studied and taught by different scholars. Rather, they formed a single curriculum that any teacher would teach. Young students would focus on the trivium, older students on the quadrivium. By the time they matriculated, students had all mastered the same set of learning. And this learning was based on the study of texts and the art of language.


Modern Analytical Writing Lacks Art

Compare the art of Plato, with its uncertainties, to the precise, analytical writing of today, practiced by critics, analysts, and scholars of all sorts. They wanted to impose their authority on readers. Their writing style offers a mechanism for cultural dominance. It excels at drawing distinctions, defining categories, and expanding the syllogism into sustained arguments. Here’s how a 20th-century Russian literary critic, M.M. Bakhtin, compares two literary genres, epic and novel:

In ancient literature [particularly epic] it is memory, and not knowledge, that serves as the source of power for the creative impulse. That is how it was, it is impossible to change it: the tradition of the past is sacred. There is as yet no consciousness of the possible relativity of the past.

The novel, by contrast, is determined by experience, knowledge and practice (the future). In the era of Hellenism a closer contact with the heroes of the Trojan epic cycle began to be felt; epic is already being transformed into novel. Epic material is transposed into novelistic material, into precisely that zone of contact that passes through the intermediate stages of familiarization and laughter. When the novel becomes the dominant genre, epistemology becomes the dominant discipline.[i]

Bakhtin writes with a kind of aggression. He writes in distinct periods, each of which makes a decisive point. The sentences build one on another to create a larger argument, which Bakhtin summarizes elsewhere: “In the process of becoming the dominant genre [today], the novel sparks the renovation of all other genres….”[ii] Bakhtin writes abstractly, featuring key words such as relativity, familiarization, and epistemology. Bakhtin scarcely feels the need to point to concrete examples, such as specific passages from epics and novels, to make his point. He argues categorically.

[i] M.M. Bakhtin, “Epic and Novel” in The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, ed. Michael Holquist, tr. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 1981), p. 15.

[ii] Ibid., p. 7.

A Holistic View of the World Requires Art

In antiquity, people did not stray far from this literal, concrete sense of reading and thinking, even in abstract philosophy. Plato sets up his dialogues like plays or novels. The Phaedo exhibits multiple narrative frames (like a modern story such as Heart of Darkness). It opens with an Athenian, Phaedo, on a visit to the small city of Phlius in the Peloponnesian peninsula. His friend there, Echecrates, quizzes Phaedo about Socrates’ last day before his execution, which Phaedo spent with him. This set-up for the dialogue indicates that Socrates’ fame endures after his death and that his influence reaches even out-of-the-way towns far from Athens. Phaedo agrees to tell the story. After his conviction for undermining the moral character of Athens’ youth, Socrates won a few days’ reprieve from his death sentence while a sacred boat sailed to the island of Delos and back in a religious ceremony. Phaedo says:

We had all made it our regular practice, even in the period before, to visit Socrates every day [in jail]. We used to meet at daybreak by the courthouse where the trial was held, because it was close to the prison… On this particular day we met earlier than usual, because when we left the prison on the evening before, we heard that the boat had just arrived back from Delos; so we urged one another to meet at the same place as early as possible. When we arrived, the porter, instead of letting us in as usual, told us to wait and not to come in until he gave us the word. The commissioners are taking off Socrates’ chains, he said, and warning him that he is to die today.

After a short interval he came back and told us to go in. When we went inside we found Socrates just released from his chains, and Xanthippe—you know her!—sitting by him with the little boy on her knee. As soon as Xantippe saw us she broke out into the sort of remark you would expect from a woman. Oh, Socrates, this is the last time you and your friends will be able to talk together!

Socrates looked at Crito. Crito, he said, someone had better take her home.[i]

Plato dramatizes the scene expertly in a few sentences. Socrates’ friends pursue their daily routine, yet the routine is broken in a couple of minor respects in anticipation of the terrible event to come. They find Socrates free of his chains yet condemned to die that evening. Socrates’ wife and child are with him, yet Socrates asks them to be taken away. Does Xanthippe’s exclamation reflect sadness for Socrates that he has only one more day for his favorite activity, talking, or a bitter taunt because Socrates has spent so much of his foreshortened life away from her? Plato would not have written such a compelling vignette if he meant us to take the subsequent dialogue at face value. Here we catch Socrates in full stride talking about life and death, a poignant topic for this day:

Do not these examples [pairs such as smaller/bigger, weaker/stronger] present another feature, that between each pair of opposites there are two processes of generation, one from the first to the second, and another from the second to the first? Between a larger and a smaller object are there not the processes of increase and decrease, and do we not describe them in this way as increasing and decreasing?

Yes, said Cebes.

Is it not the same with separating and combining, cooling and heating, and all the rest of them? Even if we sometimes do not use the actual terms, must it not in fact hold good universally that they come one from the other, and that there is a process of generation from each to the other?

Certainly, said Cebes.

Well then, said Socrates, is there an opposite to living, as sleeping is opposite to waking?



Being dead.

So if they are opposite, they come from one another, and have their two processes of generation between the two of them?

Of course.[ii]

Naturally, Socrates goes on to argue that life and death are just two aspects of a single, unending cycle of regeneration. If Plato had omitted the opening story, we might be tempted to treat Cebes’ part as vestigial—he serves merely to underline that Socrates is right and to add a little space in what would otherwise be a long monologue. Since we do have the opening frames, we can read more into this exchange. On reflection, we spot the flaw in Socrates’ reasoning. Bigger and smaller are comparative adjectives with no substance; living and dying are physical states or processes. We can speak of a “process” by which something smaller becomes bigger only as a metaphor or abstraction, and we can’t conclude that any analogous process governs life and death, which are fundamentally different kinds of things.

Why doesn’t Cebes catch the obvious mistake or raise objections? Perhaps grief over the impending death of his friend Socrates renders him dumb, or perhaps he humors Socrates in his last conversation. A short while later, Cebes observes that “when people are asked questions, if the question is put in the right way they can give a perfectly correct answer….”[iii] We then wonder whether Socrates has been asking questions the right way. Does Plato want us to admire Socrates for plunging into philosophy rather than his family in his last hours, or should we disdain Socrates for ignoring the warmth of human relationships so that he can gas on about gimcrack ideas? We couldn’t ask these kinds of questions unless Plato had set up the drama so skillfully.

We can never extract from Plato a flat statement summarizing his view of any particular philosophical issue because the dialogues read like plays rather than essays. We have to consider the situation in which every statement occurs, the character of the person who utters it, whether it is meant to be taken ironically, whether it is contradicted or modified by later discussion, and so on. Every idea is spoken by a character rather than by Plato himself. In this way, Plato forces us to read his very words. We can’t isolate his ideas from his text and disregard the latter. We have to contend with Plato’s art. In the ancient world, writing and reading were always a form of art, not an instrument of the straightforward, scientific mind.

[i] Plato, “Phaedo” 59d-60a, tr. Hugh Tredennick, in Plato: The Collected Dialogues, eds. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1961), pp. 42- 3.

[ii] Ibid., pp.53-4. “Phaedo” 71a-c.

[iii] Ibid., p. 55, “Phaedo” 73a.

A Unified Vision of the World Versus Specialized Knowledge

The ancients had a unified vision of the world. A sense of the unity of knowledge suffuses the ancients’ writing so that even we moderns accept it automatically whenever we read their books. No modern reader would toss aside Plato’s Ion or The Symposium, saying, “What does a political philosopher know about literature or love?” Yet readers tacitly make that kind of judgment about modern books. If we really want to know about something, we turn to an expert on the subject, and we first validate his expertise by evaluating the author’s qualifications to address the topic. By contrast, Plato writes effortlessly about a myriad of subjects because the notion of specialization did not exist in his world and thus could not stop his genius from turning in any direction it pleased.

The ancient Greeks and Romans inhabited the same rhetorical universe. A rhetorical orientation dyes ancient texts with a seemingly artificial sameness. Texts of all types consist of sentences built up out of elaborate periods as though the author were giving a speech to impress an audience rather than writing a book to inform readers in private. Authors employ the same figures of speech and refer to the same system of mythology across genres. The difference between formal and informal tones is more muted than in modern writing. Many students today find these conventions soporific when first encountered. Only after students learn to recognize the conventions, can they see beyond them to the quirks and insights of each ancient author.

However, the rhetorical conventions do serve a purpose other than imposing a stultifying tradition. They make any text on any subject accessible to any reader. Xenophon wrote Home Economics in the form of a Platonic dialogue. Here we find Socrates teaching the home owner (who will then supposedly show his grateful new bride) the proper arrangement of pots and pans in a cupboard. There is no satire here, no detectable irony that suggests the author is aware this topic is not as edifying as, say, Justice, which Socrates tackles in Plato’s Republic.

We moderns tend to impose our own labels on ancient texts based on the assumption that specialized knowledge is the norm. When we encounter Vergil’s Georgics by itself, we mentally categorize it as a work of poetic imagination about the rhythms of rural life. When we encounter Cato’s Agriculture, we categorize it as a practical treatise. Instead, we might lay out side by side Hesiod’s Works and Days (a model for the Georgics), Vergil’s Georgics, Ovid’s Calendar and Fishes of the Black Sea, Varro’s Rural Business and Cato’s Agriculture. The first four are in verse, the other two in prose.

  • Hesiod’s and Vergil’s works take the form of advice-giving and show appreciation for the virtues of farmers and the countryside although they lack deep knowledge of agricultural practices.
  • Ovid’s Calendar thoroughly describes the festivals, myths, and traditions of the Roman year, which was tied to agriculture.
  • His Fishes follows an Alexandrian tradition to attempt a complete catalog of aquatic life in the Black Sea.
  • Varro’s Rural Business combines erudition about the old Roman traditions of the countryside with a practical discussion about farming.
  • Cato’s Agriculture gives more straightforward advice similar to that of Xenophon’s Home Economics though not in dialogue form.

This comparison reveals a gentle continuity from didactic poetry to prose handbook rather than sharp divisions between different kinds of knowledge. We would not discover such similarities if we juxtaposed, for example, a Robert Frost poem about the New Hampshire countryside with a technical bulletin from the local cooperative extension. The productivity of our farms is the better for specialization, but our ability to see the world as a whole is much diminished.