June 5, 2024, 11:40 am – 12:10 pm

Is Homo Academicus An Endangered Species?

There are several reasons to think that ‘the academic’ is an endangered species. They relate mainly to the breakdown in the Humboldtian unity of ‘teaching and research’ that has defined the ‘modern university’ – at least in principle if not always in practice – for the past two centuries. The Humboldtian ideal was tied to a duty to bring the research frontier to the classroom to enlighten the next generation of citizens, some of whom might themselves follow the scholarly trails of their teachers. However, since the end of the Second World War, and increasingly since the end of the Cold War, the teaching and research functions of the university have become increasingly segregated, often forming a de facto caste system in which the ‘researchers' are valued above the ‘teachers’, yet both increasingly vulnerable to casualization. The result is that Max Weber’s updated Humboldtian vision of an ‘academic vocation’ is quickly receding from view. Moreover, this is not the end of the story because the ongoing downstream effects of the digital revolution in both social media and artificial intelligence threaten to displace the last bastion of academic distinctiveness, namely, the very need for human specialists in either teaching or research. In this spirit, many have characterized the inflated higher education sectors around the world as a ‘bubble economy’ on the verge of bursting, especially as students become increasingly disenchanted with the relatively little advantage that they seem to acquire from possessing a university degree. I do not plan to dispute this argument, which I think accurately captures the current state of play. However, I also believe that the core Humboldtian insight can be salvaged and reformed for our times. This is ultimately about the sort of person that Homo Academicus is, something Max Weber also focused on. In brief, I shall argue that the academic is someone who can publicly exercise judgement on difficult matters where conflicting and incommensurable claims to authority are being made. This was the role that Kant famously positioned for the ‘philosopher’ in his late essay, ‘The Conflict of the Faculties’, which in turn inspired Humboldt to ground the University of Berlin’s curriculum in that discipline. The capacity to exercise judgement may come to be especially valued as our world is increasingly consumed by the post-truth condition.


Teaching & Learning


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