The Idea of a University in a Digital Age: Digital Humanities as a Bridge to the Future University

David M. Berry (, University of Sussex, United Kingdom

Prof. David M. Berry, Professor of Digital Humanities, University of Sussex; Visiting Fellow, Wolfson College, University of Cambridge.

In this paper I examine the historical constellations of concepts that have made up the idea of an idea of a university. The aim is to provide a tentative genealogy that maps the changes in the sets of concepts and affects that were bound together at particular historical junctures to declare an idea of a university. By definition this idea changes over time, through the effects of social change, political contestation, or other social forces operating on the university. I explore the specific reasons for why an idea of a university has been thought historically to be useful, and why, perhaps, we should revisit the idea of an idea of a university in light of rapid changes taking place following new pressures on the university coming from both digital technologies and new social forces. Indeed, the idea of a university has served as an important way of discussing an institution that comes in a multiplicity of shapes and sizes, with differing national traditions, and different ways of understanding what a university is for. But one constant that remains important in the outlining of an idea of a university is that the idea of an idea of a university is a compass for theory and practice in the university itself, and often in the wider society. In this sense, the idea of a university, comes to stand for a method of scoping the function and direction of the institution which we call a university, and most importantly provides a framework for determining what a university should and should not do. The idea of a university is, then, a compass for decision-making, it is a signature, a distinctive pattern.

The idea of a university is in this sense a kind of boundary object, which allows distinctions to be made between those institutions which are, and those which are not universities. The notion of a boundary object is useful because it acknowledges that universities are heterogenous and requires cooperation between multiple actors in order to be successful (Star and Griesemer 1989). Here, I want to think about the “idea of a university” as something like a boundary object, that is as an ideal type, as an object that is abstracted from all domains, sometimes fairly vague, but that nonetheless offers a “good enough” road map for all parties (Bowker et al 2016: 191). The problem of adapting a university to changing historical and social forces was often viewed intellectually as “finding the correct ‘idea’ of a university” (Rothblatt 1997: 33). This is the notion that one needs to find a “pattern of orientation”, that is, a conception is required to relate an actor, individual or collective to a manifold of objects in their situation of action, so that through internalisation for an individual, or through institutionalisation of a group – there is an organisation of the system of action.

The university as a form has never been frozen in aspic, it has continually adapted, grown, shrunk, expanded and shifted for all of its history. This draws attention to the way in which, at certain points in history, it was considered important that one should have an “idea” in mind in relation to the institutions of higher learning. By “idea” I mean a sense of what has been described variously by a number of thinkers as the “mission”, “end”, “soul”, “aims”, “principles”, “models” and “ideals” of an institution of advanced or higher learning. This is a debate that has gone on, revived in every generation, concerning the role and purpose of a university and the education it provides. We should note that the idea of a university paradoxically changes over time, through the effects of political contestation, social change or other social forces operating on the university. However, the notion of an idea of a university, as an institution requiring an essential core which is used to guide its operation and provide its raison d'être has remained in place until quite recently. John Henry Newman, of course, wrote perhaps the most famous idea of the university in 1859 when he argued, “a University…. is a place of teaching universal knowledge” (Newman 1996: 3). He maintained that the university had an essential function in the conservation of knowledge and ideas and their transmission to an elite body of largely undergraduates, a model he drew from Oxford. Similarly, Abraham Flexner writing in the 1930s with John Hopkins University in mind, argued that the university is “an institution consciously devoted to the pursuit of knowledge, the solution of problems, the critical appreciation of achievement, and the training of [students] at a very high level” (Flexner 1968: 42). But as the varieties of universities began to grow and their internal complexity multiplied, it became seemingly more difficult to identify an essential idea of a university.

By the late 1920s, for example, Robert Maynard Hutchins was remarking that the modern university was a set of schools and departments held together by a central heating system. Later in the 1960s, Clark Kerr described the modern university as “a series of individual faculty entrepreneurs held together by a common grievance” over car parking (Kerr 2001: 15). And today it does sometimes seem like the 21st century university is a set of schools and departments held together by a shared grievance over the IT support. However, in this talk, I will question Kerr’s dismissal of the university as an idea whose time is over, contesting his notion of the university as a multiversity. Kerr believed that by force of circumstances, if not by choice, “administration everywhere… becomes a more dominant feature of the university” (Kerr 2001: 21).

I will bring these strands together to think about the challenges we face today in what Cathy Davidson (2017) has called “The New Education”. Today we live in a digital age, and indeed around us we see the implications of digital exosomatization in all aspects of our lives and societies (see Stiegler 2016). From the pressures on the economy and work through new forms of automation, difficulties with our ability to concentrate from new techniques of attention control and manipulation, and effects on our sense of identity, our societies and our politics through the use of social media and Big Data, the digital presents new challenges for the 21 st century. It is, therefore, not surprising that digital transformations should come to the university. Although, it is interesting to note how long digital forms took to effect change in research and teaching, even as university administration had been computerised for quite a while beforehand. The digital revolution, if we can call it that, is notable for confounding the critics, particularly internal to the university, who doubted that digital technology would have much of an effect on the structures, practices, processes and activities of the university. It seems that computation and the digital alone was not, in and of itself, enough to provide the step-change in the university, and we had to await the arrival of a number of different technologies, including radio networking, digital archives and tools, pocket computers and social media, combined with a number of corresponding social forces, such as digital homophily, a new political economy of data, and a generation entelechy that has never bought a paper newspaper, used a vinyl record or a CD, and finds the scholarly concentration required in the historical form of close reading arduous and unfamiliar. This is where the importance of the digital humanities as a field that can act as a bridge between past and future ideas of a university and could potentially contribute to a new idea of a university for a digital age – what we might call a contributory infrasomatization (see Berry 2016). In this talk I outline this research project, and the way in which I consider the digital humanities a crucial source of concepts for thinking about the idea of a university today.

Appendix A

  1. Berry, D. M. (2016) Infrasomatization, Stunlaw,
  2. Steigler, B. (2016) The New Conflict of the Faculties and Functions: Quasi-Causality and Serendipity in the Anthropocene, Qui Parle: Critical Humanities and Social Sciences, Volume 26, Number 1, June 2017, pp. 79-99