Back to the University’s Future: The Second Coming of Humboldt

Steve Fuller

Back to the University’s Future: The Second Coming of Humboldt, by Steve Fuller, Springer Cham, 2023, 171pp., USD43.50 (e-book), ISBN 978-3-031-36327-6

Some years ago, when I was doing my postdoctoral fellowship at the Milton and Ethel Harris Research Initiative in Toronto, I decided to sit in on the graduate seminar on evolutionary theory taught by Jan Sapp, a biologist and historian of biology. It was one of the best courses I have ever attended, but one discussion stayed with me. The issue was whether professorships should be divided into research and teaching streams. Jan took a strong stance against division and said: ‘How and what are you going to teach at all if you are not doing research? Because only through research can you find out what is important to teach!’ Steve Fuller’s book Back to the University’s Future: The Second Coming of Humboldt revives this Humboldtian idea and enriches it to address the needs of the 21st century.

Many questions that bother us when we think about the university, its value and its aims are tied to the way we think about the purpose of teaching, the purpose of research, and the way they are related. In dense but rewarding pages, Fuller unpacks many such questions, recounts their history, and offers an ‘outside of the box’ view of the current disputes about the university’s future and the related academic ‘culture wars.’ This, of course, feeds back into the way we understand the nature of scientific inquiry and how it develops.

According to Fuller, at the heart of the modern university, as originally envisioned by Wilhelm von Humboldt in the early 19th century, is the academic who is to play two roles: that of the researcher and that of the educator. The researcher is to explore a subject in an inquiry free from pressure exerted by the church or the state. Free inquiry helps researchers see what kinds of ideas are worth pursuing. The educator is then responsible for transferring the insights and the method of inquiry to the students, who should, in turn, learn to do the same in their own lives. But isn’t this just common sense? Shouldn’t we all aim for this? And isn’t the failure (if there is a failure) to implement this original Humboldtian vision likely due to the lack of funds? In addition, human nature is corruptible, and even academics may succumb in their research to the external influence of the state, church and industry.

When we take a closer look at the academic culture wars and the debates on the university’s future, we realise the Humboldtian vision is nowhere in sight, let alone accepted as common sense. So let us briefly look at a debate on the main teaching goals of university education, as set up by ‘the great books’ proponents and their critical reasoning opponents and see what Fuller’s revival of the Humboldt means for this debate. On the one hand, the proponents of the great books argue that covering the classics is invaluable for the personal development of students; reading the classics will enrich their inner lives, while a nice side effect is the acquisition of critical reasoning skills. On the other hand, critical reasoning proponents argue that reading the classics – or history, for that matter – is more or less irrelevant (and could even be damaging). Critical reasoning should be acquired in the study of mathematics, formal logic, or current sciences. The great books proponents are often considered conservative, while the critical reasoning proponents are considered progressive. The former seek to maintain the status quo, i.e., cultivating and transmitting the values of the past. The latter are eager to be done with the past, never to repeat it. For them, the only way to acquire critical reasoning and escape the confines of tradition is to study it within the boundaries of timeless and formal (math, logic) knowledge or the current state of knowledge (i.e., the latest received view in sciences).

Fuller’s Humboldtian vision is neither of these options, nor is it a lukewarm compromise. For Fuller, the goal of university education is the refinement of our faculty of judgment. Chapter 3 explains the exciting history of the concept of judgment, from law to Kant’s third critique, from ancient thinkers to its contemporary dismissal as mere value judgment. Clearly, our ability to judge something as worthy of our efforts, useful to us in our research or life, etc., cannot be rendered as a critical reasoning skill in a vacuum, nor can it be seen as simply keeping traditional values alive. The university professor (who is both a researcher and an educator) needs to use the ideas always burdened with their history in research to get a better view of the phenomenon of interest (even redefining phenomena when necessary) and must teach students to do the same in their lives when they are about to make important decisions. Thus, both professors and their students learn to judge what is worth pursuing in the market of ideas. From this perspective, teaching great books is done in a new light. The professors teach the great books they deem important, and the students read the books not for the sake of keeping a grand, immutable tradition alive but for the sake of a better future: they gain more valuable insights and make better life decisions. Courses in critical reasoning should also apply content from past traditions; in fact, they need this content if the students are to develop the skills they need to judge for themselves.

Fuller’s emphasis on the cultivation of value judgment[1] at the university brings us to another debated topic: all human knowledge can be found and is available on the Internet now, so why do we need the university at all? Can we have, for instance, online training centres so that students learn how to gather information and pass exams? This would allow them to get the academic credits they need when they search for a job. In other words, given that universities have become centres where students go to get the certificates necessary for future jobs, why do we need them if less expensive educational centres will do? The laments of professors of humanities whose departments have suffered the most at universities oriented toward vocational training usually invoke the importance of the experience of university life for young people; they would miss an entire developmental stage if they relied on online learning centres. We heard these arguments during Covid lockdowns, but they all sound fairly empty unless we can specify exactly what this university experience consists of and why it is valuable for life and work.

This is where Fuller’s emphasis on the importance of refining the judgment of what is good or bad in the university classroom comes in. Unlike any other teaching form, the university classroom should allow the space for professors to present problems in their field, along with different alternatives, different solutions, their own viewpoints, and so on, so students can witness the dynamics and complexity of scientific research almost in real time. The idea is to have them accomplish similar but simplified tasks on their own and be graded based on those tasks. In other words, the goal of university education would be more than covering the content of courses on what policymakers or CEOs think is important for a job. It would go beyond teaching students what the experts in the field say about their subject matter and would include learning how to judge the experts and their expertise. According to Fuller, this is where the true democratisation of knowledge lies. Beyond the openness whereby everyone can enrol and get a degree in the field of their choosing, it means everyone becomes equipped to judge the expertise of the expert in the real world or online.

Let us move now from the educational to the research side of the two-sided coin and see what this Humboldtian vision of the university in Fuller’s updated proposal says about the nature of fruitful scientific inquiry. What kind of environment is the most conducive to a breakthrough in our knowledge of the world? What can drive inquiry and take it from the well-travelled but currently barren paths that give no answer to pressing research questions? How can we make the Gestalt switch in our research and see what we haven’t seen before? Fuller tackles these questions in Chapters 2, 4, and 6.

Fuller’s focus on judgment shifts our attention from the doctrines to be learned to the skill to be acquired; the researcher must learn to navigate among the useful and not-so-useful ideas. We acquire this skill when we are immersed in doctrines and treat them as something to be used for our purposes, not as something to be cherished and built upon. What does this mean for our understanding of disciplines as the places where knowledge advances? What does it say about attempts at interdisciplinarity that aim to make connections in our knowledge where such connections are lost due to ever-increasing specialisation?

The dominant kind of scholarship today is taking place within the disciplines’ borders, and interdisciplinarity is praised mostly for the purposes of public relations by administrators. But even when endorsed, it is done under the umbrella of ‘normal interdisciplinarity,’ as Fuller calls it. Normal interdisciplinarity takes for granted what the experts within disciplines say but tries to put together the bigger picture from the pieces of knowledge they offer. Philosophers like to engage in this kind of interdisciplinarity (I am guilty of it), and they often become involved in territorial disputes via conceptual analysis. This is not what we need for radical breakthroughs in science. To gain a more open vision of what is possible and impossible, we need ‘deviant interdisciplinarity.’ The researchers doing such work do not take what the experts in other disciplines say for granted. Instead, they search for new and useful ideas in the vast ‘pool’ of knowledge, guided by their often idiosyncratic questions to make sense of the phenomenon that interests them. What they see and how they judge what others in their disciplines do are driven by their immediate research worry. Such researchers do not care if some schools and traditions of thought are shaken up on the way, nor do they care if they ‘illegally’ cross the boundaries of their expertise.

However, the university as we know it does not support or encourage deviant interdisciplinarity. The best it can do is to promote the normal one. If academics are to get jobs, they need to be established as experts, and, to be established as experts, they need to build on the shoulders of their predecessors, i.e., their professors. They must work with the problems their elders worked with, add something new, and get published. By the time academics have a job and are established, they have already invested so much in the normal science or normal interdisciplinarity that they are not willing or do not even remember how to do things differently. Chapter 5 offers many good insights into the rentiership model of knowledge production that flourishes in academia, along with the moral panic about plagiarism.

I have offered a glimpse into the main ideas of Fuller’s book, but there are many more: the story of scientific knowledge as a public good, academic freedom, crucial experiments, the unifying role of philosophy, how to write and teach the history of science and what not to do, the role of the quality control and where it comes from, what’s good about improvisation and how to do it well, and many more.

But the book is not finished in many ways, as Fuller admits at the end. There are no instructions on how to make Humboldtian University 2, just insights about what it should look like and why we should do our best to build it. What we need to do next is what Fuller advises us to do all along: we must read the book and make it our own by forming our judgment about where the university needs to go – that is, if it should survive at all. The book, like Fuller’s vision of the university, is supposed to cultivate the right attitude in us, not give us ready answers. We must work them out for ourselves.

[1] Value judgment in the positive sense, not a pejorative one, as used in the tradition of logical positivists who tried to draw a line between facts and values.

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Full Citation Information:
Radenovic, L. (2024). Back to the University’s Future: The Second Coming of Humboldt: Steve Fuller. PESA Agora.
Ideas are Open Access, freely available for readers to download and copy with proper attribution with a CC – BY – ND licence

Ljiljana Radenovic

Professor Ljiljana Radenović a professor at the Department of Philosophy, University of Belgrade. Her research interests lie at the intersection of history, psychology and religion.