What is the University for?
|Willem de Kooning in studio, photo by Hans Namuth|
Until the nineteenth century, if you wanted a 2-d image of something, it pretty much needed to be painted. Thus the artists who were painters held a critically important practical role in society - especially since communication and travel over large distances were difficult and costly. If you wanted to know what a person looked like, or what a place looked like, etc., pretty much the only way to see that person, place, or thing other than actually going there and meeting them would be to see a painting or a drawing.
But then photography came into existence, and changed all of that. The development of the technology of photography completely altered the social relations of the production, distribution, and use of paintings. But here's the crucial point I want to make - it didn't destroy painting. It didn't make painting obsolete; it simply made a certain use of painting obsolete. Far from destroying painting, this freed painting from its utilitarian function, its mechanistic, objectified set of relations within a larger social structure. This is not to say, of course, that the world of painting suddenly became a utopia disconnected from capitalism and other hierarchies, but the advent and explosive worldwide spread of photography and other image technologies decoupled painting from a rigid representationalism and allowed for the development of new movements: impressionism, cubism, surrealism, suprematism, abstract expressionism and so on.
I believe that the university is, today, at a similar juncture of decoupling to the one painting was in at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. For a long time in humanity's history, if you needed knowledge, you went to the university - a costly but necessary group of social relations. But now knowledge is available for free, via the internet. I don't think that means that the university will cease to exist, just as painting did not cease to exist. But the university will have to redefine itself. It no longer serves a utilitarian function, delivering a representational knowledge of the universe to its customers - they can get that elsewhere, much cheaper. So what will the university become now? Undoubtedly there will be experiments as wildly diverse as those of the painters in the first few decades of the old nineteen hundreds. What is the university for? That is the question that it will have to wrestle with in the coming years, whether it wants to or not.
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