The University in the Future
Response by Richard Buchanan, Carnegie Mellon University

The New Learning at Chicago:
Technology and "Artificial Things"

April 4, 2001

Before I begin my response to President Randel’s thoughtful and measured speech, I want to thank Don Levine and his colleagues for organizing this colloquium on "The Idea of the University." I also want to thank Don and Hanna Gray and Don Randel for their insightful lectures as well as the several discussants, who have contributed to the strength of inquiry into the idea and future direction of the university. I am honored to be invited to join you in this discussion.

     These meetings are timely for the university, and I believe they are also timely for higher education in the United States and abroad. While recent events at Chicago may have played a role in focusing the discussions this year, I think we all understand that deeper problems concerning the vision and mission of universities in contemporary culture are the real reasons for our meeting. That is why I am here. I want to learn how a great university, with outstanding accomplishments in the past and present, will respond to the new circumstances of the higher learning that we must face.

     What I hope to contribute is the perspective of a student who was educated at Chicago in the 1960s and early 1970s and who has tried to carry "the genius of this place" with him into new territory. I want to report back what I have seen and learned, and I want to honor the invitation to join you in the only way that a Chicago graduate could or should: by posing some difficult questions about where the university is today and where it is going.

     Despite Don’s brief but exceptionally confident remarks on technology, I believe it is not entirely by accident that someone from Carnegie Mellon University has been invited to respond to his address. While I was a student at the University of Chicago in 1968, studying in a course on creativity and innovation, the eminent philosopher Richard McKeon came to class one day with a news clipping. To my knowledge this had never happened before, so I paid close attention as he read of the creation of a new university, formed from the union of the Carnegie Institute of Technology and the Mellon Institute of Science. The new institution would be called Carnegie Mellon University, and it would explore new problems of technology through the sciences, the arts, and the humanities, as well as through the new sciences of the artificial (otherwise known as design) and the new disciplines of computer science, cognitive psychology, and information and decision sciences--new disciplines toward which the Nobel laureate Herbert A. Simon, himself a graduate of Chicago, had devoted his life’s work.

     After reading the clipping, McKeon paused and seemed to look into the distance. He had not yet written his stunningly innovative paper, "The Uses of Rhetoric in a Technological Age" (1971), but the ideas were forming, as we knew from the course in which we were enrolled. When he turned back to the class, he commented that the new institution was clearly a "neoteric" university--a university devoted to the new learning of our time--much as Chicago had been a neoteric university at its founding. And he added a prediction that the new university would play an important role in higher education by the next century because it would both reflect and contribute toward some of the most significant changes that were coming in our culture. Few of us understood precisely what McKeon meant, but I wrote "Carnegie Mellon--1968" in the margin of my notebook and placed beside it a small question mark.

     That small question mark has grown larger and larger in my mind over the years as I have watched confusion and uncertainty of purpose settle over many institutions in the United States and abroad. To be honest, it was not a question mark only about Carnegie Mellon, but also about the University of Chicago and any other institution that aspired to lead by inquiry and education. How do our institutions avoid the entrapment of success and move ahead to new problems and challenges? How do we balance a vision of the new learning of our time--the "neoteric"--with the accomplishments of the old learning--the "paleoteric"? How do we balance what Chicago has been in its several re-inventions in the past with what Chicago could be in the future?

     I think that our speakers have provided important clues about these matters, clues whose significance we should not mistake. Don Levine identified "the genius of this place" in the conviction that the discovery of knowledge is inseparable from the transmission of knowledge. He went on to characterize the distinguishing quality of Chicago’s identity in the dynamic tension between two theses: the interplay of ideas drawn from Humboldt’s university and from Newman’s university. Stated concisely, this is the interplay between inquiry and research into new problems for the creation of new knowledge and a vision of liberal or general education for the cultivation of human powers and the transmission of knowledge. Hanna Gray carried the discussion forward by tracing the history of the idea of a university. Her account was shaped around a subtle sub-text that I believe is decisively important for Chicago today. She explored the difficult matter of cultivating and preserving tradition and the inevitable effort to seek new knowledge suited to new circumstances, problems, and challenges. Finally, Don Randel placed the discussion in the context of the present, viewed from the perspective of an executive officer who faces many dilemmas and must wisely keep his own counsel as he seeks to find unity of purpose in a diversity of intelligent voices. He urges the virtues of calm, civility, mutual respect for differences, and the kind of disinterested interest that often marks a great institution and allows the honest consideration of new ideas.

     One thing I have learned from the earlier presentations is that a large measure of the success of this university has come from its ability to hold to a core idea while reinventing and re-expressing itself in a series of new visions, each suited to its time and to the problems of our culture. It appears that Chicago has reinvented itself every two or three decades by addressing a new area of problems or by incorporating new ideas and methods within its larger structure. The founding vision of a research university at the beginning of the twentieth century accommodated a new vision of general or liberal education beginning in the 1920s and 1930s. In turn, this vision accommodated a new vision of university involvement in the community in the 1950s. By the 1960s and 1970s, the university accommodated a refined vision of research and education through the creation of a variety of interdisciplinary programs based on the recognition of emerging problems of society and culture--connecting undergraduate and graduate education with emerging research.

     Is it time to begin exploring a new Chicago vision that may be accommodated within the idea of the university and also have significant impact outside its walls? Frankly, I believe that the strains of the past ten years at Chicago--and elsewhere, to be sure--are a clear signal that it is time to explore a new vision. Indeed, if the vision is overdue--as I suggest it may be--then the university has already begun paying on an accumulating fine.

     It would be presumptuous of me to try to suggest what the new vision may be for Chicago. However, I would like to tell you a story, and then ask what the Chicago response would be.

     At the beginning of the seventeenth century, Francis Bacon sought to begin a Great Instauration of learning that would lead to our ability to command nature in action, where nature would be molded by art and human ministry in the creation of "artificial things." Over the succeeding course of nearly four hundred years, his humanistic vision for the advancement of learning has led to the wide array of natural, social, and human sciences--the latter including what we today call the "humanities" and the "liberal arts"--that we find in the modern university. We may have forgotten the essential humanism of his project, but we can say that the advancement of learning that he proposed has been wildly successful, even beyond what Bacon could have dreamed in his most optimistic moments. Of course, it is not complete. There are still many problems remaining: what is the nature of dark matter; does the Higgs boson exist and at what mass and energy level; what are the deeper mysteries of molecular biology, human DNA, and the workings of the human brain; can we better understand the workings of the individual mind and social groups; and so forth? But the University of Chicago is, itself, an important part of the proof that the project has been a great success, as far as it has gone. Indeed, it has been so successful that we have already taken the first vintage and even the second vintage in the creation of "artificial things" that Bacon predicted we would. The Industrial Revolution has given way to the Information Revolution, and we are poised for another great revolution in biotechnology that will sweep into the twenty-first century.

     But let us use imagination to carry our story a bit further. Let us suppose that Francis Bacon was alive today. Possessed of his great mind, he would surely be teaching at the University of Chicago--or, perhaps, at Carnegie Mellon. He would not be teaching at any of the other institutions we might name--you know the ones I mean--because he would likely find them too mired in the old learning to support his pursuit of new inquiry. But if Bacon was at Chicago, and if he conducted his survey of the advancement of learning at this institution--as he probably would--he would report back to President Randel and to his colleagues and to the students and alumni a very strange finding. First, he would say that learning in the current departments and disciplines is excellent and sufficient to move ahead in meeting the emerging problems of each area. But then he would ask, with some astonishment, "Why have you neglected the study of ‘artificial things’? Why have you neglected to study the practical products that surround and increasingly influence human life and learning? Why have you neglected to study the technology that I warned you would follow from the advancement of learning and be its fruit? Why is there no Chicago vision for addressing the range of new problems that will shape human life in the twenty-first century as much or more than the range of old problems that you sought to address at the beginning of the twentieth century?"

     Perhaps at a meeting like this, someone from the floor would ask: "But Mr. Bacon, are you suggesting that we should establish a college of engineering or expand our Computer Science Department to the scale of that at Carnegie Mellon University?"

     I think his answer would begin in a fashion quite similar to that of Hanna Gray. "No, sir," he would say. "I think there will never be a college of engineering at Chicago and probably not a school of computer science of the scale of that at Carnegie Mellon. It is too late, and even if there were time and money enough, that is not part of your genius." But this would not end the discussion for Mr. Bacon. I think he would go on to say something like this. "Sir, you have asked a reasonable question, but you have not asked the correct question for this university. Your question misses the real issue at stake in the emerging domain of technology, and misses it in at least three ways.

     "First, the question fails to recognize the full extent--the full range and variety--of artificial things in our culture. It assumes that human-made products are merely the physical artifacts that follow from engineering. It does not recognize that products also include all of the words and images that communicate information and ideas, all of the activities, services, and processes that are designed and created to sustain human interactions and transactions, and all of the systems and environments that are now created by human beings and conceived either in cooperation or conflict with nature. In short, it fails to recognize how much of our world is human-made--human-made and, therefore, subject to study just as thoroughly as the natural world. Worse, the question assumes the narrow meaning of ‘technology’ that is commonly employed in the twentieth century. It assumes that ‘technology’ refers merely to the hardware and software products of human thought and not, more significantly, to the disciplined thinking and intelligence that guides their creation. Indeed, most painfully, your question ignores the deep tradition of Western learning that speaks of the ‘technologia’ of every liberal art--the ‘logos’ of ‘techne’ that lies at the heart of liberal learning.

     "Second, the question fails to recognize the significance of the fact that, as I explained nearly four hundred years ago, nature is molded by ‘art and human ministry’ in the creation of artificial things. The emerging problems of our culture are not found in the mere development of artificial things, as such, but in how human beings conceive, plan, and realize artificial things. Indeed, the fundamental problems lie in understanding how human ministry will shape a technological culture to support human beings in their various activities.

     "Third, your question fails to ask the most important question of new vision for the university. How can or should the University of Chicago respond to the emerging technological culture that surrounds us and will increasingly influence every aspect of our lives? The university does not have to become an institute of technology to address the fundamental problems of a technological culture. Indeed, if ‘the genius of this place’ is as strong as you suggest, the university should be able to recast the problems of technology in an entirely new way, leading to new theoretical understanding as well as practical and productive influence."

     Here I will end my story, leaving Francis Bacon wondering whether he had joined a paleoteric university devoted primarily to the old learning or a neoteric university devoted to the new learning in each of its existing disciplines and in new disciplines and schools of thought that, for the moment, could exist nowhere else but at Chicago.

     At the beginning of the twentieth century, Chicago led the way in developing a great research university that established new disciplines and schools of thought. It did so by focusing inquiry on new problems that were often between or outside the boundaries of established disciplines and ways of thinking. It also led the way in creating a vision of the liberal arts and general education that was sustained through much of the twentieth century and emulated in many places. Today, neither enterprise is quite as strong or visionary as it once was. Other institutions have followed the same path and it seems that Chicago has to struggle just a bit to keep ahead.

     I hope that the idea of this university will never change. But I also hope that the university community of today will express that idea in a new vision that is well suited to the emerging problems of our culture. Toward that end, I have two questions. First, how would the University of Chicago turn "technology" into a new subject matter for inquiry, exploring it through new disciplines and programs of research? Second, what would be the Chicago vision of the liberal arts and general education in an age of technology? The two questions are, of course, intimately connected, as no other university except Chicago--at least the Chicago of the past, and I hope the Chicago of the present--could understand.