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Universities V. The Internet

by Eric Rauchway

Universities are strange and discordant places because they are palimpsests of the ancient and the modern. Their history follows a Weberian narrative of rationalization, but it also reveals the limits of that rationalization.
Anthony Grafton's essayAcademic Charismaand the Origins of the Modern Universitymustn't
Today, academic charisma -- and the ascetic life of scholarship that goes with it -- retains a central place in the life of universities. Scholars in all fields continue to gain preferment because they are "productive" (the academic euphemism for obsessive), and students continue to emulate them. Future investment bankers pull all-nighters delving into subjects that they will never need to know about again, and years later, at reunions, they recall the intensity of the experience with something close to disbelief -- and, often, passionate nostalgia. The university has never been a sleek, efficient corporation. It's more like the military, an organization at once radically modern and steeped in color and tradition. And it's not at all easy to say how much of the mystique could be stripped away without harming the whole institution.

Moreover it is hard to imagine soldiering delivered by Internet. I would sooner liken what professors do to live theater, knowing that YouTube may defeat the live lecture no less thoroughly than movies have the stage. We all of us know what theater offers--even if it does not seem interactive, it is. The players, alive to audience responses, perform accordingly. Onstage, they can feel, even when the lights keep them from seeing, the patrons. They know when their words are striking home and when they are sailing off into the sound dampeners at the recesses of the hall. They have to tack with the moods of the crowd to keep it listening--and so do lecturers, if they are any good. Yet we long ago sacrificed almost all our theater for film, preferring the spectacle of movie stars to the presence of theatrical actors. Apart from a lucky few devotees, Americans see live performances only when we make a special trip or when we indulge our children on gymnasium stages. Will academic lecturers, save those few who become stars of the computer screen, someday similarly diminish in number?