[Home]ElementsOfAcademia

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From this brief and abridged sociotechnical HistoryOfAcademia, we can come to a number of conclusions about the impacts of technology on the social institution.

Method. Plato's dialectic, the later Scientific Method, even more recent methods like critical theory have always distinguished academic practice from the ground culture. Plato's attacks against the sophistic and poetic traditions of his day were in many ways to distance his own Academy from them. It seems reasonable to conclude that one of the major reasons an entire social institution must be formed is to preserve the methods of inquiry. The Dark Ages can partly be blamed on the loss of the academic institutions that preserved knowledge.

Preservation. Not only does the method or practice of academia require a social institution to survive, but the very works of academia require some form of preservation. Many important scholarly manuscripts were lost from antiquity. We can thank institutions like the Museum of Alexandria for what we do remember. The Dark Ages were defined by their loss of knowledge. Without a society of readers passing knowledge from one generation to the next, there will soon be no knowledge to pass on.

Impact. The scholars who have had the greatest impact have always had an advantage. Homer, the poet, managed to convince a whole society to preserve his creation in word, mind, and heart. The ancients who were most famous encouraged enough copying and quotation to keep their words alive to the modern day. Since the creation of the citation indices, scholars with the greatest research impact tend to get more of the prestige that translates into funding and power.

Funding. Academia requires money to sustain itself. The Museum of Alexandria required funding from the royal purse of Egypt in order to exist. Universities depended on the student fees. Printed works required a market to sustain itself. In all events, academia is vulnerable to the stability and whims of that funding. When Egypt fell, the Museum of Alexandria stagnated. When the Roman Empire fell, its territory crumbled into the Dark Ages. When the students threatened to withhold their tuition, their professors had to relent. Now, research impact is used to control funding.

Students. Students are essential to academia. Academia lives to teach a new generation to preserve and protect the institution of academia. Indeed, the concept of the doctoral degree is all about this. Yet students are also troublesome. Aristotle was Plato's student, and yet he did not heed Plato's warning of writing, but rather adopted this new technology full-heartedly and found his own Lyceum to practice it. Tycho Brahe snuck books away from his professor so he could learn on his own, and then later on took on this new technology full-heartedly when conducting his own research.

Conservatism. Academia is always hesitant about a new medium, believing it to be for the crackpots. Plato distrusted writing, and academics shied away from the printing press. Many professors today have negative opinions about material on the web, complaining it is not peer reviewed (Arms, 2002). Yet, in the end, a new method of scholarship is developed for the new medium and the entire institution shifts.

Vestigial. Naturally, the first things to appear in a new medium are reflections of the medium just replaced. Plato wrote in dialogues. The first books printed were reprints of manuscripts.

Fickle. Whenever a new efficient medium for storage and mass distribution is introduced, it results in a reordering of the academic disciplines. Living at the beginning of the book trade, Aristotle's broad collection at the Lyceum library no doubt allowed him and compelled him to think and write so widely. His writings indeed cite many previous thinkers in Greece. Again after the introduction of the printing press, it took over a century for scholars to rethink the contradictory ideas they had only been able to deal with in isolation beforehand.

Collective endeavour. Meaning in academia is always collectively created. Either manuscripts are corrected (sometimes incorrectly) over time; compendia are produced of important authors; journals select only rigourous paper; or as Latour (1987) suggests, scholars fight it out in argument. It is important to notice that the method has not always been the same, though. The Scientific Method is relatively new, for instance, and the academic journal is even newer.


Anything special to academia about any of these elements? They're features of almost any institution, no? Think legal institutions, government, companies, guilds, aristocratic families, orchestras, trade-unions, political parties, churches, social clubs. They all have to preserve their integrity, which means being zones that have established practices ("method"), maintain their property and status ("preservation"), maintain their inputes ("funding"), their client base ("students", "customers", "worshipers", "citizens", "members"), resist disruptive change ("conservatism"). "vestigal" and "fickle" too. -- PhilJones

I have for a long period of time wanted to write something about institutions that preserve information over long periods of time. Organized religion is another one I am interested in. However, I don't have evidence collected for such assertions. It is a grad paper. -- SunirShah


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