It seems to me that the purpose of university research has been lost, or at least greatly obscured, over the past fifty or sixty years. It is commonplace today to talk about “knowledge production” and the university as a site of innovation. But the institution was never designed to “produce” something nor even to be especially innovative. Its function was to conserve what we know. It just happens to be in the nature of knowledge that it cannot be conserved if it does not grow. Scientists — “knowers” — need to continuously satisfy their curiosity if what they know is to remain valid and retain its vitality.
But the university itself is not here primarily to make new discoveries or, as is increasingly assumed today, to invent new technologies. This should be left to independent inventors, free spirits working outside the formal institutions of knowledge. (The sort of inventions universities can foster are not, finally, very interesting.) The universities were there to pass what we already know on to those who are capable of knowing it but do not yet know it. Then, after they graduate, let them invent — whether new technologies or new literatures or new social movements or even whole new religions. And then, those who have shown an aptitude for retaining what they have learned and absorbing the novelties produced outside the universities into their thinking in durable ways, let them take their positions as teachers and scholars.
It is the curious mind that learns. And that’s why teachers need to be given conditions under which they satisfy their own curiosity. What seems to have happened this last half century is that innovation has been valorized at the expense of curiosity. In fact, an argument can be made that curiosity has been demonized. It’s so damned “subversive”, after all! Sometimes there’s nothing more annoying than someone who wants to know what we already know about a thing. A healthy society, however, must continually run the risk of having some of its institutions subverted by inquiring minds, by people whose only goal is to discover why we do things the way we do. Like subversion, innovation should not be seen as goal of scholarship but as a byproduct of letting a mind develop to its full potential.
To make that development possible, however, we need the university to present itself, on the whole and in the long run, as a conservatory of the collective experience of the culture. It must demand that students learn what we already know. But it must empathize with the curiosity that is the most teachable part of a student’s mind. I fear that our teachers are losing that empathy. I worry that curiosity is being thought of as, well, somewhat quaint, something to be replaced with the sterner, more profitable stuff of “innovation”. Innovators sometimes forget how much their work depends on what remains the same. The gardener’s main task is to conserve the garden‘s capacity for growth.
*This is a lightly edited version of 2012 post from my old blog.