Eight or Nine Things to Know About Universities and Their Media

By Reinhold Martin

Ever since Pliny the Elder included a table of contents in his thirty-seven-volume Natural History as a shortcut for Vespasian Caesar, to whom that work was dedicated, the device has proved invaluable to readers with even less time on their hands than busy Roman emperors. As an instrument of time management, the TOC affords easy access to a book’s internal elements, serving as a guide to the subject matter covered and—often enough—a summary of the book’s arguments.

As its table of contents suggests, Knowledge Worlds considers the history of colleges and universities in the United States as a history of media, including screens (Plato’s cave), tables (Locke’s tabula rasa), and lists (the Western canon) but also bricks, seeds, and stones. More recently, blogs and other online platforms have provided useful shortcuts to long-winded printed arguments, often in the form of numbered lists. Some online posts, like those on Medium, even come with estimates of reading time for which double digits are rare. So for the few harried academics or overloaded students who might find time to read an author’s comments on a university press website, here is the book’s table of contents converted into a list of eight (or nine) theses about universities, knowledge, media, and their histories:

0. Knowledge is to technics as technics is to knowledge. This is the degree-zero dialectic around which modern colleges and universities have formed—as boundary problems resolved temporarily by walls, gates, and windows of different types.

1. Paradigmatically, US colleges and universities are corporations; according to modern jurisprudence, they are therefore also people. From the beginning, these beloved corporate bodies have elicited emotions—and donations—to secure their immortality.

2. While elites learned Greek and Latin in the early colleges, engineers in polytechnics learned Euclidean geometry. Both curricula were classical, and both were humanist. But where one reasoned with text, the other did so visually, with figures.

3. During industrial times in some collegiate buildings, brick meant delayed admission into a racially divided world of factories and workers. Elsewhere, in some colleges for white women, the most important thing about stone was that it was not brick.

4. When it came to scientific agriculture, the distinction between “pure” and “applied” knowledge was unhelpful. Instead, knowledge was something to be cultivated and harvested, like seeds in soil or words on paper.

5. Considered literally, as a matter of lighting, enlightenment is a function of when, how, and where voices are heard. Silent reading in libraries has long been a prerequisite for public speech and the rights that it entails.

6. As colleges became universities, the theological authority of the lecture was amplified acoustically. In response, undergraduate education in the humanities became, for some, a matter of discussing master lists around seminar tables.

7. University research has long been organized around “frontiers,” terrestrial and otherwise, imagined as horizons to be conquered. By the 1960s, opposition to this scientific manifest destiny had reached the very gates of the universities.

8. The humanities, far from standing in aloof disaffection, have since the 1950s supplied “tech” and its industries with a spiritual basis necessary for the cultivation of human capital, which is the mandate of the neoliberal university.

Readers of this list will detect a critical note in many of its lines. This, I hasten to add, is a tribute to the immeasurable value of collegiate learning and university research, to their institutions and their technologies, and to those who maintain and sustain them. Critique as the highest form of commitment is a principle bequeathed to us by our otherwise vexed Enlightenment, a principle that we violate at our own considerable risk. That understanding media, from the wires in the walls to the light in the room, can help make this principle shine more brightly even today is among the book’s central claims.

If you have made it this far into this post (estimated reading time: 4 minutes), I thank you for your patience. Chances are that you have your own thoughts on matters related to these, probably based on experiences that could just as well have been listed here in place of those above. Consider this list an invitation, then, to think together about what so many of us do every day, regardless of what side of the lectern (or screen) we occupy or whether we sit in a library or at a lab bench. Whatever side of the line you’re on, that line is made of something and by someone, as is the world that it makes known and by which we know it.

NB: For thoughts along related lines, see this author Q&A on Columbia News.

Reinhold Martin is professor of architecture in the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation at Columbia University, where he directs the Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture. He is the author of Knowledge Worlds: Media, Materiality, and the Making of the Modern University.

Leave a Reply