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The Fraternity of Art Historians?
AS TECHNOLOGY makes it possible to spread information with a keystroke, the work of many research universities will become irrelevant, argues Dr. Peter Drucker.
"We will have to accept the fact that only a few institutions can maintain research in any given area," said the Vienna-born management expert in a deep, guttural voice much like that of Henry Kissinger. An art historian he knows, for example, counted just seven institutions worldwide where art history is truly being advanced. "The rest are to art history what a fast-food outlet is to a Michelin four-star restaurant," Drucker sniffed. "One eats there if one has to, but not eagerly.
"A few, a very few, will specialize in this area and that area, and the top people will form a worldwide fraternity ... held together by the Internet."
But more important, said Drucker, the new information carriers "will change the meaning of knowledge. We have defined knowledge as the acquisition of information ... There is a much older definition: that knowledge is what people can learn."
Chodorow, responding later by e-mail, said he doubts the new research entities Drucker described could replace the functions of a university. "As I heard Drucker, he was saying that the university would dissolve into an intellectual system much like a discipline ... But the university is necessarily an interdisciplinary community, and it is impossible to imagine a universal 'community' that was merely the collection of all the placeless and timeless operations of the disciplines. Such an 'institution' would make no choices and apply no interdisciplinary judgments on the work of individual disciplines represented in their faculties."
O'Donnell believes Drucker's theories are grounded in at least one reality, though -- that universities "cannot continue to be everything they have been and cover as high a percentage of the waterfront of scientific scholarly subject matter as they used to. That's partly because the waterfront is expanding."
Although Penn will be around for "probably a good long while," he predicts, "there are other kinds of places that struggle to be research institutions that may very well see their mission change and become more pedagogical, less research oriented; more dependent, less independent."
Let's "Do It
On Our Own Terms"
or two days, Dr. Harry Payne, president of Williams College, had sat back and watched his colleagues debate the numerous ways that technology and the marketplace may change the university. When his turn came to address the group, he first gave this advice: Lighten up.
"It's been just a little grim," said Payne, whose fast-paced speaking style contrasted with his mellow attitude. "I think the students are having fun ... but mostly we're adopting the language of the marketplace -- production and delivery and all those kinds of things.
"If we're going to have fun, if we're going to embrace these technologies well, we have to do it on our terms," said Payne. "The college I superintend on a good day is a well-ordered anarchy -- and I would say that's true of any institution." He observes the same dynamic on the Internet. Rather than co-opt universities, "the Internet may well ratify and strengthen who we are and what we are."
Rodin spoke with a little more urgency. "I think technology is upon us with a vengeance" -- and that's exciting, she said. By inviting Leavitt, someone outside traditional academe, to speak, "We felt we should all recognize that whether we like it or not there is going to be an onslaught of [educational] initiatives that will sometimes emerge outside the universities but impact our universities."
Because of the new technologies, there probably will be fewer places of higher learning, Rodin said. "I can't even imagine what 25 years from now will be like, but I agree with my colleagues that being planful now and being nimble and flexible is something that is probably more demanded of us at this moment than ever before."
Back in his office, with classics on his shelves and a Windows NT computer on his desk, O'Donnell responds to doubts that you can create an authentic community online. Again, he refers to the medieval university: "Human history from that day to this has been one of learning to make do with less and less face-to-face interaction and creating more and more virtual communities."
Reflecting on his childhood in southern New Mexico and west Texas, O'Donnell says, "We regret the fact that we don't know all of our neighbors the way Mom and Dad used to do." But we've made that choice. For one thing, he says, our neighbors may not be the world's most interesting people. "And number two, we have a network of relationships outside the neighborhood that absorb our time and energy, that are, to us, higher in quality and value in various ways than time spent setting on the front 'pohch' talking to Clem down the block."
Some of those associations are formed many miles apart over the Internet. Just the other day, O'Donnell recalls with a smile, a ninth-grader from Canada, who had seen one of his Web sites and wanted to include it in a project, contacted him by e-mail.
"We forget," he says, "that when we spent all of our time sitting on the front porch, sometimes it used to drive us nuts that we were stuck there in the middle of nowhere, talking to Clem, night after night, when there were bright lights and big cities and interesting people someplace else."
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Copyright 1997 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 9/29/97