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Organizing Enlightenment: Information Overload and the Invention of the Modern Research University

reviewed by Angelo Letizia - April 29, 2017

coverTitle: Organizing Enlightenment: Information Overload and the Invention of the Modern Research University
Author(s): Chad Wellmon
Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore
ISBN: 1421416158, Pages: 368, Year: 2015
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Chad Wellmon’s main argument in Organizing Enlightenment: Information Overload and the Invention of the Modern Research University is that the rise of massive open online courses (MOOCs) and online education have made many people skeptical of higher education’s traditional delivery methods and purpose in the widest sense. He cites many reformers and critics who argue that new digital technologies will drastically restructure the university or perhaps even make it obsolete. However, the author argues that many people take the term university at face value without ever truly making an effort to define what it means and this leads to much confusion. As Wellmon explains, an extremely similar argument occurred in Germany during the eighteenth-century and nineteenth-century. Further, these same types of arguments could help shed light on the questions of new digital technologies and the purpose of the contemporary university.

Two hundred years ago, it was not digital technologies that many in Germany were reacting to, but print. As the number of printed books grew exponentially during the 1700s, many people began to question the purpose of the university. If everyone had access to a book, who would need to attend university? In the face of such extreme claims, Wellmon argues that it remolded itself into the modern research university with its disciplinary structure. The purpose of the research university was not simply to give access to information (which people could gain through books now), but to help form students into thinkers and help them grapple with the constantly growing amount of information. In addition, this is still the purpose of the university as he reminds us. The author writes “[t]he university does not just transmit knowledge. It legitimates and authorizes knowledge” (p. 12). This is the core of Wellmon’s argument that he examines over the course of the book.

The first chapter examines how the notion of science (which had a much broader meaning two hundred years ago) was gradually linked to the university. This was not always the case prior to the eighteenth-century. Science had previously been associated with individuals. However, by the eighteenth-century, science was beginning to take a modern form, it was institutionalized, and the university became the main locus for scientific knowledge. This institutionalization of knowledge was a method to rebut the information overload that many people in Germany experienced due to the growth of print. As a result, a chief function of the research university became the creation of scientists to perpetuate the discipline of science.

The next two chapters examine what Wellmon terms the empire of erudition and the bibliographic order. As print technologies drastically increased during the eighteenth-century, many scholars sought to classify and catalog the growing amount of information. This aligned with the Enlightenment call for a more educated and literate populace. However, the author stresses that as the number of books grew, it became impossible to accomplish this daunting task. A number of university scholars created massive reference lists, bibliographies, and encyclopedias to catalog this information. While this project ultimately failed, Wellmon argues that it was an important precursor to the emergence of the research university. He writes that, “[w]hat had in large part been a virtual arrangement of loosely related materials, practices, and persons was to be institutionalized in the research university” (p. 76).

Over the course of the next four chapters, Wellmon tracks the transformation of the research university as a repository of knowledge to a site of intellectual transformation. He notes that there was a shift from a conception of science seen as the mere accumulation of information to a more ethical vision. Essentially, science did not become a collection of ideas, but instead became a way of life. As a result, the author comments that the notion of disciplinary specialization emerged as a new technology to deal with the growing amount of knowledge. The aim of the university was not simply to categorize knowledge. Rather, the purpose of the research university was to create a community of scholars and train new scholars who could help to further knowledge. The scientific discipline constituted this effort. Wellmon contends that as the old dream of knowing and categorizing all knowledge died (as held in the empire of erudition), many people saw specialization as the antidote. No one particular scholar could ever know all knowledge. Instead, as scholars specialized, they partook in the growing of knowledge as a whole. As the author explains, this tension between the whole of knowledge and the drive toward specialization created an ever more delicate balancing act for the university and its scholars.

In Chapter Eight, Wellmon spends time examining the creation of the University of Berlin and the ideas of Wilhelm von Humboldt. It was in creating the University of Berlin and Humboldt’s vision where many of the ideas regarding knowledge or specialization began to materialize. In Chapter Nine, the author discusses how the discipline of philology embodied many of the ideas of disciplinary specialization and the ethos of the modern research university. Finally, in the afterword, Wellmon returns to the twenty-first-century. He asserts that despite its failures, the research university still maintains a community and “an ethics of knowledge” (p. 276). The author goes on to argue that we should not simply hold onto what the university once was, but use this understanding as a basis for moving forward.

While Organizing Enlightenment is extremely comprehensive, two areas could have benefited from more attention. For one, Wellmon neglects any serious treatment of the effect of the Napoleonic wars in Germany. As Pinkard (2000) demonstrates, the arrival of Napoleon had profound effects on Germany and especially its universities. For another, the author also neglected any sustained treatment of Hegelianism and the German university. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was an intellectual giant who arrived at Berlin University in 1818. His ideas helped to shape German thought as well as engender controversy (Pinkard, 2000). Any discussion of the German university should include some examination of the works and ideas of Hegel.

Overall, Organizing Enlightenment makes an indispensable contribution to our understanding of the contemporary research university. While the challenges faced by digital technologies are unique in many ways, Wellmon’s book shows that these challenges are not unprecedented. Further, as he notes in his final paragraph, there is an intangible quality to the research university. It is one that manifests itself in the notion of a community of scholars authenticating knowledge and this emerged because of the pressures of information overload. This is perhaps the greatest strength of the text and it is not simply an entertaining historical read. Rather, the volume can be a reminder of the important past of the research university with its true purpose in this uncertain and at times hostile environment.


Pinkard, T. (2000). Hegel: A biography. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: April 29, 2017
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 21949, Date Accessed: 1/28/2022 10:57:03 AM

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