Veblen on universities

If one reads Thorstein Veblen’s The Higher Learning In America: A memorandum on the conduct of universities by business men, it only takes a page or two for him to turn to the technological determinants of knowledge. In a scathing passage, he comments:

The modern technology is of an impersonal, matter-of-fact character in an unexampled degree, and the accountancy of modern business management is also of an extremely dispassionate and impartially exacting nature. It results that the modern learning is of a similarly matter-of-fact, mechanistic complexion, and that it similarly leans on statistically dispassionate tests and formulations. Whereas it may fairly be said that the personal equation once — in the days of scholastic learning — was the central and decisive factor in the systematization of knowledge, it is equally fair to say that in later time no effort is spared to eliminate all bias of personality from the technique or the results of science or scholarship. It is the “dry light of science” that is always in request, and great pains is taken to exclude all color of sentimentality.

Yet this highly sterilized, germ-proof system of knowledge, kept in a cool, dry place, commands the affection of modern civilized mankind no less unconditionally, with no more afterthought of an extraneous sanction, than once did the highly personalized mythological and philosophical constructions and interpretations that had the vogue in the days of the schoolmen.

And later, on university architecture (probably thinking of the University of Chicago’s gothic pretensions):
The outward conformation and ostensible structure of the buildings, therefore, are commonly meaningless, except as an architectural prevarication. They have to be adapted, simulated, deranged, because in modern use they are impracticable in the shape, proportion and combination that of right belonged to them under the circumstances of materials and uses under which they were once worked out. So there results a meaningless juxtaposition of details, that prove nothing in detail and contradict one another in assemblage. All of which may suggest reflections on the fitness of housing the quest of truth in an edifice of false pretences.

I have no reason to doubt the description of the architecture, but it seems probable that this is not a totally accurate description of academic knowledge circa 1918. Gerald Graff, in his study of the history of literary studies in America, described active quarrels over humanism and the undergraduate curriculum in this period. But the image of a “highly sterilized, germ-proof system of knowledge, kept in a cool dry place” is one that sticks in my imagination.