Dead and Not Knowing It, Part 1

Nevada's tax-financed universities are based on a paradigm that no longer represents reality.

By Steven Miller
  • Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Nevada’s higher ed system is already dead. True, it still moves, makes noises and feeds industriously on taxpayers, but the fact is, its core paradigm—as understood since the system’s 19th Century founding—is as defunct as Monty Python’s parrot.

It has to be acknowledged, of course, that the now-expired “parrot-digm” had a remarkably long life. The organizational model for contemporary universities—as a profoundly insightful article 10 years ago in Science magazine pointed out—was already present under Assyrian King Assurbanipal (668 to 627 B.C.), whose royal library in Nineveh was stocked with over 10,000 works.

“Documents were arranged by subject such as law, medicine, history, astronomy, biography, religion, commerce, legends and hymns, each in a separate room in a compound,” noted Columbia University’s Eli M. Noam in his October 1995 piece. “Wise men congregated there to use the information and to add to it. No doubt they also argued among themselves and were surrounded by disciples. Thus, knowledge and inquiry were already being organized along lines strikingly similar to today's university departments.”

Such a model—under which information was centrally stored, scholars came to the information, and many information subjects were housed under one institutional roof—made sense when information was scarce, reproduction of documents expensive and restricted, and specialization low. With the passing of those particular circumstances, however, the system of higher education based on those circumstances necessarily breaks down.

Noam’s analysis should be recognized as no mere premature obituary for traditional education coming from some Web or computer enthusiast. Even 10 years ago, his insights and evidence were much more sophisticated than that—which is why they found publication in the magazine of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

“The reason [for this change in the university] is not primarily technological; technology simply enables change to occur,” he wrote. “The fundamental reason is that today's production and distribution of information are undermining the traditional flow of information and with it the university structure, making it ready to collapse in slow motion once alternatives to its function become possible.”

Noam noted in 1995 that most branches of science were already growing exponentially, doubling in 10 to 15 years. Using the technical journal Chemical Abstracts as an illustration of the trend, he pointed out that it had taken the magazine “31 years (1907 to 1937) to publish its first 1 million abstracts; the second million took 18 years; the most recent million took only 1.75 years. Thus, more articles on chemistry have been published in the past 2 years than throughout history before 1900.”

Such exponential growth in science means, he wrote, “that even research universities cannot maintain coverage of all subject areas in the face of the expanding universe of knowledge, unless their research staff grows at more or less the same rate as scholarly output, doubling every 5 to 10 years.”

Such growth is not sustainable—neither economically nor even organizationally. Noam noted the result, already clear in 1995, that universities no longer cover a broad range of scholarship. Instead, that function has passed to the “invisible college”—the new electronic scholarly information networks.

Essentially the same has occurred with scholarly interaction; specialization means scholars now find fewer similarly specialized colleagues on their own campus for purposes of complementary work. Instead, scholarly interaction also increasingly has shifted to the invisible, professional, realm, making it, rather than the college, the main affiliation. The advantage to scholars of physical proximity in universities has dropped steeply and continues to drop with every improvement in convenience technology.

What about the second function of the university, the storage of information? “Here, too,” writes Noam, “considerations of economics and technology change everything. As the production of scholarship increases exponentially, so does the cost of acquisition and reference. For example, in 1940 an annual subscription to Chemical Abstracts cost $12; in 1977 it was $3,500; and in 1995 it was $17,400.”

Consequently, comprehensive physical library collections have become unaffordable—at the same time as electronic alternatives have become ever-more powerful in storage capacity, broad-ranging in content and efficient in retrieval.

Universities’ response—shifting investment from physically present information to the creation of electronic access—has been entirely logical. Yet it foretells the end of the historical role of the university as the repository for specialized information; a laptop computer and phone line can serve this function as well.

What about the third traditional function of Nevada’s universities—teaching?

Its days are numbered, too. We’ll see how next week.

Steven Miller is policy director for the Nevada Policy Research Institute.

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