Today’s technology shift has many parallels with the arrivals of mass-printed books at universities. At the time, teachers at universities were horrified that the availability of books undermined their ability to charge students for reading aloud. There is something to learn from history here.
In the most recent issue of Respons, Peter Josephson writes about the university crisis right after the turn of the century in 1800. Developments in information technology had kept an enormous pace: the printing costs had fallen, and an increasing amount of teaching material was available in books. This had created a crisis for teachers at universities. As far as anybody could remember, they had held lectures where they had read aloud from some book or manuscript of their own, where students had had to pay a small admissions fee to the lectures. But apparently, disrespectful students had started to skip those lectures – they would sit down in libraries to read instead.
What to do about it?
Naturally, the university teachers tried to convince the students that they would learn much better by going to the teachers’ readings-aloud, than by reading a textbook from the most pedagogic teacher on their own. The success in this approach was not remarkable.
Apparently, force was needed against this misconduct. The philologist Johann David Michaeles, of Göttingen, demanded that students would be allowed to spend a maximum of two hours daily in the library.
Older teachers were warning their younger colleagues from issuing books in their fields. They would never be able to make money teaching, if they gave their students books to study instead.
But reason prevailed.
The philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte explained to colleagues and authorities that the arrival of the book made the old read-aloud lectures unnecessary. Get rid of them. Instead, introduce classes about knowledge as such and its basis, that is, how we can know what’s in the books. Introduce seminars where students and teachers discuss the books together. Introduce researching teachers, who can tell students about new findings, that haven’t yet made it into the books.
Fichte’s ideas were taken up by Wilhelm von Humboldt, linguist and department manager at the Prussian Ministry of the Interior, in founding the first university where all teachers were assumed to be researching in parallel with teaching. It took a couple of decades, but the read-aloud sessions disappeared from universities, and were replaced with activities that made teaching more effective, all while raising the intellectual bar.
Let’s hope that the current ongoing technology shift will, in time enough, be managed just as well.