Today's Technology Shift Has Parallels To When Universities Were Threatened By… Textbooks

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.


  1. Tom Jeffries

    Reason prevailed in the 1800s, and reason (eventually) prevailed when the printing press was invented. Let’s hope reason will again prevail.

    1. Autolykos

      I have no doubt it will. It always does and always has – but it usually requires all (or most) adherents of the old position to die out first. I’m not sure it will happen in our lifetime and many powerful people try to prevent it the best they can. A lot of unnecessary damage will be done till then.

  2. dmol8

    The Belgrade University is already trying to work out how to deal with the revolution that is internet: Some professors want their students to come in on every class or have book from the university print shops only or have a physical copy of the books they are learning from.

    In the case of attendance this is a waste of time as teachers could just leave the books downloadable online or make them into files which you pick up when you come talk to the teacher and give themselves more time to work on their projects (which some already do).

    The books from the university shop cost more then making a copy or just downloading a scan of the book onto your computer, but the problem is twofold for the professors: One the university make less money when the books it prints are not bought (so they should probably stop printing and instead focus on finding new sources of revenue) and a lot of students have the bad habit of just copy/paste-ing the words form their lessons when doing homework (I had a subject called the Methods of Transfer and after learning all 3 spheres of study in it and the formulas they use I still got a lower grade on my final exam because I did not get that I was not supposed to simply parrot my lessons but also combine them to extract the final formula from my studies of the subject, so there is a solution for that as well).

  3. Emil OW Kirkegaard

    As for the first, Francis Galton showed that lectures where teachers read aloud cause more boredom in listeners.

    Here’s Arthur Jensen ‘s description:

    “He devised an objective measure of the degree to which a lecturer bored the audience, and tried it out at meetings of the Royal Society. It consisted of counting the involuntary noises—coughs, feet shuffling, and the like—that issued from the audience, and, with a specially rigged protractor, he measured the angle that listeners’ heads were tilted from a vertical position during the lecture. A score derived from the data obtained with this procedure showed that even the most eloquently written lecture, if read verbatim, was more boring than an extempore lecture, however rambling and inelegant.” (Jensen, 1998)

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