Scholarship as a Vocation

Where is the place for scholarship today?

The modern university in 1917

The ‘modern university,’ as Keith Tribe has pointed out, arose by way of a misapprehension. In the 1870s and 1880s many American students attended university in Germany:

Returning graduate students brought back to the United States the ideal of the ‘modern research university’, an institution driven by academic research, its goals set by the senior professoriate, and combining the advancement of knowledge with its diffusion by teaching. Johns Hopkins was explicitly founded upon this model; Chicago later followed suit.

Many internationally recognized professors were employed in the nineteenth-century German universities. Nevertheless, these institutions were not prototypes of Johns Hopkins and Chicago, but state institutes essentially concerned with the vocational training of students. Max Weber in 1917, delivering the lecture now known as ‘Science as a Vocation,’ was clear that German universities needed to ‘develop in the direction of the American system.’

Weber’s 1917 talk has long been regarded as a classic statement of the nature of ‘intellectualization’ in the modern world. Intellectual production is equated by Weber with ‘science’ (Wissenschaft), by which he means all that we might separate into the humanities, the social sciences, and the natural sciences. Science, he insists, cannot reveal ultimate values, but it does dispel traditional faith in ‘mysterious incalculable forces,’ thereby disenchanting the world. Modern science, he argues, can only be carried out within the modern university.

Science today is a ‘vocation’ organized in special disciplines in the service of self-clarification and knowledge of interrelated facts… This, to be sure, is the inescapable condition of our historical situation.

Weber presents modern science as a form of industrial activity, characterized by the division of labour, massive capital investment, and managerial supervision. His fundamental claim is that scientific advance is premised upon specialization.

A really definitive and good accomplishment is today always a specialized accomplishment. And whoever lacks the capacity to put on blinders… may as well stay away from science.

As with all industrial activity, the logic of economic development dictates that specialized work is co-ordinated and supported within the framework of a larger organization. The modern university is a knowledge factory, established by state capital, owning the means of intellectual production, and hiring academic wage labourers who work under the supervision of departmental managers.

Weber acknowledges that career advancement becomes a primary concern within this system, which often rewards mediocrity over merit; but he holds the ‘predominance of mediocrity’ a cost worth paying for intellectual progress.

The postmodern university in 2016

A glance at the state of universities today, nearly a century after Weber’s talk, reveals some shortcomings in his analysis. Universities are beset by a chronic shortage of funds. Changing demographics and the expansion of higher education have accentuated the problem. But it was built into the very idea of an institution that combines teaching and research. Tribe points out:

The creation in the United States just over a century ago of the ‘modern university’ embodying the ideal of the teaching of students by specialized scholars was possible because of the massive fortunes made during the extraordinary period of economic expansion in the last two decades of the nineteenth century, coupled with a desire on the part of the newly rich – Johns Hopkins, Rockefeller, also Brown, Firestone and even Stetson among many others – to plough their wealth into educational foundations.

Such endowments were not available elsewhere, nor was this level of private donation sustainable within America. Consequently, the modern university has everywhere come to rely upon very large amounts of government funding; becoming in effect, as Weber called them in 1917, ‘state capitalist enterprises.’

In a nutshell, the problem faced by universities today is that taxpayers and politicians are not prepared to fund the extremely expensive ideal of education to which they pay lip service.

One major casualty of financial pressure is teaching, always regarded as a sort of secondary bonus component of the modern university. While more and more students have entered the universities, responsibility for teaching them is increasingly farmed out to graduates and adjuncts, leaving tenured faculty free to compete for research grants and prestigious positions. As Jillian Powers points out, 75% of university instruction in North American universities is now performed by contingent faculty.

Yet this freeing up of faculty time to concentrate on research, while generating an explosion of publications, has not fostered any obvious intellectual advance. The root problem here is that, if the modern university is a factory of scientific research, it is a factory that does not produce a marketable product. Political administrators, concerned with securing results for taxpayers’ money, therefore turn to artificial measures of performance that, at least to date, have been deeply corrosive to the culture of research.

Ranking of departments and journals, assessments of research impact, and the linking of career advancement with publication – what do these add up to beyond a recipe for a massive explosion of second-rate research? What is the real value of a hasty project, conceived with an eye on grant applications, and worked through only to the minimum level required for peer-review acceptance and consequent publication? Administrative regulation of the research factory has boosted quantity at the cost of quality.

The situation resulting from the combination of the downgrading of teaching and the administrative regulation of research is well captured by Tribe:

Today’s university teachers necessarily rely upon textbooks in their teaching rather than their own understanding of the discipline, while the formal retention of the ‘research’ culture in the mass university has massively increased the number of books and journals published.

In other words, university researchers are producing more and more publications that nobody reads because students are directed to textbooks while their peers are too busy writing grant applications and working on their next publication.

Artisan scholarship

Lack of marketable product is not the only problem with Weber’s economic vision of the modern university. One may also take serious issue with his conviction that specialization is the warp and woof of intellectual advance. Certainly there is a place for specialization. But, as Weber says, specialization requires blinders, and as I have suggested elsewhere, the disciplinary divisions of the modern university mean that these blinders are rarely if ever removed. And Weber’s idea of a disenchanted world is curiously un-self-reflexive, passing over the inherent mystery that is the self-conscious mind engaged in genuine scholarly inquiry. As Patrick Curry has cogently argued, the experience of enchantment is a characteristic of genuine learning; although the modern university has done wonders in banishing this experience from its lecture halls and examination rooms.

But I want here to single out another weak point in Weber’s vision of the modernization of research, namely his assumption that a single developmental trajectory applies across the board. That the natural sciences require substantial capital investment and consequent management of collectively worked resources seems obvious. But Weber also insists:

This development, I am convinced, will engulf those disciplines in which the craftsman personally owns the tools, essentially the library, as is still the case to a large extent in my own field. This development corresponds entirely to what happened to the artisan of the past and it is now fully under way.

Whether or not this made sense in 1917, it most certainly does not today. Resources such as the Internet Archive allow free access to just about all books and journals published before around 1905. In theory, online databases could supply open access to all later publications as well; that these libraries are closed off by paywalls is an artificial barrier to entry, providing the universities with a temporary and unjustifiable monopoly on research – temporary, because it is increasingly recognized that the move to open access is but a question of time.

The advent of the internet turns a significant portion of academic wage-labourers into potential artisans. And this undermines the basic rationale behind Weber’s conviction that ‘the inescapable condition of our historical situation’ is that intellectual production must be ‘organized in special disciplines’ within the modern university.


Those who are committed to life within the university may find in these reflections some clues for reform. And, clearly, fundamental reform is needed. But those called to the humanities and the social sciences, who understand their vocation in terms of scholarship as opposed to career advancement and status, might do well to consider whether they have any place in the universities at all.

Artisan scholarship requires a financial basis, and independent scholars need to find ways to support their studies. That this is possible has been demonstrated by a number of independent scholars, one of whom has provided the core research on which this post has drawn (Keith Tribe runs his own translation company). A loose organization of independent scholars could, in theory, secure patronage from private corporations, and even make a bid for state funding, as do other arts. But the most exciting way forward at this moment in time is surely to explore the possibilities opened up by crowd-funding initiatives. Such grass-roots support of scholarship would inevitably entail a welcome shift of audience, compelling scholars to address interested laypeople as opposed to a handful of fellow specialists. Those who regard scholarship as their vocation have been let down by the modern university but may find a solution online.


In addition to the sources linked within the text, this post has made ample use of Keith Tribe’s ‘Educational Economies’, published in Economy and Society, 2006, and available on Keith’s page, and Max Weber’s ‘Wissenschaft als Beruf’, for which I used the translation by H.H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills, of which several versions can be found online.

Header image: Ekin Arabacioglu, ‘Cogs’. Creative commons license.

About Simon J. Cook

Simon J. Cook is an intellectual historian and independent scholar. His award-winning monograph on the political economist Alfred Marshall was published by Cambridge University Press in 2009 and costs $109.99. His recent essay on J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lost English Mythology is available for free on Rounded Globe.


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