Monday, September 15, 2008

I. McNeely & L. Wolverton's "Reinventing Knowledge"

Ian F. McNeely and Lisa Wolverton teach at the University of Oregon.

They applied the “Page 99 Test” to their new book, Reinventing Knowledge: From Alexandria to the Internet, and reported the following:
Reinventing Knowledge dissects the six institutions in the Western tradition that have determined what knowledge is and how we should pursue it. Page 99 falls midway through the chapter on the university, whose origins lie in the Middle Ages. It finds medieval scholars congregated at Salerno, on the coast of Italy, trying to figure out why beans “increase the venereal powers,” why gaping wounds ooze in the presence of murderers, and why cheese putrefies “if its maker gratifies a secret passion.”

The questions these scholastic physicians were debating clearly did not lead to what we would call “knowledge.” But our book is not about the march from folly to progress. It draws attention away from the content of knowledge and toward the intriguingly different methods and rationales our ancestors adopted in its pursuit.

Throughout the book, we use concrete illustrations to highlight different practices of knowing. We show how these practices coalesced into new institutions. Then we see each institution give way to its successor, in a series of “reinventions” stretching from the ancient library and the Christian monastery to the modern laboratory and beyond.

If the medievals asked questions we find ridiculous, at least they were asking questions, debating and discussing them, and enlivening teachers and students in the scholastic equivalent of knights’ tournaments. Today’s universities bear little resemblance to the medieval universitates. They instead house academic disciplines – our fifth institution – whose gold standard is written scholarship, not verbal disputation.

But if the pattern of reinvention continues, the values and practices of the laboratory stand poised to reform and reshape those of the disciplines in our most prized institutions of higher education. The Internet is not in itself a new institution, but part of this much larger transformation, rooted in the democratization, commercialization, and globalization of knowledge.
Learn more about Reinventing Knowledge at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue