I want to begin this discussion of the idea of the electronic university — the university as an institution in the age of digital information — with a justly famous passage from John Henry Cardinal Newman's Apologia pro Vita Sua, the autobiography that explained a conversion to Roman Catholicism that exiled him from his beloved Oxford. Concluding his fourth chapter, he carefully relates his parting from friends at the university, including the man who had been his undergraduate tutor, or faculty advisor and chief instructor in the Oxford system.

In him I took leave of my first college, Trinity, which was so dear to me, and which held on its foundation so many who had been kind to me both when I was a boy, and all through my Oxford life. Trinity had never been unkind to me. There used to be much snap-dragon growing on the walls opposite my freshman's rooms there, and I had for years taken it as an emblem of my own perpetual residence even unto death in my University.

On the morning of the 22nd[of February 1846] I left the Observatory. I have never seen Oxford since, excepting its spires, as they are seen from the railway. (225)

Although a note immediately qualifies this poignant image of Newman's exile to a minor extent with the remark that he had visited the university thirty-two years after his departure and fourteen years after he wrote this passage, the image of Newman as a heroic exile-of-conscience remains to emphasize how much his adherence to intellectual and spiritual truth cost him personally.

To anyone concerned with Newman's idea of a university and its relation to late-twentieth-century developments in information technology, educational practice, and institutional change, this scene of departure conveys an essential fact about his conception of a university — namely, that it is first and before all else, a place. In fact throughout The Idea of a University this assumption or premise that a university is a place recurs. Indeed, the notion of spatial location begins his fundamental description of a university, which according to him, "is a place of teaching universal knowledge. This implies that its object is, first of all, intellectual, not moral; and, on the other, that it is the diffusion and extension of knowledge rather than the advancement" (xxxvii).

Since the Academy in Periclean Athens, educational institutions have been places defined by the nature of contemporary information technologies. During the ages the word has undergone major changes as one form replaced an earlier one as the dominant technology of education and cultural memory. First came the spoken word, then the written, and with Gutenberg the printed version, and now, in its latest intonation, the digital word. Thus far, as each new information technology became dominant, it partially displaced and replaced earlier versions for certain functions but did not do away with them, however much it may have modified their functions. Public speech — public speaking — continues to have great social and political importance millennia after the invention of writing, and similarly, writing continues to retain its importance long after printing had formed and informed Western culture.

One can point out several other crucial facts about the changing ways people have encountered the word, perhaps the most important of which for this examination of future universities is that each information technology, each form of the word, has in turn created its own characteristic educational institution and educational practice. Each of these technologies of cultural memory, furthermore, in time becomes naturalized. Each, in other words, becomes so expected and obvious a part of its culture that it appears inevitable, natural, what one expects, and therefore all but invisible, particularly to those who rely upon it most and whose thoughts and attitudes have been most shaped by it — that is, by students, teachers, researchers, and theorists of education.

As it turns out, perhaps ironically, one of the great values of the cultural paradigm shift from printed to digital word that is happening now lies in the fact that it enables us — no, better, it forces us — to recognize that certain of our most fundamental cultural assumptions about authorship, intellectual property, creativity, and education depend in important ways upon particular information technology [For a detailed discussion of these issues, see the works by Bolter, Eisemstein, Kernan, Landow, and McCluhan in the appended list of suggested readings]. For example, although Newman thus clearly envisages both the university he has left and the one he wishes to create as places of wise speech, he assumes that this preaching, lecturing, instruction, and conversation will largely concern books. Take following two representative facts. First, he delivered The Idea of a Universityas a series of lectures then published as a book, and it is in its printed form that it has had its wide influence. Second, his controversial career derives in large part from the characteristic qualities of print. Consider, would Newman have written Tract 90 had not the printing press made widely accessible the writings of the church fathers and the documents of church history? As scholars of the Gutenberg revolution have pointed out, the widely distributed fixed text produced by the printed press promoted religious controversy and violent conflict by putting down divisive positions in black and white and making them accessible to large numbers of people. The coming of the digital word makes it much easier for us to note to great extent the printed book founds Newman's ideas of education and educational institutions.

Last modified 18 October 2005