Newman's criticism of the flood of printed matter produced by the new technology superficially echoes Thomas Carlyle, whose "Signs of the Times" (1829) had lambasted his age for being a mechanical one whose "true Deity is Mechanism." In fact, claims this first of Victorian sages,

Not the external and physical alone is managed by machinery, but the internal and spiritual also. Here too nothing follows its spontaneous course, nothing is left to be accomplished by old, natural methods. . . . Instruction, that mysterious communing of Wisdom with Ignorance, is no longer an indefinable tentative process, requiring a study of individual aptitudes, and a perpetual variation of means and methods, to attain the same end; but a but a secure, universal, straightforward business, to be conducted in the gross, by proper mechanism, with such intellect as comes to hand. [101]

Several things demand remark in this passage, the first and most obvious of which is that it parallels and might have provided one of the major inspirations for Newman's conceptions of education. The second recognition, which certainly shocks us more than does the first, is that Carlyle attacks those like Newman who propose educational systems and design institutions.

In sentences that I have omitted from the quoted passage, Carlyle explained that everything, with his contemporaries, "has its cunningly devised implements, its pre‘stablished apparatus; it is not done by hand but by machinery. Thus we have machines for education: Lancasterian machines; Hamiltonian machines; monitors, maps, and emblems." Or, as Carlyle might say today, we have peer tutoring, core curricula, distribution requirements, work-study programs, and junior years abroad.

What is not at issue here is the practicality of Carlyle's criticisms of the mechanization of education and other human activities — after all, it would seem that he would attack any organizational change on the same grounds. No, what is crucial here is that Carlyle, who apparently denies all possibilities for reforming existing institutions, makes a crucial recognition about them that Newman, the often admirable theorist of education, does not. Carlyle, in other words, recognizes that all institutions and forms of social organization are properly to be considered technologies. Carlyle, who pointed out elsewhere that gunpowder and the printing press destroyed feudalism, recognized that writing, printing, pedagogical systems, universities are all technologies of cultural memory. Newman, like most academics of the last few hundred years, considers them, more naively, as natural and inevitable, and consequently notices the effects of only those institutions new to him or that he does not like. .

The great value of such a recognition to our project here lies in the fact that it reminds us that the idea of an electronic university does not take the form of technologizing the university or adding to this institution technology in some way alien to its essential spirit. Digital information technology, in other words, is only the latest to shape an institution that, as Carlyle reminds us, is both itself a form of technology, a mechanism, and has also long been influenced by those technologies on which it relies.


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Last modified 18 October 2005