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Sunday, April 13, 2008

Dan Sperber's Templeton Research Lecture. The causes of religion

Dan's First Templeton Lecture on Religion, Nashville, April 2008. Bravo Dan.

A Vision of Students Today

What university is and what will be. This video has been made by some American students in Anthropology. And they are perfectly right. We are maintaining a higher educational system that has no more contact with reality. Ex-catedra classes are useless nowadays. Students would gain much more from a serious and personalized supervision by their teachers while working with collaborative tools through Internet. We are informationally overloaded today: students do not need teachers to get information: they need them as guides, as connoisseurs who can transmit a talent in browsing the corpus of knowledge and selecting what is worth studying.

We are maintaining disciplinary boundaries whose only interest is to reproduce a cast of academics who will feel comfortably established in each particular discipline. We are maintaining a mode of scientific production that is old, based on the XIX century model that fitted Prussian universities, in which the scientist was seen as a public officer whose productive constraints were determined by societal needs, while we all know today that the impact of a single result can change the course of science, given the speed at which it will be diffused through Internet. We all know that many research programs are hopeless today, that entire departments could just shut their doors without any serious cultural loss (apart from the feeling of loss that some people resent each time an "endangered species" disappears, but it is true: most disciplines are endangered species and they would naturally and rapidly disappear if they weren't kept alive by the old-fashioned academic structure).

There is a lot of mutual connivance in the Academy today, that creates an incredible inertia: people prefer to stick to traditional modes of production of knowledge because they are comfortable with them, even of they know very well that they are sub-optimal for students and for the advancement of research in general. The appeal to normative standards of truth and scientific quality are still used to defend a system whose only beneficiaries are those who produce it.