Scholarly Communication, Universities, and Industry

I have been working on an upcoming presentation comparing Theophilus Wylie and J. Lawrence Smith, based on some of the work I’ve mentioned in previous posts.  I thought it might be interesting to think more about the ways in which these two men, though both chemists, both university professors, and both working during the same period of time, seem to have such markedly different practices for disseminating their scholarship.  By understanding those practices more fully, I think we may be able to ask some new questions about the role of the university, what, if any, relationship it should have to industry, and, moreover, how the answers to those questions relate to the ways we should think about disseminating “knowledge.”

J. Lawrence Smith seems in his writing to be highly critical of education.  In addition to saying that teaching makes men “an educational drudge,” Smith goes on to say in the same speech that, “Our universities (or rather our so-called universities) are too numerous. . . It would be far better to have fewer scientific schools.”  In essence Smith is criticizing the fact that science is becoming taught in too many places, and science is being taught badly in his view.  Smith thinks it would be better to have a smaller number of schools that teach “pure science” (or what we might call basic, theoretical science) well.  There is a bit of a contradiction though, because even though Smith advocates for better scientific research, at the same time, he also suggests that science should be more practical and serve the needs of industry.  Smith goes on to become a researcher at the Louisville Gas Works later in his life and in his presidential address from 1873 (referenced multiple times in this blog now), Smith says, “Let us ever bear in mind that it is abstract scientific ideas which underlie in these modern days, all discoveries conducive to man’s progress” (italics Smith’s not mine).  In a way Smith clarifies what he means by that remark in another article in the American Chemist in 1874 where he says, “In our days a useful discovery is scarcely made or a happy application of one found out, before it is published, described in the scientific journals, or other technical periodicals. . . . From these multiplied and diverse efforts. . . arises an industry which has no sooner sprung into existence than it becomes important and prosperous.”  Thus science should help to create productive and useful industries.

Wylie on the other hand seems to repudiate much of what Smith seems to be advocating.  First, Wylie in early in his diary (1836, before he came to Indiana) admits to his talent for teaching, “Teaching comes quite natural to me.  I fear that it will be the trade into which I will eventually sink.”  Furthermore, in an undated talk “On Education” he criticizes those who advocate teaching for what he calls “practical arts” (of which one might perhaps include industry) and denigrates people who “are unable to go beyond first rudiments of knowledge, it is often time lost in endeavoring to develop powers of the mind which nature has not given them.  For them something preeminently practical, which a machine might do – which can be done with the hands and without the brains is certainly best.  It is nearly the same too with respect to those whose sole object is to make money.”

Thus it seems that at least on the surface of things these too men vehemently disagree.  Yet, the story may also be more complicated than it first appears.  Wylie and Smith met when  J. Lawrence Smith gave an address at Indiana University on the opening of the new science building. According to Wylie’s diary for July 15 of 1874, Smith’s talk was “both good and appropriate.”  Though we do not know exactly what Smith talked about, Wylie seems to approve of it.  This is also especially interesting considering that one year earlier Smith had said that there were too many scientific schools, and then he later opens one of them at Indiana University.

In all, I think that this seeming contradiction, has to do with the two men’s views on the role of higher education in American society, and, hence, how scholarship should be disseminated.  I think that both men agree on the importance of “pure science” in the curriculum.  I think that they would also agree that students should be taught not simply in order to create products, but to be able to do higher level thinking.  There are two areas on which I think they might disagree more vehemently.  The first is the role of what Smith in his 1873 address calls “philosophizing” which he thinks is a role unsuited to scientists.  Wylie on the other hand devotes entire sermons to the intersections of science and religion.  The second is the role of teaching.  Wylie obviously sees his primary role as a teacher; Smith does not.  As a result of these differing philosophical views, Smith publishes many articles, and Wylie tries to pass his knowledge on to students through his lectures and speeches.  Even today, universities still deal with the relation (or lack of it) between teaching and research.  I think that another way to look at that question would be to say what is the purpose of scholarly communication?  Does it include teaching? Under current definitions the answer would definitely be no.  According to Smith that would be a correct answer.  According to Wylie it would be the incorrect answer.  It may be time to investigate which one of them was actually right.

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