The city a superuniversity

On 21 september 2015, in wetenschap, by Zef Hemel

Read in ‘The Urban University and Its Identity’ (1998) of Herman van der Wusten (editor):

Last week the masterclass New York 2015 opened with a lecture of Herman van der Wusten, retired professor political geography at the University of Amsterdam. Van der Wusten referred to a conference he had organized in the ‘90s in Amsterdam on universities and the city. The University of Amsterdam was building new campusses. One of the essays was of Thomas Bender, of New York University. Bender had opened his essay with a citation of Joshua Lederberg, a Stanford University geneticist and Nobel Laureate, who assumed the presidency of Rockefeller University: “New York played a special role in my scientific career. It was, and is, a communication network. New York is a superuniversity.” Over de course of the past few centuries, Lederberg stressed, cities and universities have shared some characteristics: secularity, tolerance, specialisation, concentration, diversity. But what worried him was that universities increasingly have qualities in common with suburbs: with campusses in the fields, near the highways. A suburbanisation of intellect would mean compartmentalisation marked by firmer and less permeable boundaries. “One cannot but fear scholasticism and self-referentiality.”

Bender wrote that universities are best at producing abstract, highly focused, rigorous and internally consistent forms of knowledge, while the city is more likely to produce descriptive, concrete, but also less tightly focused and more immediately useful knowledge. “The academy risks scholasticism, but the culture of the city is vulnerable to the charge of superficiality and crude pragmatism.”  Then he turned his attention to suburban Silicon Valley near San Francisco, which he compared to urban Silicon Alley in New York. While the first is more scientific in its activities, Silicon Alley is “an incredibly dense interdisciplinary world of writers, artists and computer freaks, making multimedia CD’s and other interactive creations , some commercial products, some art, which in this post-Andy Warhol era is sometimes difficult to distinguish from a commercial product.” His complaint was that no social scientist at Columbia (picture) or NYU studied health care, poverty, inequality, race relations, education, urban politics. Bender thought it necessary that academic culture is reoriented from the nation to the metropolis. “The world economy and culture, it seems, is increasingly organised by a network of international cities.” Scientists should locate themselves in a glocal perspective. Seventeen years later Van der Wusten quoted Bender. Now everybody agrees. Universities are learning from practical life. They can no longer stay suburban.

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