Memory  /  Q&A

'The Academy Is Largely Itself Responsible for Its Own Peril'

Jill Lepore on writing the story of America, the rise and fall of the fact, and how women’s intellectual authority is undermined.
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There’s an incredibly rich scholarship on the history of evidence, which traces its rise in the Middle Ages in the world of law, its migration into historical writing, and then finally into the realm that we’re most familiar with, journalism. That’s a centuries-long migration of an idea that begins in a very particular time and place, basically the rise of trial by jury starting in 1215. We have a much better vantage on the tenuousness of our own grasp of facts when we understand where facts come from.

The larger epistemological shift is how the elemental unit of knowledge has changed. Facts have been devalued for a long time. The rise of the fact was centuries ago. Facts were replaced by numbers in the 18th and 19th centuries as the higher-status unit of knowledge. That’s the moment at which the United States is founded as a demographic democracy. Now what’s considered to be most prestigious is data. The bigger the data, the better.

That transformation, from facts to numbers to data, traces something else: the shifting prestige placed on different ways of knowing. Facts come from the realm of the humanities, numbers represent the social sciences, and data the natural sciences. When people talk about the decline of the humanities, they are actually talking about the rise and fall of the fact, as well as other factors. When people try to re-establish the prestige of the humanities with the digital humanities and large data sets, that is no longer the humanities. What humanists do comes from a different epistemological scale of a unit of knowledge.

Q. How is the academy implicated in or imperiled by this moment of epistemological crisis?

A. The academy is largely itself responsible for its own peril. The retreat of humanists from public life has had enormous consequences for the prestige of humanistic ways of knowing and understanding the world.

Universities have also been complicit in letting sources of federal government funding set the intellectual agenda. The size and growth of majors follows the size of budgets, and unsurprisingly so. After World War II, the demands of the national security state greatly influenced the exciting fields of study. Federal-government funding is still crucial, but now there’s a lot of corporate money. Whole realms of knowing are being brought to the university through commerce.

I don’t expect the university to be a pure place, but there are questions that need to be asked. If we have a public culture that suffers for lack of ability to comprehend other human beings, we shouldn’t be surprised. The resources of institutions of higher learning have gone to teaching students how to engineer problems rather than speak to people.

View on The Chronicle of Higher Education