Friday, May 23, 2008

My (Unfinished) Dissertation

It was around 11 years ago -- almost to the date, I think -- that I officially withdrew from my PhD program. I was teaching full time in Manhattan and my wife and I were raising a son (another one was soon on the way, and I'd have a daughter after that). Finishing the dissertation just didn't make sense. I guess in some ways I regret not finishing it up, but I generally don't think about it too much at all.

Recently, though, I was talking to a friend about my dissertation topic, and I realized how important it had been in shaping my subsequent career. My topic was academic traditionalism in late seventeenth-century at the University of Salamanca in Spain. On the surface that seems rather obscure and when I tell people about it, they tend to politely change the subject. My friends tend not to be so kind and make fun of its obscurantism. But bear with me and I actually do think there's a story worth telling.

The University of Salamanca was one of Europe's premier universities in the sixteenth century and would have rivaled Oxford, Cambridge, and Paris. Its professorate and graduates held the leading positions in the Spanish Empire and its intellectual influence was world renown. During the course of the seventeenth century, however, and the impact of the Scientific Revolution spread across Europe, Salamanca got left behind. Actually, it chose not to move ahead. The school, rightly proud of its past achievements, held on tightly to these traditions during the seventeenth century. The result was that by the middle of the eighteenth century, Salamanca was an intellectual backwater, all but ignored by Europe and even within Spain itself. Today, the university is a great place to study and produces many great scholars, but it has never regained its prominence.

What had happened? The University became irrelevant. Caught up in its own version of an old boy network, Salamanca ignored developments in science, philosophy, and math. Medical research, once an important part of the school, atrophied and eventually died out. My research chronicled the repeated attempts to reform the school and the failure of every single attempt at reform. The University was faced with an enormous revolution in human thought and it blinked.

So how does this relate to my career? My research makes me very keenly aware of how easy it is to miss earth-shattering trends. The faculty at Salamanca was an intelligent group of scholars whose achievements I deeply respect. They argued in favor of the rights of American Indians in the midst of the genocide of the Conquistadors. They argued in favor of economic justice in the midst of the commercial revolution and studied Copernicus when heliocentricism was denounced through much of Europe. But they missed the Scientific Revolution.

As I look around at the changes we are experiencing today with technology, I wonder if we are in the midst of something as big as the Scientific Revolution or is this more of a passing fad? I used the believe that nothing today would change anything fundamental in how we're teaching and what we're teaching. I'm not so sure anymore. If these changes are a "paradigm shift", then what does that mean to us? Am I one of those professors in Salamanca, serenely secure in the justice of my cause but being left behind?

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