The twenty-first century may involve the end of inquiry as we know it. For 150 years in the United States, inquiry has been tied, more or less, to institutions of higher education—that is, research universities, specialized forums, laboratories, and classrooms perpetuated by technical discourse, academic certification, and siloed disciplines. As Chad Wellmon has recently argued, these institutions emerged to organize the information overload wrought by the Enlightenment. Their function was to help people winnow through more information than they had ever encountered, achieving knowledge in specialized areas that, when combined, could advance human understanding overall. But now that access to information has multiplied exponentially thanks to digital technology, universities and the specialized inquiry they promote seem antiquated. We need a new model of inquiry.
Or so numerous commentators have insisted. The past few years have produced a veritable cottage industry of writers pondering the future of knowledge, education, and deliberation. Kevin Carey, for instance, has envisioned a “University of Everywhere”—open to everyone, distributed around the globe via the internet, and personalized by “advances in artificial intelligence and fueled by massive amounts of educational data. When this new university emerges, he writes, “people will form relationships with learning organizations that last decades based on their personal preferences, circumstances, and needs. Unlike today, belonging to a learning organization will not involve massive expenses and crippling amounts of debt.” Ryan Craig has seen a similar transformation on the horizon. Viewing education as a road to employment, Craig argues for the “great unbundling” of education and the “rise of competency management platforms” that allow students and algorithms to plot the most efficient path toward employment with a particular company. Adopting a similar blend of technological and economic thinking, Richard DeMillo has not only envisioned but also demanded an intellectual and educational revolution. Because the established university system was designed a hundred years ago and based on “a factory approach to education in which raw materials (students) were sorted by age and ability into batches (classes) to receive uniform doses of content (classes, curricula, and majors),” the time has come to overthrow the bosses on the factory floor and to install new digital managers:
Artificial intelligence makes it possible to personalize classrooms, even when course content is being distributed to a mass audience. Sophisticated analytic algorithms predict where students are likely to have problems and provide clues to master teachers about how to proceed. Even more important, technological innovation can be used to erase inequalities in circumstances—cognitive ability, social status, or academic knowledge—that plague postsecondary education as it scales to the masses.
These commentators, and a host of others, agree that inquiry is on the precipice of a revolution. Changes are afoot, they say, as technology transforms education to better serve the masses, not the elites.
In many ways, these commentators sound a lot like intellectual populists. Concerned about affordability, utility, access, purpose, and people, they hail a new community of inquirers around the promise of technological change and the hope of a more enlightened future. This new community emerges in response to the established educational order—the research university—which no longer serves the people and may even crush them under a mountain of debt and a cascade of false promises. Because inquiry in the university model is disconnected from the needs of ordinary individuals, lost in a foolhardy search for impersonal objectivity, individuals should band together and reclaim intellectual life for their own purposes. Digital technology offers them the chance to do so, establishing radically distributed communities of thought that can become strong enough to resist, circumvent, and even abolish the status quo. The intellectual revolution afoot, these commentators imagine, will restore power to the people on a scale heretofore unimagined.
Regardless of whether these prophecies of a digital intellectual future are correct, they follow many of the same discursive markers as the intellectual-populist figures analyzed in this book. In the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, as in the twenty-first century, people worried that the intellectual status quo was disconnected from the lives of ordinary people, and they sought ways to unite disparate individuals in new intellectual communities. Robert Ingersoll, Mary Baker Eddy, Thomas Davidson, Booker T. Washington, and Zitkala-Ša were as concerned as commentators today with remaking inquiry to facilitate broad, democratic discussion among the masses. And just as commentators today utilize the places and spaces where people assemble (namely, online venues), the populist thinkers of the turn of the twentieth century utilized the popular spaces of their own time—lecture halls, periodicals, civic centers, churches, and auditoriums. Ingersoll, Eddy, Davidson, Washington, and Zitkala-Ša deployed modes of thought, speech, and engagement that seemed enlivening and empowering to people whom the status quo had marginalized. On the public stage, they linked frustrated individuals in a common project of education, entertainment, and edification, while resisting the intellectual establishment.
The heart of their project, as I have argued, was a distinctive repertoire of appeals. Intellectual populism is above all a set of discursive markers that constitute a tradition of engagement between rhetors and audiences on issues related to the pursuit of knowledge. These markers are flexible, adaptable, and portable, helping people address such topics as religion, health, philosophy, education, and human rights. While the specific content of these markers changes depending on specific situations and particular purposes, the markers themselves facilitate a new approach and orientation to intellectual affairs.