If we don’t need experts, do we need universities?

A striking feature of the rhetoric deployed in the recent campaign to take the United Kingdom out of the European Union was a call to ignore the experts who said that ‘Brexit’ would do irreparable damage to Britain’s standing in the world.

The people deploying this rhetoric were among the best educated and articulate politicians of their generation (for example, Michael Gove and Boris Johnson). So it would be a mistake to gloss ‘anti-expert’ as simply ‘anti-intellectual’. Instead one might instructively recall the various early modern campaigns to ‘think for yourself’ which were associated with the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment.

In this context, the ‘experts’ were the clerics who populated the universities and courts of the day, who also predicted doom and gloom if people were given a greater say in their own spiritual and secular affairs.

Of course, some of those concerns were born out by Europe’s subsequent tumultuous history. Nevertheless, with the passing of time, the religious experts appear to have been on the wrong side of history. Perhaps something similar will be said about the expert academic opposition to Brexit in the long term.

So what should we make of this comparison? At the very least it calls into question the closeness of fit between expertise and academic knowledge production.

Although both sociologists and ordinary members of the public are inclined to typecast universities as factories for reproducing expertise in the form of credentials, the modern reinvention of the university at the hands of Wilhelm von Humboldt in the early 19th century was itself designed to break just this link.

Open inquiry

Humboldt insisted that academics should be both pushing back the frontiers of knowledge in their research and sharing the results with their students. Academics had to be more than bionic textbooks repeating the standard dogma. They had to convey the perpetual openness of inquiry as an invitation for students to embark on their own intellectual journeys.

Humboldt’s ultimate interest was not in training experts or even professionals, but citizens with the wherewithal to be active participants in the governance and enrichment of their society.

No doubt Humboldt’s vision of the university was a Romantic one. But it was also designed to position Prussia – and later Germany – as a nation that would forge its own way in the world by using the educational system to cultivate successive generations of independently minded people.

Such an imperative nowadays is likely to be heard as a strategy for incubating entrepreneurship. However, Humboldt’s sense of the ‘entrepreneurial’ extended beyond the securing of a healthy market share for one’s innovation.

Creative destruction

He wanted academics to set a personal example of ‘creatively destroying’ taken-for-granted modes of thought in all fields of knowledge. Students should not be daunted by having to stand on the shoulders of giants. On the contrary, they should be encouraged to find more efficient routes to the top.

This non-dogmatic approach to knowledge is fundamentally anti-expert and has always come close to undermining academic authority altogether. The great sociologist and staunch early 20th century Humboldtian, Max Weber, famously admitted that whatever respect academics deserve is ultimately tied to the integrity of their vocation – not the truth of their knowledge claims.

Universities started to lose their Humboldtian spirit once they started to assert the prerogatives of expertise. The turning point was the conversion of the doctorate into a professional credential for academic employment, which began in late 19th century Germany but was not completed in the UK until the late 20th century.

The move formally removed the element of imagination and even amateurism from academia that had made the classroom a site for exploration and a crucible of revolution in the modern period. In its wake, a strong proprietary approach to knowledge prevailed. ‘Disciplines’ came to stand for bits of intellectual real estate with high entry costs to access.

The acceptable face of this development is the increasing investment that academics have placed in ‘peer review’, whose remit has extended from simple validation to judgements of relevance to a presumed disciplinary trajectory.

Whereas economists have warned against such ‘path dependent’ judgements, which typically end up narrowing opportunities for development, the influential historian of science Thomas Kuhn re-branded them as signs of ‘normal science’, something to be encouraged. In either case, knowledge shifts from being a public good to a ‘club good’ – that is, something available only to those already in the know.


The exact shape of Brexit is still in early days, yet it is striking that Prime Minister Theresa May has already called for universities to demonstrate their wider social outreach before seeking tuition fee increases. Her proposals would even have universities found selective schools in disadvantaged areas to serve as incubators of academic excellence.

Although the media has focussed on May’s general emphasis on the need for greater selection in education, it might be wiser to focus on her charge to universities not to stick to their normal selection procedures but to actively bring in groups who might otherwise be excluded.

This would place a greater burden on academics to ‘creatively destroy’ knowledge as they are forced to teach people who do not come from backgrounds which have already primed them for the university’s ‘received wisdom’. The survival of the Humboldtian spirit in the 21st century university depends on academic leaders rallying to this challenge.

Steve Fuller is Auguste Comte Professor of Social Epistemology at the University of Warwick, UK. He develops the arguments in this article in his new book, The Academic Caesar. He is speaking in a session on Universities and Free Speech at the Cambridge Festival of Ideas on 21 October.