Disruptive Innovation and Philosophy

Christensen’s The Innovative University applies his theory of disruptive innovation to the contemporary university. Disruptive innovation occurs when a new idea or technology redefines a market. The new approach–say, the Apple personal computer–doesn’t approach the competition head-on; it instead starts at the bottom of a market, secures a foothold, and then moves ‘up-market.’ Apple’s personal computers couldn’t perform the function of mainframes; but they did serve a niche that the mainframes could not–personal computing. In time, as desktops and then laptops got faster, they moved up-market to the point where they gradually replaced mainframes.

One of the great misconceptions about universities is that they are bastions of liberalism. This is true only in a peripheral sense, eg in terms of the politics of the professorate. Fundamentally, tertiary education is deeply conservative and resistant to change. EVERY philosophy department wants to be like every other philosophy department, and so on across the academy. Small differences–between eg analytic and continental philosophy–pale before the overwhelming conformity of every department creating philosophical specialists who are trained to speak to one another. The idea of creating a different kind of philosophy degree or a different type of humanities program at a university, is anathema to these supposedly ‘radical’ thinkers.

But now fundamental change does seem to be coming to universities. There are a number of drivers: the cost of tuition, public defunding (eg, the University ‘of’ Colorado now gets 3% of its funds from the state), and the rise of internet-based distance education. Now, Harvard is likely to be fine; and for other brand name places such as Penn State the undergraduate ‘experience’ may be sufficient to keep young people coming to Happy Valley. But for schools without great prestige or a good brand, dangers abound. this means that perhaps the ‘safest’ approach to the future may be, ironically, to be radical in terms of innovation.

This is where CSID’s points about field philosophy and dedisciplining the humanities could get traction. We believe that these represent interesting theoretical innovations. But they also represent disruptive innovations within the academy.

One implication of the points above: we should wear with pride the criticisms of the Leiters of the world when they dismiss the attempt to create a UNT model of Philosophy with ‘now, why would anyone want to do that?’

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One Response to Disruptive Innovation and Philosophy

  1. The Academy’s response to such pressures, of course, is to … CREATE ANOTHER DISCIPLINE!


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