anti-intellectualism in the academy

In this morning’s NYT, there appeared this op-ed, which trots out the old, well-beaten horse that the academy is hopelessly irrelevant and poorly tuned to producing the kind of graduates “we” need, where “we” is defined as something like “people who do really important things, like closing down plants that manufacture widgets, or blowing mind-numbing sums of money in hyperinflated credit markets.”

Essentially, the author, Mark Taylor, chair of religion at Columbia, argues that the system of disciplines is outdated and that most Ph.D. students will never get a job in academia. A series of five recommendations for “reform” follow, but first to the two central claims. IMHO the first of these is misguided and the second empirically false.

First for the misguided one. It’s been fashionable for a while to argue that academic disciplines are old-fashioned and we ought to just work together to study the “real-world” phenomena without disciplinary constraint. It is out of this impulse, itself in turn the result of the late ’60s hoo-ha about “relevance,” that the -studies departments have tended to emerge. The author suggests a:

broad range of topics around which such zones of inquiry could be organized: Mind, Body, Law, Information, Networks, Language, Space, Time, Media, Money, Life and Water.

The problem is that by providing a selection of approaches and methods from which to examine each of these, the current disciplinary system, imperfect as it may be, does a heck of a lot better of a job of investigating, say, Mind, than would a bunch of smart people tossed into a room and told “okay, talk about Mind!”. Disciplinary traditions and approaches constrain, yes–but they also enable, structure, and guide inquiry. It is a folly to expect that removing the disciplinary constraints would somehow simply reveal the beautiful underlying structure of pure knowledge–a folly, frankly, that even the most casual reader of Foucault ought not commit.

Second for the false. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education (just from a quick Google search), over 70% of those emerging from Ph.D. programs have “definite” plans for either employment or postdoctoral study. Presumably some significant proportion of the remaining 30% will be at least partially successful. This hardly amounts to a crisis in post-Ph.D. employment, even for humanities students where the number is more like 64%.

1. Restructure the curriculum…. The division-of-labor model of separate departments is obsolete and must be replaced with a curriculum structured like a web or complex adaptive network. Responsible teaching and scholarship must become cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural.

A web of what? What are the nodes? How is this different from what we already do, in which students are encouraged/forced to learn a number of approaches and synthesize? And in what way is academic life less “cross-cultural” than business?

2. Abolish permanent departments and create problem-focused programs.

Problems by whose estimation? Focused how? Who decides when the problems are solved?

3. Increase collaboration among institutions. Institutions will be able to expand while contracting. Let one college have a strong department in French, for example, and the other a strong department in German; through teleconferencing and the Internet both subjects can be taught at both places with half the staff.

This would be great if the principal problem were just “teaching” French or German. It’s not. The principal problem is preserving and extending scholarship in multiple fields–fields in which creativity and cross-communication are crucial. it is here that the article is particularly anti-intellectual, as it assumes that the principal concern is the transmission of skill, not the generation of knowledge, which demands an entirely different kind of organization.

4. Transform the traditional dissertation…. there is no longer a market for books modeled on the medieval dissertation, with more footnotes than text…. develop analytic treatments in formats from hypertext and Web sites to films and video games. Graduate students should likewise be encouraged to produce “theses” in alternative formats.

I can see it now: Service Encounters for X-box; The Averaged American for PlayStation II. The presence of a market for these things is irrelevant to their value. If the question were the market, students would produce these works for HarperCollins and get big advances. The point of the university is to preserve, defend, and extend the production of knowledge beyond what the market will support on its own!

5. Expand the range of professional options for graduate students. Most graduate students will never hold the kind of job for which they are being trained. It is, therefore, necessary to help them prepare for work in fields other than higher education. The exposure to new approaches and different cultures and the consideration of real-life issues will prepare students for jobs at businesses and nonprofit organizations. Moreover, the knowledge and skills they will cultivate in the new universities will enable them to adapt to a constantly changing world.

As I argued above, I don’t think the empirical claim is sound. More generally, the “preparing students for other careers” argument exactly mirrors number 4 above on books. If the job market needs training, let the companies that need it pay for and provide the training. The reason we have universities is because society is better when it has scholarly, scientific, and intellectual production that the market is poorly suited to encourage. As I tell incoming first-year students here: if you wanted job training, there’s no reason why the taxpayers of North Carolina ought to subsidize your salary boost. There’s an adequate, privately funded technical school down the road. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist!)

To sum up: I don’t claim that the contemporary university is as good as it could be as a place to preserve, defend, and extend intellectual, scholarly, and scientific pursuit. To paraphrase Churchill, it is probably the worst way of organizing such pursuit save all the others! More seriously, though, the way to make it a better such institution is not to make it more “relevant”, whether to contemporary social problems or to the needs of the global economy. Rather, the way to make it a better such institution is to honor the specifically intellectual character of academic life and the institutional forms that help preserve that.

Author: andrewperrin

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

15 thoughts on “anti-intellectualism in the academy”

  1. Your dismissal of the op-ed is unfortunate and, I anticipate, may come off as a little hurtful to many academics who are perennially under-, temp-, and otherwise marginally-employed. “Market value” may not be relevant for tenure-track professors, but it certainly is a valid concern for those grad students who see clearly the writing on the wall with only a handful of job openings for dozens (if not hundreds) or up-coming, recent, and longer-term grads.


  2. I have to agree that there is something odd to the suggestion that “problem-based programs” will somehow work differently than departments. Eliminating a boundary (discipline) by constructing a different one (program) hardly seems like a solution.


  3. pprscribe: I understand why you’d be bothered by an implication that there’s no job problem for PhDs, but if you are arguing that nodes and webs and themes rather than departments would help this problem, I wouldn’t agree with you. But I you did not make that argument, and I suspect you wouldn’t. A case COULD be made that the academy has over-produced PhDs relative to the market but, again, the solution to that problem is to let fewer people into graduate school. Again, I don’t see how Taylor’s ideas could possibly help people get jobs. I read him as arguing that graduate programs ought to give students a good liberal arts education which, last I heard, was what your undergraduate degree was supposed to be for. If you want to have a better chance of a non-academic job, you need an engineering or computer science degree or some such. Or, if you are a social scientist, a lot of quantitative statistics training.

    To Andrew and the point about university structure, I’d say that I mostly agree with you, conditioned only on the reminder that the fit or misfit between departmental boundaries and logical intellectual units varies a lot and is constantly evolving. The departmental structure of bioscience on this campus bears absolutely no relation to have people do science, and the bioscientists dealt with this by restructuring their undergraduate and graduate training into inter-departmental programs. Because it was a wholesale reorganization across the whole university that derived from the felt needs of the scientists themselves, it has been a success. (This example is my partial disagreement with Andrew.) Unfortunately, this success led the past administration to believe what was good for bioscience must be good for everyone, and a lot of resources were tied to interdisciplinarity. But it isn’t. Some “interdisciplinary” programs are are formed around narrowly-defined problems or topics and are much smaller and narrower than many departments. Sociology as a discipline, for example, is actually quite broad and sociologists tend to form interdisciplinary links with other social scientists while still being members of departments.


  4. As a sociologist working in an interdisciplinary department focused on a particular (albeit broad) topic (science and technology), I should have something very insightful to say about Taylor’s suggestion. I guess I do have lots of thoughts about the disciplining process in interdisciplinary fields. But really, I just wanted to say that the line “okay, talk about Mind!” cracked me up.


  5. I think that this discussion needs to be together with a discussion of what science is for, and what our discipline is for? Who is paying us to lead our upper-middle-class lives and talk amongst a tiny group of people about highly specialized and speculative issues that nobody else understands or care about?
    If you disagree and think that what we do is relevant beyond entertaining a highly exclusive nobility, then you have to explain what the process will be whereby this knowledge will “trickle down” to the world outside academia. Is it just by teaching undergraduates, or is there other ways that people can circulate between academic training, non-academic work, etc. I think there is, as olderwoman does, but there isn’t much space for people to do this before they get tenure, nor for grad students to think that what they learn in grad school can be used in practice.


  6. Socfreak: I’m not really with you on that. It is a good thing to do sociological work that connects with the non-academic world, but it is not a bad thing to do esoteric work and get paid for it. I believe in the value of art for art’s sake, science for science for science’s sake, literary criticism for literary criticism’s sake, and sociology for sociology’s sake. Just as I think it is fine to be a landscape gardener or a poet or a fiction writer or a wedding photographer or a waitress at a coffee shop. This does not get you off the personal hook to be socially responsible, but not everybody is called to be paid to do their social justice work. Some people do their social justice work for free, after working for pay at some other job. Furthermore, I believe that knowledge for its own sake contributes to the public good and that knowledge often proves valuable in indirect ways that were not originally apparent. Nor do I agree with the tone of the “exclusive nobility” phrase. I don’t think that the only valuable information is what can be understood in 60 second television spots. And I don’t agree that we should only study what people “care about,” because part of our job is to expand what people care about. If you want to go after elitism, I myself would prefer to support economic redistributive schemes (even at the cost of lowering my own personal share of the wealth) and low cost public education for all.


  7. 1. Would Taylor write this essay without tenure?

    2. olderwoman: One could interpret the rise in interdisciplinary hires at big schools in the last year or so to be a consequence of administrators wanting to create positions they could easily eliminate, no?


  8. I find anti-intellectualism fascinating, and the very strong strains of anti-intellectualism present in the movements I study are of the Sarah Palin “they get money to study fruit flies” variety–easy to identify, widely shared, and connected to deep emotions, likely connected to the hidden injuries of class. This I can understand. When I see anti-intellectualism in academics, I am baffled but still intrigued. It does hurt my brain a little, though.


  9. Ah, this is really just another ploy by a humanities type to restructure the university to prevent necessary recision of graduate education in the humanities. Nothing he says about careers and publication is reflective of what is true in the social sciences. People get their degrees, get tenure tracked jobs, publish their dissertations, and teach students to do much the same. In the humanities (with religion perhaps being the worst), Taylor has a point. But, the answer is getting rid of the humanities PhD programs at most universities, and dramatically scaling back on the ones which continue. In the long run, this would increase the number of tenure tracked jobs in the humanities, since universities would have to staff some core requirements and couldn’t use cheap graduate student labor to do it.


  10. olderwoman, my argument would be that some of the suggestions dismissed in the piece are precisely ones that lead to the situation I described. For example:

    “As I tell incoming first-year students here: if you wanted job training, there’s no reason why the taxpayers of North Carolina ought to subsidize your salary boost”

    is an incredibly arrogant stance to take in a job market in which there are already well trained non-academics competing for few industry/government/nonprofit jobs.

    Overspecialization has also hurt graduates’ chances of long-term well-paying jobs in fields other than tenure track profs at R1s. Community colleges need more generalists than specialists. Jobs teaching science and other scholarly concepts to “the public” require people who can speak in plain language to a variety of people.

    “Problem focused” is the kind of approach taken in many applied fields, where the tools that are needed may cross boundaries. How anyone can ask what constitutes a “problem” is beyond me. Any newspaper (or internet outlet) will readily provide a long list of problems for which we need solutions.

    Resistance to calls to transform in major ways our universities is a sort of anti-intellectualism. Especially as change is ridiculed by people who may appear to be in positions that are well served by the current university structure.


  11. pprscribe: You make some good points. In fact, yours sound a lot more reasonable to me than Taylor’s, and I have a feeling that you already had your good ideas before you read Taylor, rather than getting them from him. I particularly agree that people need a broad background for teaching and concrete skills for non-academic jobs; I also agree that teaching involves being able to explain complex ideas clearly. And that applied fields deal with problems. Where I disagree (see my comments to socfreak) is with the view that the academy should orient itself only to the applied world. And I think Taylor’s specific proposals sound like academic Dilbertland. Institutions should evolve and be open to change, of course, but chasing the latest fad in organization-think does more harm than good.


  12. Like Sherkat, I think Taylor’s critiques are relevant to the humanities, not to academia itself. The humanities took a huge gamble in being friendly to, if not embracing, postmodernism and related nonsense. They lost, and now they’re trying to cover their mistake by painting all of academia as flawed and their critics as “anti-intellectuals.” See, especially any essay by Stanley Fish on the state of universities. Taylor is just a less annoying version of the same.

    pprscribe: Do you really want journalists or bloggers to define the problems academics should study? If so, we’d be about 50 years behind where we are now in studying climate change, poverty, and any number of macro-level (or nano-) phenomenon that are outside the cognizance of any one individual. Of course, we’d have entire departments devoted to studying the sex lives and fashion choices of Hollywood celebrities, so that’s lucky…


  13. This is, perhaps, slightly off topic.

    It seems that a lot of people separate higher education into Science vs Job Training. For instance there is Sociology and “Applied” Sociology. When you look at rankings, the best programs are generally not applied programs.

    I think it is a disservice to society that many of the greatest intellectuals that we can learn from are locked away inside the great universities and the only people who have access to them are people who claim that they also want to be academics as well.

    One problem is that bright young minds are socialized by their institutions to believe that the only real measure of success is getting a job at a highly ranked R1 university with lots of publications. Why isn’t it an equally great placement when you get a job in the government and start on a career track to lead a department like Health and Human Services, CDC, or the Census?


  14. krippendorf, perhaps we read different newspapers and blogs. The ones I read report on such things as racism and poverty and domestic violence and suicide and genocide and health crises and urban sprawl and any number of other issues. Is it a wonder that so many of us are seen as out of touch when some of us assume that the only things the rest of the world are interested in are “the sex lives and fashion choices of Hollywood celebrities”?


  15. pprescibe. My point was simply that if we rely on journalists and bloggers to define the universe of questions for academia, we’ll miss a lot of interesting questions, because journalists and bloggers also miss them.

    Example: Academics began thinking about climate change long, long before it was an issue in the public eye. This wasn’t because some “out of touch” scholar decided to catch up on the alternative press of the day. It was because he (most likely) thought to ask a seemingly irrelevant question like, “hey, why is the polar ice cap shrinking?”

    There’s plenty of room in academia for people who want to study contemporary problems. It doesn’t follow that academia should reorganize around them.


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