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Essentially, the author, Mark Taylor, chair of religion at Columbia, argues that the system of disciplines is outdated and that most Ph.D. students will never get a job in academia.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 The division-of-labor model of separate departments is obsolete and must be replaced with a curriculum structured like a web or complex adaptive network.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.