Just don’t ask me how

There has been lots of blog activity over a NY Times op-ed by Mark Taylor, professor of religion at Columbia. Right now it’s the most-emailed story at the Times. In it, Taylor proposes abolishing the modern university. From his mixed bag of arguments:

  • graduate education prepares students for jobs that don’t exist
  • academic scholarship is too specialized and divorced from real-world problems
  • faculty create clones of themselves instead of true scholars
  • grad school exploits people to provide cheap labor for undergrad education
  • traditional disciplines need to be replaced with interdisciplinary thematic ceters
  • tenure protects unproductive people and inhibits change
  • etc.

I wish I could say that any of this was new, but this is the same stuff I’ve been hearing about higher education since I was in college, and I know that pretty much all of it has been around a lot longer than that. Some of it has some traction, some of it doesn’t. Taylor doesn’t come up with any new or interesting solutions. (He proposes to train grad students for non-academic careers; but he doesn’t say how. Abolish tenure: but he makes no attempt to quantify the benefits of tenure, such as the freedom to define hard problems and take risks to solve them. Etc.)

Plenty of bloggers are posting takedowns. Among the good ones…

Chris Kielty on Savage Minds notes that many of the practices and structures that Taylor attacks (like departments and tenure) protect what is valuable about universities. Abolishing them will just make things worse:

Administrators across the country love it when stooges like Taylor say this kind of shit, because it gives them the right and high horse upon which to justify the destruction of academic job security, autonomous decision making by faculty and the definition of what counts as a timely or important problem by the people who actually have to do the work. And I suspect I hardly need to tell anyone that it isn’t places like UCLA or Columbia that will suffer even if his suggestions are taken seriously, but those underfunded state schools looking for any excuse to expand the number of adjuncts, diminish the autonomy of faculty, exploit graduate students even further (by claiming that they need to “expand their skills”), and so on.

Scott Sommers says that the problem isn’t that grad students are too specialized to have marketable skills — it’s that most of the jobs where they can apply their skills are less interesting than academia:

All the “…limited knowledge that all too often is irrelevant for genuinely important problems” decried by Dr. Taylor is really made up of highly valuable skills…

The problem isn’t the usefulness of these techniques, nor even the employablity of these skills outside the university. The problem is that no one trained in these skills really wants to apply them to anything but academic problems. I have personal experience with this. Before teaching English, I worked for a marketing research firm in Canada. While all this was long ago, I retain one especially vivid memory. My supervisor, who holds a PhD in Political Science from the University of Toronto, and I were hunched over a table examining cross tabs of a survey of attitudes toward Canadian hi-tech companies. I remember her commenting on the wide fluctuation in perceptions of excellence we had obtained across the spectrum of surveyed companies surveyed. Her response to this? “Isn’t this interesting!” No, it isn’t and it wasn’t then, even though it was really one of the more interesting problems our firm worked on. And I suspect even my boss thought so, since she now works in academia.

Matt Welsh points out that Taylor’s critique doesn’t apply nearly as well to the sciences:

What he really means is that in the areas of “religion, politics, history, economics, anthropology, sociology, literature, art, religion and philosophy” (the author’s all-encompassing list of the realms of human thought that apparently really matter) it is damned hard to get a decent job after graduate school, and I agree. But this has little to do with the situation in the sciences and engineering, where graduate students go on to a wide range of careers in industry, government, military, and, yes, academia.