Columbia Prof. Breaks Rank, Cites Problems With Academia

lifeambitionIn the Op-ed section of yesterday’s Times, Mark Taylor – chair of Columbia’s Religion Department – broke from the rank-and-file optimism of Ivy League academics on academia by asserting that “Graduate education is the Detroit of higher learning.” (For those who have been living under a rock for the past fifty years, in 2008, Forbes gave Detroit – a city saddled with crime and unemployment – the dubious distinction of being America’s most miserable city).

We’re guessing that this Benedict Arnold of a professor has tenure because his ideas, which include retrenching both doctoral-level education and academia as a whole, are unlikely to popular to many colleagues and administrators at Columbia, a place dredged in the virtues of a classical education. (Columbia College, as one example, continues to yoke its students to a stringent core curriculum).

The problem, Taylor explains, stretches back to Kant, who wrote in the late 18th century that to “handle the entire content of learning” professors should teach different subjects. This, he argues,

has led to separation where there ought to be collaboration and to ever-increasing specialization. In my own religion department, for example, we have 10 faculty members, working in eight subfields, with little overlap. And as departments fragment, research and publication become more and more about less and less. Each academic becomes the trustee not of a branch of the sciences, but of limited knowledge that all too often is irrelevant for genuinely important problems. A colleague recently boasted to me that his best student was doing his dissertation on how the medieval theologian Duns Scotus used citations.

More after the jump.

This insistence on specialization leads to a “process of cloning”, wherein “faculty members cultivate those students whose futures they envision is identical to their own pasts, even though their tenures will stand in the way of these students having futures as full professors”:

The dirty secret of higher education is that without underpaid graduate students to help in laboratories and with teaching, universities couldn’t conduct research or even instruct their growing undergraduate populations. That’s one of the main reasons we still encourage people to enroll in doctoral programs. It is simply cheaper to provide graduate students with modest stipends and adjuncts with as little as $5,000 a course – with no benefits – than it is to hire full-time professors.

To fix this problem in higher ed., Taylor insists that “colleges and universities, like Wall Street and Detroit, must be rigorously regulated and completely restructured”. Among the changes he believes are necessary include the dissembling of permanent departments in favor of “problem-focused programs” touting “cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural” curricula. For example,

A Water program would bring together people in the humanities, arts, social and natural sciences with representatives from professional schools like medicine, law, business, engineering, social work, theology, and architecture. Through the intersection of multiple perspectives and approaches, new theoretical insights will develop and unexpected practical solutions will emerge.

This makes sense, especially because colleges and universities seem to be offering an ever-increasing number of joint programs (medicine & public health, business & international relations, environmental science & architecture, etc.) – meaning they see the usefulness of linking currently disparate programs – but oftentimes do not work that strenuously to make such programs attractive to their students.

Should universities be changing in the way Taylor suggests? Readers, weigh in.

  • not likely

    “Should universities be changing in the way Taylor suggests?” I don’t think this is likely, if for no other reason then it’s unrealistic. As the body of knowledge becomes more finely grained, and a greater number of facts emerge in subtler detail, it is necessary that academia become more specialized. This may not be true in a religion department but it’s certainly true in the sciences and math. Furthermore, most good schools already have programs which cross pollinate faculty (for instance, physics and medicine often join forces). Taylor clearly has free time on his hands and is trying to justify his own tenure. Give the man a Hadamard matrix to work on, that’ll keep him busy.

  • not likely

    “Should universities be changing in the way Taylor suggests?” I don’t think this is likely, if for no other reason then it’s unrealistic. As the body of knowledge becomes more finely grained, and a greater number of facts emerge in subtler detail, it is necessary that academia become more specialized. This may not be true in a religion department but it’s certainly true in the sciences and math. Furthermore, most good schools already have programs which cross pollinate faculty (for instance, physics and medicine often join forces). Taylor clearly has free time on his hands and is trying to justify his own tenure. Give the man a Hadamard matrix to work on, that’ll keep him busy.

  • not likely

    …than…

  • not likely

    …than…

  • cc11

    Must of his criticism is particular to the humanities which, being free from the peer-reviewed-funding model that drives the sciences, has less pressure to (i) be multidisciplinary, (ii) have students do research rather than teaching, (iii) foster the careers of future students by opening new fields rather than finding new ways of interpreting existing texts.

    Additionally, let me beg to differ with the use of the words “dredge” and “yoke”, unless you meant a yoke as a good thing (cf. etymology of “yoga”). I like the core.

  • cc11

    Must of his criticism is particular to the humanities which, being free from the peer-reviewed-funding model that drives the sciences, has less pressure to (i) be multidisciplinary, (ii) have students do research rather than teaching, (iii) foster the careers of future students by opening new fields rather than finding new ways of interpreting existing texts.

    Additionally, let me beg to differ with the use of the words “dredge” and “yoke”, unless you meant a yoke as a good thing (cf. etymology of “yoga”). I like the core.

  • Y11

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  • ask an economist

    I like how he suggests both more regulation and more flexibility in the same paragraph.

  • ask an economist

    I like how he suggests both more regulation and more flexibility in the same paragraph.

  • KEGGY

    Regarding the second blockquote: That’s why you go to Dartmouth.

  • KEGGY

    Regarding the second blockquote: That’s why you go to Dartmouth.

  • Veritas

    This is news?

    Anyone with half a brain knows that large public universities are waste lands, that even at Ivies the grad schools are generally useless except for a few legendary profs, and all of these bizarre micro-fields are just attempts by obscure profs to prove their self-worth.

  • Veritas

    This is news?

    Anyone with half a brain knows that large public universities are waste lands, that even at Ivies the grad schools are generally useless except for a few legendary profs, and all of these bizarre micro-fields are just attempts by obscure profs to prove their self-worth.

  • @Veritas

    Were you describing Harvard? If so, then your comment makes sense.

  • @Veritas

    Were you describing Harvard? If so, then your comment makes sense.

  • D’07

    Keggy you’re absolutely right. Send your kids to Dartmouth…but what if they want to be professors? Then they get to teach kids at big research schools…and will continue to thank you that they went to Dartmouth.

    I love the graph at the beginning of the article. I’m a second year and I’ll take the pizza, and a job, and maybe a publication or two. Thanks!

  • D’07

    Keggy you’re absolutely right. Send your kids to Dartmouth…but what if they want to be professors? Then they get to teach kids at big research schools…and will continue to thank you that they went to Dartmouth.

    I love the graph at the beginning of the article. I’m a second year and I’ll take the pizza, and a job, and maybe a publication or two. Thanks!

  • D ’07

    As another Dartmouth alumnus and grad student (at Yale), allow me to say that being in grad school is like being on privately-funded welfare. But this article seems to miss the point. Perhaps Prof. Smartypants should go back and re-read his Kant; the humanities are meant to be functionally (esp. economically) useless. Man must be an end, not a means, man! In any case, blah, blah, blah. I’m tired of all of this hand-wringing. The fact is that competition amongst Ph.D.s is no different from competition amongst people in any other “industry”: there are more people than there are jobs.

    • ehjxgcth

      Privately funded? Who writes almost all of the grants? Where did the university get all of that money for the endowment? Many of the positions are explicitly funded by Federal funds and many of the others are indirectly funded by Federal loans and overhead cash.

  • D ’07

    As another Dartmouth alumnus and grad student (at Yale), allow me to say that being in grad school is like being on privately-funded welfare. But this article seems to miss the point. Perhaps Prof. Smartypants should go back and re-read his Kant; the humanities are meant to be functionally (esp. economically) useless. Man must be an end, not a means, man! In any case, blah, blah, blah. I’m tired of all of this hand-wringing. The fact is that competition amongst Ph.D.s is no different from competition amongst people in any other “industry”: there are more people than there are jobs.

  • D ’07

    P.S. If you go to a decent grad school, you won’t be in debt. You won’t be rich, but you won’t be in debt. If you can’t get funding for your Ph.D. training, don’t bother.

  • D ’07

    P.S. If you go to a decent grad school, you won’t be in debt. You won’t be rich, but you won’t be in debt. If you can’t get funding for your Ph.D. training, don’t bother.

  • Kate

    I think the column said a lot more about the Religious Studies department at Columbia (or Columbia as a whole) than it did about academia in general. Many top schools strongly encourage their humanities PhDs to pursue interdisciplinary projects. Further, as D’07 says, a decent PhD program isn’t going to put you in the poor house. Having recently finished a very interdisciplinary dissertation (with no debt), I can say there are MANY problems with academia (especially as a career choice), but the solution is not getting rid of tenure and making us all collaborate on the study of water.

  • Kate

    I think the column said a lot more about the Religious Studies department at Columbia (or Columbia as a whole) than it did about academia in general. Many top schools strongly encourage their humanities PhDs to pursue interdisciplinary projects. Further, as D’07 says, a decent PhD program isn’t going to put you in the poor house. Having recently finished a very interdisciplinary dissertation (with no debt), I can say there are MANY problems with academia (especially as a career choice), but the solution is not getting rid of tenure and making us all collaborate on the study of water.

  • ViolentQuaker

    This would never happen at Penn, where every grad student moonlights at the Wharton School anyway…

  • ViolentQuaker

    This would never happen at Penn, where every grad student moonlights at the Wharton School anyway…

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  • MKR

    Here are some ‘fixes’ for Academia (http://e-lab-book.com/?p=763)