In 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.