Monday, April 27, 2009

End the University as We Know It?

Today there is an op-ed piece in the The New York Times titled "End the University as we know it" by Mark C. Taylor, a professor in the religion department at Columbia. He employs the old argument that specialization has destroyed the idea of the university that is built around faculties functioning somewhat autonomously. He even cites Kant, a figure he sees as defending a "mass production" view of the university that requires a certain "division of labor" among the faculties. Kant's essays that make up his Conflict of the Faculties were written in response to threats of censorship on the part of Frederick II. Kant's aim, in part, is to defend academic freedom for the broadly conceived philosophical faculty.

Taylor's essay is far too nearsighted. He anchors a number of suggestions directed at revising the university structure in people's fears of an unknown economic future. He has six suggestions: 1) Restructure the curriculum (the idea is to get rid of specialization and the division of labor model, and put in its place an interdisciplinary model); 2) Abolish permanent departments; 3) Increase collaboration among institutions; 4) Transform the dissertation (by taking advantage of new technologies); 5) Expand the range of professional options for graduate students; 6) Impose mandatory retirement and abolish tenure.

The problem with many of these suggestions is that they would place constraints on academic research and destroy academic freedom. I think there is a misunderstanding of the problem of specialization motivating Taylor's piece. He seems to think that when research, dissertations, essays, and books become so focused they lose all practical import. It is as if this is an essential element of specialization. That is just absurd. Certainly, many books and dissertations do have little practical import. My dissertation on Fichte will not solve the world's water problems, racism, or even the mind/body problem. There may be only a few scholars who have a serious interest in it. That's fine. Why must everything have an immediate practical import? What specialization provides is not solutions, but ways of looking at larger issues from unique perspectives. The hope is that these varying perspectives provide a deeper analysis of the issues. Sometimes they don't. That's fine too. I also find the idea of interdisciplinary work based on the destruction of faculties where disciplines emerge and debates, methodologies, and theses are developed and revised to be an incoherent idea. Taylor's remarks on abolishing tenure, the very institution meant to maintain academic freedom, I think are unfortunate. If the problem with tenure is that older faculty do not publish or "develop professionally" then some internal mechanism could be established to encourage such things. Faculty turnover is a problem, but destroying tenure does not seem to be the right response at all. As far as turnover goes, do we really want our universities to takeover the business model of Walmart? Taylor essentially has an applied and instrumental idea of the university, and I think his suggestions are deeply troubling.

The major problem with the university system is its cost. Education is a right, not a luxury. Making universities affordable (or just free) would solve some of these problems.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What about the university as a source of leftist indoctrination? Where else would impressionable young prople receive such a concentrated dose of liberalism?