Thursday, April 30, 2009

The University Is Doomed. Or Not.

According to Mark C. Taylor, writing in the New York Times Op Ed page, we should "End the University As We Know It." Taylor, chair of the department of Religion at Columbia, complains that students run up mountainous debt being taught by graduate students, who are themselves going into debt, and for whom there will be no academic jobs at the end of the process -- unless we abolish departments, end tenure, and retire professors early -- to make room for the new professors.

There is plenty wrong with our current system of financing higher education, which has turned in a few decades from a widely acknowledged public good to a ruinously expensive private purchase.

And it is no doubt true that disciplines can be stuffy and professors can grow stale. But in sum, Taylor seems to me to appeal essentially an anti-intellectual hostility to professors, who, in my experience in universities, mostly do not grow stale, mostly do work actively both in and beyond their departments and disciplines, and for these faculty, tenure is an essential guarantee of academic freedom and shared governance. The rapid increase in non-tenure-line or "contingent" faculty undermines both academic freedom and shared governance, and in general may, some argue, lower everyone's pay.

Further, though disciplines can be myopic, they are also, importantly disciplines -- that is, they nurture structures of thought, knowledge, and skill that can take years to develop, and that can equip specialists to make deep contributions to the more general public and academic sphere.

On disciplinary knowledge, see Howard Gardner, Five Minds for the Future, for example. It seems to me he makes a good case for disciplinarity -- by which he does not mean dogmatism, hierarchy, or insularity. What Gardner suggests, and what it seems to me Taylor breezes past, is that disciplinarity succeeds when it works together with, and not as an alternative to other "minds" -- the synthetic, the creative, the respectful, and the ethical.

No doubt my own views are shaped in part by my particular experience, and by habit and self interest. And surely self criticism should be an important part of the ongoing university experience.

As of last count, there were almost 500 comments in response to Taylor's piece in the New York Times.

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