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End the University as We Know It
Old 04-28-2009, 20:40   #1
Richard
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End the University as We Know It

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End the University as We Know It
Mark Taylor, NYT, 26 apr 2009

Graduate education is the Detroit of higher learning. Most graduate programs in American universities produce a product for which there is no market (candidates for teaching positions that do not exist) and develop skills for which there is diminishing demand (research in subfields within subfields and publication in journals read by no one other than a few like-minded colleagues), all at a rapidly rising cost (sometimes well over $100,000 in student loans).

Widespread hiring freezes and layoffs have brought these problems into sharp relief now. But our graduate system has been in crisis for decades, and the seeds of this crisis go as far back as the formation of modern universities. Kant, in his 1798 work “The Conflict of the Faculties,” wrote that universities should “handle the entire content of learning by mass production, so to speak, by a division of labor, so that for every branch of the sciences there would be a public teacher or professor appointed as its trustee.”

Unfortunately this mass-production university model 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.

The emphasis on narrow scholarship also encourages an educational system that has become a process of cloning. Faculty members cultivate those students whose futures they envision as 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.

In other words, young people enroll in graduate programs, work hard for subsistence pay and assume huge debt burdens, all because of the illusory promise of faculty appointments. But their economical presence, coupled with the intransigence of tenure, ensures that there will always be too many candidates for too few openings.

The other obstacle to change is that colleges and universities are self-regulating or, in academic parlance, governed by peer review. While trustees and administrations theoretically have some oversight responsibility, in practice, departments operate independently. To complicate matters further, once a faculty member has been granted tenure he is functionally autonomous. Many academics who cry out for the regulation of financial markets vehemently oppose it in their own departments.

If American higher education is to thrive in the 21st century, colleges and universities, like Wall Street and Detroit, must be rigorously regulated and completely restructured. The long process to make higher learning more agile, adaptive and imaginative can begin with six major steps:

1. Restructure the curriculum, beginning with graduate programs and proceeding as quickly as possible to undergraduate programs. The division-of-labor model of separate departments is obsolete and must be replaced with a curriculum structured like a web or complex adaptive network. Responsible teaching and scholarship must become cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural.

Just a few weeks ago, I attended a meeting of political scientists who had gathered to discuss why international relations theory had never considered the role of religion in society. Given the state of the world today, this is a significant oversight. There can be no adequate understanding of the most important issues we face when disciplines are cloistered from one another and operate on their own premises.

It would be far more effective to bring together people working on questions of religion, politics, history, economics, anthropology, sociology, literature, art, religion and philosophy to engage in comparative analysis of common problems. As the curriculum is restructured, fields of inquiry and methods of investigation will be transformed.


http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/27/op...r.html?_r=1&em
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Old 04-28-2009, 20:52   #2
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I like it! Kind of like term limits for politicians; a simple, elegant solution to a festering problem. Unfortunately, however necessary it might be, it won't be easy to implement.
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Old 04-28-2009, 21:09   #3
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Professor Taylor's editorial reads like an end around the department he wanted to remake in his own image. In the introduction to an interview he gave in 2008 (source is here), Nathan Schneider wrote:
Quote:
He [Taylor] is attempting to reorganize the department's faculty around problems, rather than religious traditions or academic disciplines, in order to create a new, dynamic kind of scholarly community that can be responsive to pressing questions as they arise.
In that interview, Professor Taylor offered the following view of God.
Quote:
I don't care what you call it. The problem with term "God" is too much baggage. When you use it, everybody thinks of this theistic, personalistic, transcendent God—no, I don't buy that. The way I always define the divine is the rising and passing away that does not itself arise and pass away or, as I have already suggested, the infinite creative process.

There isn't a divine creator, but creativity is divine. Creativity is an emergent process, and creation always entails destruction. I've rethought this in terms of these complex information-processing because I think all these systems are basically distributed information networks.
Evidently, from his dismissive remarks about his colleagues, his vision was not theirs. So now he embarks on pulling down the Ivory Tower through increased regulation of professional academics. Well, once the government is done regulating that profession, which profession will be next?
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Old 04-28-2009, 21:18   #4
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A number of the more progressive universities are already taking this approach - especially in areas like entrepeunership or multi-discipline studies (e.g., West European Studies at IU). And although I am generally in agreement with the idea of such an undertaking, I'm not sure it would work for every mission each individual university seeks to undertake.

Richard's $.02
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“Almost any sect, cult, or religion will legislate its creed into law if it acquires the political power to do so.” - Robert Heinlein
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Old 04-28-2009, 21:28   #5
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I cannot help wondering if the article understates its case. There are lots of people going to lots of colleges - and the current news suggests that many of those degrees, of whatever level, will never lead to a job. With costs for education advancing faster than inflation, what if we have overcapacity in education, with the risk of a reversion to the mean? We are in the middle of a reversion to the mean in housing - something similar in higher education would be every bit as wrenching to those involved.

There are problems with combining departments, though. The groups very nearly cannot communicate with each other - not because of attitude, but because of the details of what they work with. Mathematicians have an entirely different language than do Psychology professors. There are entire conceptual territories that a computer scientist understands, but a graduate student in Education does not. Imagine trying to communicate details of Special Forces operations and military life to someone who knew nothing of the terms, and didn't care to learn - the gap would be enormous.

We might also wish to consider that education of students is not where the money is - not for universities, and not for faculty. The key for both are research grants. If a faculty member gets a grant, the university (using a certain large public university as an example) takes about 40% off the top. So the same faculty member that gets paid $90,000 per year might get a $500,000 grant. This would generate $200,000 for the university - well above the revenue generated by 3 ordinary sized-classes. The faculty member could then get "buyouts" using the grant money to not teach, doing research instead. And who decides on the recipients of grants? People who like to examine who published in "prestigious" journals (I'm not making this up...) and want the proposals in a very precise format, with every detail meticulously controlled.

I suspect the underlying problem is that no one has defined what we want education to do. Do we want personal enrichment? If so, then education seems a lot like a luxury. Should the taxpayers support such luxuries? Or, do we want to prepare people for a job? If so, why study history? (This is meant as a good-natured poke at Sigaba, by the way. ). Perhaps we want to educate people such that they become "good citizens", whatever that means - but then we come rather close to indoctrination, I suspect.

Of one thing I am sure. The current oversupply of highly educated people will correct itself in the decades ahead. The transition may involve some redefinitions of our expectations.
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Old 04-28-2009, 21:31   #6
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Quote:
The current oversupply of highly educated people...
Degreed - yes...but highly educated?

Richard's $.02
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“Almost any sect, cult, or religion will legislate its creed into law if it acquires the political power to do so.” - Robert Heinlein
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Old 04-28-2009, 21:37   #7
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Quote:
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Degreed - yes...but highly educated?

Richard's $.02
(Chuckle) point well taken.
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Old 04-28-2009, 22:13   #8
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Many of his observations are correct--if not timely--historians have been debating the relative merits of monographs and narrative works for decades.

Many of his specific recommendations are sound. Many doctoral programs require candidates to do a field outside of their department to encourage an interdisciplinary approach. Many departments allow graduate students to do course work at nearby schools and even to have faculty members of those schools sit on qualifying exam and dissertation committees.

Ultimately, my issue is that Mr. Taylor is attempting to deconstruct (a la Derrida*) the university system under the guise of reforming it.

A quick word about his suggestion that footnotes undermine the utility (i.e. marketability) of a work. If one wanted to talk about a 'water program' as if it were some new brain child rather than a topic that was already well-covered when Patricia Nelson Limerick claimed that it was 'new' in 1987, it makes a certain amount of sense to frame documentation as an anachronistic inconvenience. (And if he's really so opposed to the conventions of scholarly publications, maybe he should end his relationship with the University of Chicago Press which, by the way, established and maintains the standards for documentation with its Manual of Style.)

Do I sound bitter? Blame it on Rumsfeld.

___________________________________________
* If one wishes, one may compare the obituaries of Derrida offered by the New York Times (here) and The Economist (here) to Professor Taylor's view (here).
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Old 04-29-2009, 07:44   #9
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And then there's the MMAS (Master of Military Arts and Science) at the School for Advanced Military Studies, Fort Leavenworth, KS, which seems to have its critics, too.

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“Sometimes the Bible in the hand of one man is worse than a whisky bottle in the hand of (another)… There are just some kind of men who – who’re so busy worrying about the next world they’ve never learned to live in this one, and you can look down the street and see the results.” - To Kill A Mockingbird (Atticus Finch)

“Almost any sect, cult, or religion will legislate its creed into law if it acquires the political power to do so.” - Robert Heinlein
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Old 04-29-2009, 11:08   #10
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Quote:
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And then there's the MMAS (Master of Military Arts and Science) at the School for Advanced Military Studies, Fort Leavenworth, KS, which seems to have its critics, too.

Richard's $.02
I guess it comes down to a question of what, exactly, is education and why do we (or should we) value it.

Perhaps a detailed study of Blucher, his life, times, and campaigns, would constitute knowledge. Maybe one could become the foremost scholar in the world on the subject. Are the accumulated facts knowledge? Does full engagement with that knowledge constitute education? I guess I would contend that such an individual has education - not useful education, maybe, but education nonetheless.

On the other hand, there seems to be an entanglement of the term education with preparation for a job. That's different. It's going to be hard to make a case for a lot of academic disciplines and courses. I think we need to decide what we want higher education to do - which we haven't decided yet.

Studying literature is all very nice, but it may not contribute directly to employability. Likewise calculus, physics, chemistry, art, history, French, astronomy, and philosophy (with a few exceptions, duly noted). So - should we bother having such courses at all?

Silly as this may sound, I think education (by this I mean knowledge plus the ability to examine the existing facts critically and put the facts together to discern new ideas) has value aside from its efficacy in improving job prospects or generating income. MOO, YMMV.
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Old 04-29-2009, 12:09   #11
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Perhaps a detailed study of Blucher, his life, times, and campaigns, would constitute knowledge. Maybe one could become the foremost scholar in the world on the subject. Are the accumulated facts knowledge? Does full engagement with that knowledge constitute education? I guess I would contend that such an individual has education - not useful education, maybe, but education nonetheless.
I spent 3 days walking Waterloo and following the ebb and flow of the battle. Blucher saved Wellington's proverbial mass upon the fortuitous arrival of his Prussian forces on the battlefield. At the time, Blucher was still recovering from some serious recent injuries and - because of a dream - thought himself impregnated by an elephant. I don't know whether that's worthwhile knowledge or not - but I always found it an interesting bit of insight into the psyche of one of Prussia's most famous Field Marshalls.

Personally, I found von Moltke den Alter, his theories of war, and his wargaming concepts (to include the use of blue to represent friendly forces and of red to represent enemy forces) a far more interesting study of Prussian strategy, tactics, and commanders.

And as far as useful - do you think any soldier today would follow a commander who thought himself impregnated by an elephant?

Richard's $.02
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“Almost any sect, cult, or religion will legislate its creed into law if it acquires the political power to do so.” - Robert Heinlein
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Old 04-29-2009, 12:18   #12
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I don't know, we had a pretty good Corps and Army Commander in WW II who thought he was reincarnated.

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Old 04-29-2009, 16:56   #13
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And as far as useful - do you think any soldier today would follow a commander who thought himself impregnated by an elephant?

What about General B....n? Did you watch the 60 minutes episode a few years ago when he displayed a picture of Mogadishu taken during the battle and swore that a dark unidentifiable object in it was the Devil?

I've spent time in Mogadishu and didn't see any sign of Satan.

Last edited by mojaveman; 04-30-2009 at 11:05.
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