Monday, April 27, 2009

The End of the University?

The New York Times op-ed page is becoming rather apocalyptic. First we had David Brooks' pontificating on the "End of Philosophy;" now the NYT offers an op-ed from Mark C. Taylor on "The End of the University As We Know It." Any undergraduate contemplating graduate education shouldn't be surprised by Taylor's sobering take on the state of graduate education--unless your undergraduate professors have had their head in the sand. (My default stance is to generally discourage students from going to grad school.) As Taylor rightly notes,
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.
But Taylor's prescription for re-tooled graduate training also spills over into a prescribed reconfiguration of undergraduate education as well. His first agenda item for reform is to:
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 The division-of-labor model of separate departments is obsolete and must be replaced with a curriculum structured like a web or complex adaptive network.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.
I'm very sympathetic to trying to move beyond the department-as-fortress model which currently dominates higher education, despite all of our talk of interdisciplinarity. While we might have a veneer of cross-disciplinary collaboration, the department-as-fortress rears its ugly head whenever we start talking about curricular reform (say, revising the core curriculum of a college)--very quickly principled discussion of what constitutes a good education devolves into a matter of protecting faculty "lines" in "our" department. Thus Taylor recognizes that such a revision of the curriculum would also require his second prescription:
Abolish permanent departments, even for undergraduate education, and create problem-focused programs. These constantly evolving programs would have sunset clauses, and every seven years each one should be evaluated and either abolished, continued or significantly changed. It is possible to imagine a broad range of topics around which such zones of inquiry could be organized: Mind, Body, Law, Information, Networks, Language, Space, Time, Media, Money, Life and Water.

Consider, for example, a Water program. In the coming decades, water will become a more pressing problem than oil, and the quantity, quality and distribution of water will pose significant scientific, technological and ecological difficulties as well as serious political and economic challenges. These vexing practical problems cannot be adequately addressed without also considering important philosophical, religious and ethical issues. After all, beliefs shape practices as much as practices shape beliefs.
This all sounds well and good and provocative and intriguing and exciting (indeed, something like this is exactly what Derrida was trying to encourage at the College Internationale de Philosophie in Paris). However, when you start poking this idea just a bit, some questions emerge.

Let's say we have a cross-disciplinary faculty group that constitutes "the Water Program." We've brought these faculty together from a range of disciplines in order to tackle this "problem" from a number of different perspectives, yet collaboratively (rather than holed up in different corners of the university). So one scholar will be considering biological issues, another political issues, another aesthetic questions, another ethical and philosophical issues and so. Sounds fabulous. But where did these scholars receive their training in biology, political science, and philosophy? In the "Drought" program that existed seven years ago? Or the "Oil" program from 14 years ago? Or that ancient program in "Security" from 21 years ago? While Taylor's vision of collaboration is welcomed, it still remains parasitic: it needs and presumes some kind of rigorous disciplinary formation that will produce the scholars who can then bring such expertise to the "problem" at hand.

I'm very sympathetic to Taylor's re-imagining of the shape of the university, but I don't think abolishing (something like) disciplinary departments will solve the problem. We're going to have to get just a little more creative than that.