28 April 2009

Re: Mark C. Taylor on "reforming higher education"

Mark C. Taylor, contrarian philosopher and chair of Columbia University's Department of Religion, caused a firestorm in the academic community with his op-ed, "End the University as We Know It," in yesterday's New York Times.  The op-ed remains at the top of the NYT's most-emailed list.

There are few better places to have a debate about the philosophy of education than the University of Chicago, where the Core Curriculum and the school's historical emphasis on liberal education and distaste for vocational education permeates everything.  On the U of C men's cross country email list, five current and former runners had weighed in on Taylor's piece by this morning.  My thoughts were these:

1. You can't wish away the disciplines. I would argue that you can familiarize yourself with several disciplines and do interdisciplinary work, but "interdisciplinary" means within and among the disciplines. Examining a problem or topic in the abstract before locating oneself in a discipline, or in several disciplines, could easily lead to amateurism and reinventing the wheel, and it would likely lead to missing or mistaking the assumptions upon which existing scholarship has been built.

Does it make sense to look at questions through as many disciplinary lenses as possible? Absolutely. And yet the critical advantage provided by writing within a discipline, and what an ad hoc interdisciplinary analysis of a topic risks missing, is clarity of assumptions. You always know the outlines of where a Chicago School economist or a realist in IR theory or a Frankfurt School critic is coming from, and that helps you understand the nuances and innovations of his or her argument. If you begin a research project with the idea that you are writing something above and beyond the disciplines, something entirely new, chances are good that 1. you are mistaken, 2. you will do work that has been done more thoroughly before, and 3. you will be forced to make arbitrary choices at every step.

2. Taylor bases his argument on economic grounds, not educational or philosophy of education grounds. And so he speaks of academic journals and University presses in terms of "demand" for their "products," as if they were inferior versions of Newsweek and Random House. If we are to do interdisciplinary work, then we must learn when and how to apply the conceptual lenses of each discipline appropriately. By choosing to give primacy to a view of American higher education as seen through the disciplinary lenses of economics, Taylor implicitly endorses the value choices or axioms that form the foundation of contemporary economic thinking and suggests that these should govern our thinking about higher education.

It is true that we can learn something new about higher education by looking at it through economic lenses, but I would suggest that the central purposes of higher education differ from the purposes of the market (efficiency, profit, increased "utility"/pleasure).

The twofold purpose of graduate programs is, first, to train scholars who can contribute, in whatever small way, to the sum of human knowledge, and second, to train these scholars to teach at the undergraduate level; if we judge that these are valuable and necessary functions in our society, as I believe we must, then we ought not to begin our critique of them with the question of what the consumer or the market "wants." I would also add that strong universities are at least partially public goods that add value to society and humanity at large, not just to the undergraduates they teach, and so it is a mistake to think of higher education as merely a collection of transactions between colleges and students.

3. If I am right in claiming that one of the central purposes of graduate education is to contribute to the sum of human knowledge - to train scholars, not just advanced students - then I'm afraid that Taylor's idea of substituting Powerpoint presentations and video games for dissertations misses the point, as does his suggestion that we introduce non-academic vocational training into graduate education.

--Ryan McCarl

(Mark Taylor's original op-ed is here.)