Scott Sommers’ Taiwan Blog

The End of the University As We Know It?

Posted in Uncategorized by Scott Sommers on April 28, 2009

Today’s New York Times features an op-ed from Dr. Mark Taylor, the chairman of the Religion department at Columbia University. Dr. Taylor raises the fascinating point that,

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).

I call this fascinating not because of its novelty. It’s something we all know and maybe even laugh about over beers. The importance of Dr. Taylor’s remark is his willingness to raise the point in public. We work in one of the biggest Ponzi schemes around that is only viable because we have managed to convince others that being a graduate student isn’t ‘real’ work.

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.

Dr. Taylor sees the problem as the highly specialized diversification of “…limited knowledge that all too often is irrelevant for genuinely important problems.” He suggests a number of solutions, some of which I think are intriguing, but it is his number 2 suggestion that makes me feel all too familiar

2. 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.

But hasn’t this been going on for years? These departments used to be called interdisciplinary and had to draw on faculty from all over the university to teach their courses. You know…all those departments like Women’s Studies, Asian Studies, Peace and Conflict Studies. In fact, if you go back far enough, this was the case for TESOL, Business, and even Education. If you go back even further than that, you could even say that Psychology was interdisciplinary. The only ‘real’ departments are what we now call the Humanities and Sciences (and a few other things). Almost everything else that we study in universities was invented as knowledge in another department sometime in the last century. And once these other departments became consolidated enough, they started teaching their own classes, granting their own PhDs, and setting this as the standard for whom they would hire as faculty.

Fair enough, Dr. Taylor calls for a transformation of the traditional dissertation, and expansion of the,

5. …range of professional options for graduate students. Most graduate students will never hold the kind of job for which they are being trained. It is, therefore, necessary to help them prepare for work in fields other than higher education. The exposure to new approaches and different cultures and the consideration of real-life issues will prepare students for jobs at businesses and nonprofit organizations. Moreover, the knowledge and skills they will cultivate in the new universities will enable them to adapt to a constantly changing world.

But my guess is that he’s not calling for universities to be turned into giant vocational schools. It sure sounds like it, but I doubt it. My guess is he sees this as a call to ‘take back the university’ for the thinking departments from the business and policy studies that are increasingly dominating our university landscape. Dr. Taylor calls for an integration of these policy and business-based programs with the more reflective traditional disciplines of the university community.

…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.

The point of his story seems not to be that job training is the wrong task for the university, but that applied fields need more input from those working closer to human needs. It’s not that different from the discourse that’s been evolving for decades in business education. You might even say that what Dr. Taylor’s trying to do is extend the existing discourse into applied fields where academic considerations have traditionally been downplayed by preparation for the workforce.

But my problem with all this is that the idea of theme-based studies has been tried and it’s failed. Calls for theme-based studies inevitably fail. You can reform degree requirements as much as you want and they still end up being discussions of the topics you can write a paper on or do an assignment for. If it becomes much else, then it’s a trade school.

And in fact, I have no disagreement that the current university system creates more research-trained students than it can consume itself. Other than that, the university works really well. All the “…limited knowledge that all too often is irrelevant for genuinely important problems” decried by Dr. Taylor is really made up of highly valuable skills. The example he gives, specifically chosen for its verbal impression of irrelevance, is how

A colleague recently boasted to me that his best student was doing his dissertation on how the medieval theologian Duns Scotus used citations.

My response is equally as stereotypical. While this sounds totally removed from anything practical, I am certain this student has analytic skills that are extremely deep and valued by the community outside the university. As I pointed out in this post, even the US military can find a use for “irrelevant” academic Anthropologists.

The problem isn’t the usefulness of these techniques, nor even the employablity of these skills outside the university. The problem is that no one trained in these skills really wants to apply them to anything but academic problems. I have personal experience with this. Before teaching English, I worked for a marketing research firm in Canada. While all this was long ago, I retain one especially vivid memory. My supervisor, who holds a PhD in Political Science from the University of Toronto, and I were hunched over a table examining cross tabs of a survey of attitudes toward Canadian hi-tech companies. I remember her commenting on the wide fluctuation in perceptions of excellence we had obtained across the spectrum of surveyed companies. Her response to this? “Isn’t this interesting!” No, it isn’t and it wasn’t then, even though it was really one of the more interesting problems our firm worked on. And I suspect even my boss thought so, since she now works in academia.

The core methods that Dr. Taylor wants used in departments that study water or life evolved in particular fields of Anthropology or Geography or Engineering. As they have moved outside their discipline of origin into interdisciplinary fields, they have changed to serve the purpose of these new fields.  But this hasn’t been for the better. The theoretical concepts and methods borrowed from other disciplines have been twisted so badly they are barely recognizable. In the fields I know best, Education and TESOL, I would go so far as to say that, as academic disciplines, they are better defined as collections of poorly applied methods and theories developed in other more rigorous fields.

It may be that Dr. Taylor is trying to be pragmatic.

In the arts and humanities, where looming cutbacks will be most devastating, there is no longer a market for books modeled on the medieval dissertation, with more footnotes than text. As financial pressures on university presses continue to mount, publication of dissertations, and with it scholarly certification, is almost impossible.

If it true that the current financial crises will devastate the Arts & Humanities, Dr. Taylor may be suggesting a way out of this – some jobs in watered-down departments may be better than nothing at all. Although I doubt he thinks these departments will be watered-down.

Are we really under attack? Arts & Humanities aren’t going anywhere. They are far too important in the machine that creates students for business and policy studies. Besides, this is hardly the real problem. While it’s true that specialization of departments comes with a cost, the biggest problem is that we keep producing all those PhDs whose expectation is they will do research at a university in their field of study. The jobs may be hard to get, but they’re just too good to pass up. And for students with any chance to get one, it’s easy to forget about looking for a job analyzing attitudes toward hi-tech companies. There’s nothing wrong with the knowledge they acquired during their study. What’s wrong is that almost all of them expect to do work on those interesting problems they studied as graduate students and not stare at cross tabs for marketing agencies.

Maybe Dr. Taylor wants us all doing the kind of problems that appear would benefit people’s lives instead of making money for shareholders. But we’ve tried all that. There are faculties of Education everywhere and it’s hard for me to see what they do at the graduate level other than mangle up perfectly good theories of Sociology and Psychology.

As a graduate student, my landlord once asked me what I was studying. When I replied that it was Sociology, he responded, “Not many jobs in that.” I like to think he was wrong, but only because I didn’t have my mind set on working in a Canadian university or college.


2 Responses

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  1. […] Scott Sommers says that the problem isn’t that grad students are too specialized to have marketable skills — it’s that most of the jobs where they can apply their skills are less interesting than academia: […]

  2. Clint said, on June 26, 2009 at 4:41 am

    “Maybe Dr. Taylor wants us all doing the kind of problems that appear would benefit people’s lives instead of making money for shareholders.”

    I interpreted Taylor’s essay in the opposite way. He’s taking the university, which should theoretically benefit the public (whether it’s profitable or not), and trying to turn it into a business.

    His prescriptions are IMF/World Bank-style prescriptions. Reducing department security, increasing efficiency, attacking professorial job security.

    I think that’s a dangerous approach to follow when reforming higher education. I wrote a reaction to Taylor here:

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