Monday, April 27, 2009

End Universities as We Know Them or Just End Universities?

Columbia Professor of Religion Mark C. Taylor offers a fairly bizarre series of recommendations for reforming universities in today's New York Times. He starts by making the well-known point that many graduate programs are larger than they should be because graduate student teaching saves universities money. This is true, but unrelated to his "reforms", which include abolishing traditional departments and tenure.

An example:
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.
It makes perfect sense to have indisciplinary centers of research or even graduate programs. But how is someone supposed to invest the time and energy to gain specialized knowledge in any given field if they have to worry that their entire program might be abolished in seven years!?

1 comment:

Kenny said...

I was pretty shocked when I read that article myself. I think it's rather telling that his only mentions of science are in a quote from Kant (which he rightly takes in the broader sense of "body of knowledge") and in a discussion of who might be involved in a program on "Water". I don't see how sustained, productive scientific research could be possible in the sort of regime that he imagines, with groups shifting constantly every few years. It's true that much scientific research is already focused around temporary interdisciplinary collaborations, but it seems that this is only possible because of the existence of permanent, stable, disciplinary homes for most researchers.

And he gives no reason to believe that the humanities are any different. He may argue that it's useless to know the citation practices of Duns Scotus, but if he wants to advocate a wholesale reshaping of the academic system, and do it well, it seems that he's going to need to consult researchers (or at least their research output) who know about the history of academic practices, and how they shaped the development of knowledge throughout history. And thus even the example he cites as a paradigm of uselessness is directly relevant to his own project. So I don't see why his complaints make any more sense for the humanities than for the sciences.