Et tu Mark Taylor?

Some days all I have time for is “the most emailed” section of the NY Times. Today, #1 is an op-ed by Mark C. Taylor, distinguished professor and chair of Religion at Columbia, formerly of Williams college, and author of many fascinating books ranging from deeply penetrating to faddishly impenetrable. I personally like some of Taylor’s work, but this op-ed sucks. It proposes to abolish the university as we know it, and it reads like a plank out of the dying republican party’s tattered playbook. I’m no defender of the university, and certainly not of the current publishing and reward structure, but this op ed won’t help me. It’s more like dynamite stashed somewhere for the adolescent delight of administrators who think that blowing up the institutions we’ve spent centuries building is the best way to build new ones.

Among its unfortunately pedantic suggestions are: get rid of tenure (okay, but do you really want academics chasing after bonuses like Wall Street does?), abolish departments (sounds good, let’s abolish what little pedagogy we have as well), use distance education instead of teaching people directly (oh, come on, have we not been through this before?), and give grad students training for other careers besides research and teaching (fries with that?).

Look, I really want to agree with Taylor. I just took a very good job in exactly the kind of entity Taylor is suggesting we develop to replace departments and transform academia (The Center for Society and Genetics at UCLA), and I think it is the bees’ knees. I absolutely agree that we should have more such centers, focused on timely problems, bringing experts together from multiple disciplines. But we can’t do it over night: that “from multiple disciplines” part? It kind of needs to continue for a while for these centers to make sense. What’s more, the only way the center I’m part of could have recruited me or anyone else it employs was by constituting itself as a department, with that same stability and autonomy that current departments have. And frankly, if such entities are successful, they might create new disciplines, or successors to whatever a discipline is.

Howver, the stuff Taylor is talking is pure ressentiment: administrators across the country love it when stooges like Taylor say this kind of shit, because it gives them the right and high horse upon which to justify the destruction of academic job security, autonomous decision making by faculty and the definition of what counts as a timely or important problem by the people who actually have to do the work. And I suspect I hardly need to tell anyone that it isn’t places like UCLA or Columbia that will suffer even if his suggestions are taken seriously, but those underfunded state schools looking for any excuse to expand the number of adjuncts, diminish the autonomy of faculty, exploit graduate students even further (by claiming that they need to “expand their skills”), and so on.

To be honest, I agree that there are a lot of places to cut in a university. But a “dissertation on how the medieval theologian Duns Scotus used citations” is not it. I’ll bet that dissertation is fascinating, and I’ll also bet that the person writing it has a hundred other marketable skills as well. The luxury of being able to focus on such a thing for five years of one’s life is a treasure we absolutely should not sacrifice; especially not to the economistic drive to justify every cent begrudgingly spent on research libraries or language education without giving a second thought to the half million a year it spends on its football coach or its battery of consultants who fail to improve the communications or IT infrastructure of the university.

Seriously though, the problem we face is not that we are blindly clinging to some outdated model of medieval education–the problem we face is that we are desperately trying to avoid engulfing the university in the flames of change. Yes we need a new model of research. Yes we need graduate students with flexible skills and more career options. Yes we need problem-focused research… but we don’t need any of these things if it means further accelerating the cycle of hype and promise that researchers are already trapped in, or making it even more impossible to spend longer than 6 months on a hard problem, or demanding that we fill out even more forms and click more buttons in order to account for and justify our worth from day to day. Universities should serve their function: protecting those who devote their lives to thinking from have to think about every instant of their lives. If we sacrifice that , we really don’t need universities anymore.


Christopher M. Kelty is a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has a joint appointment in the Institute for Society and Genetics, the department of Information Studies and the Department of Anthropology. His research focuses on the cultural significance of information technology, especially in science and engineering. He is the author most recently of Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software (Duke University Press, 2008), as well as numerous articles on open source and free software, including its impact on education, nanotechnology, the life sciences, and issues of peer review and research process in the sciences and in the humanities.

7 thoughts on “Et tu Mark Taylor?

  1. Somewhere hidden in all this is the issue that it’s wrong for someone with a doctorate to be working anywhere but an academic department in which they were trained; if that’s going to be the case in any large number, we need to change the focus of the department. In Asian states, like Taiwan, S. Korea, and China, it’s widely accepted that a PhD holder can be found in business, government or especially politics. I’m not advocating ‘Asian values’ as a path to follow here, but in some ways Mark Taylor’s message is very conservative.

  2. From what you are saying, it sounds like Taylor wants to decentre the university, spacially, pedagogically, and epistemologically. A noble endeavour, but I’ve heard all this before (years and years before). But it’s not likely to happen. Universities are prestige environments. I mean, really, next to the Academy Awards, what other event is more based on spectacle than Graduation Ceremonies. Just recently, I took a math exam (oxymoron: math for fun) in the Engineering Department. Wow, is all I can say. My home doesn’t look as good as this place–sure I’d take a knapsack and live there. University presidents and their boards spend money on such departments as they lend them prestige, like CEO’s buy jets and 19th century paintings. If you want to see the university of tomorrow, consider first the photo op of today. As a caveat, I am seening PHd.s being trained beyond university employment (for a cynical POV, they might become your benefactors when you want a new whatever wing built).

  3. Taylor has several good points: our current academic system exploits graduate students and TAs and then makes it difficult for them to find work after they get their degree — for many (as Bousquet as written) the degree is the _end_ of their teaching career. And Taylor also provides a critique of narrow specialization which I think most of us can agree with — the purpose of a broad-based liberal arts education is to help cultivate whole people who can develop specialized skills without becoming ‘specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart’ and so forth. Other than that, however, the essay has little to recommend it.

    First, Taylor seems to think that much of what he wants done can be accomplished through technology — teleconferencing and the Internet will somehow magically lower costs and facilitate collaboration. There is truth to some of this — scholarly communication can be facilitated and enabled by digital communication — while some of it (distance education) seems to be yet another iteration of a pipe dream. In either case the idea that infrastructure is cheap and implementation is painless simply indicates more enthusiasm than experience with these things (something I think we’ve seen in Taylor’s writings).

    Second, Taylor seems to mistake the goal of an intellectual community for a concrete set of institutional arrangements which he believes will produce it. Who _doesn’t_ want rich, interdisciplinary research? But is that best achieved by liquidating disciplines? Taylor seems to think that people will only talk about ‘water’ or ‘language’ if there are no departments of ‘chemistry’ or ‘linguistics’. But this is not true — the thing that makes interdisciplinary collaboration fruitful is the fact that it is a collaboration _between disciplines_.

    In many ways Taylor is circling around an issue that has concerned American academics since our disciplinary system congealed in the first decades of this century: we want specialization but we fear isolation. There are many institutional solutions to this problem: area centers, interdisciplinary workshops, and so forth. Taylor’s solution to this problem — to somehow abolish the institutions that produce trained political scientists, anthropologists, and biologists so that biologists, anthropologists, and political scientists can collaborate — simply doesn’t make sense, as I read it.

    Third, and more generally, Taylor seems not have any sense of what education, scholarship, or research actually is. In a country where we struggle to find enough math and science majors to create the next generation of scientists to keep us moving forward, he wants to fight specialization? In a country hamstrung after 9/11 by a lack of Uzbeki and Pashtun specialists Taylor feels erudition is worthless? Does he think Americans are going to learn to read and write upcoming world languages like, oh, I don’t know, _Chinese_, without specialized, intense, disciplined training? A professor of religion who thinks you can pick up Hebrew and Greek (or Sanskrit and Sumero-Akkadian) without becoming a ‘clone’ of the mentor (often one of a handful in the world) which guides the next generation of specialists through these erudite topics? Does he think that counterpoint and a bel canto voice come effortlessly? That 3D virtual worlds and video games are less complicated to make than cathedrals? How seriously can we take a man who simultaneously argues that advanced technological forms will solve higher ed’s current impasse while simultaneously arguing against specialization? I doubt this guy knows perl, or has seen what happens when the people who do are forced to share a room with guys who think semantic whitespace is a good idea.

    In reading this essay it is difficult for me to imagine what Taylor thinks education is really about, except that I honestly believe that he has been the beneficiary of a world created by people who are passionate about the extremely specialized things that they study: from his email to his inoculations he — and every one else — has benefited from rigorous, specialized work. In a world where we eat meat everyday, push buttons to turn lights on and off, and can look up personal name of the third patriarch of Chan with a simple search of Wikipedia, the work of specialists and experts is easily overlooked. But of all people, an academic should be the last person to forget that someone, somewhere, has had the training required to allow us to live in blithe ignorance of the infrastructure of our lives.

    In his op-ed piece Taylor writes that “graduate education is the Detroit of higher learning.” He’s right: the university today is bloated, full of fat-cat bureaucrats who pay themselves huge salaries for producing a product that no one wants to buy while spouting platitudes about ‘commitment to excellence’. The solution, however, is not to fire the engineers who actually know how to make cars. Rather management must start listening to its specialists. Education is complicated. Professors know how to do it. Is the system perfect? Of course not. Is it time to end ‘the university as we know it’? Of course not. Fixing Detroit, like fixing our university, is going to require people who can roll up their sleeves and get to work, not more MBAs who can’t tell a carburetor from a caliper.

  4. Just yesterday, someone sent along this link to Mark Taylor’s op-ed and the Marc Bousquet response. As an Anthropology PhD, of course I have my opinion on that, as any other PhD likely does. And I appreciated reading the insights from Chris and others on this site.

    Now, I’m usually of the mind that I’ll just keep my long-winded opinions to myself, but I do have some insights from my work as a brand strategist, having rather recently worked on a big project for a pretty well-respected private University. What grabbed my attention, I guess, was when Chris wrote in his post: “Universities should serve their function: protecting those who devote their lives to thinking from have to think about every instant of their lives.” Now, I’m sure that Chris and everyone else would agree that the university has many, many functions, in addition to the one that he listed above. So, this is no criticism of Chris for not providing us with a thorough analysis. But what I found in my work is that administrators, deans and presidents of universities are keenly aware and focused on the problem of one other function, namely: transforming children into educated, responsible and intelligent young adults. When it comes down to it, going to college, while certainly more and more expected nowadays for a certain demographic of our society, is a life-altering event. Without it, most people will have more trouble finding a job, will tend to make much less money and will comparatively have a lower quality of life (the last point is debatable and relative, of course).

    So, if I could, let me raise a problem that not a lot of academics are talking about, but strangely impacts this discussion. If you were a high schooler, and your parents didn’t know much about college, how would you go about finding a university? Or, for that matter, consider a college grad looking for an MBA or law program: What makes a university stick out and get noticed? There are a few big name schools out there, like Harvard. But for most kids, there are sports and there are rankings from the US News & World Report. Once you get past the top tier of universities out there, it becomes rather confusing to pick out a school. A lot of kids look at geography. Taylor’s recommendations, while not something I necessarily agree with, could certainly put a school on the map as unique. It would be counter-productive, however, to model every university in the same way however. The only other major distinguishing factors among universities today seems to be religious-affiliations and the historically black colleges and universities.

    Well, basically two points then, and I’m done. First, while there is certainly variation in the kinds of departments and inter-disciplinary centers offered at universities today, I’m somewhat surprised that some universities aren’t trying to offer education in a more radically different way (outside of the lower-quality schools like the University of Phoenix). There are glimmers of this, and I would guess that the trend would continue even further. After all, the “university” is not a monolithic structure that has to all change in lockstep. Second, I don’t understand why my discussion with other PhDs almost always frame themselves in terms of the professors and the academic production side of things. While Taylor admittedly started that fight by dramatizing the need to get rid of tenure, etc. I can tell you that the people who run a university aren’t necessarily putting these problems on the top of their list to solve. For better or worse, they are much more focused on undergraduate education and, depending on the school, MBA programs, law schools and scientific/medical research. Not to say that it’s the right thing to do, of course, but as we all probably know from our respective ethnographic research, the most intelligent and rational solutions don’t necessarily win out. So, hopefully I can provide a small degree of perspective.

  5. @michael: sexcellent questions, as usual.
    three points

    1. ASU. Of all the state universities, it seems to be the one most hell-bent on re-inventing every aspect of research and teaching… or at least that’s what they would like us to think. win or suck?

    2. there is undergraduate education and then there is undergraduate education. From a brand perspective, your question makes perfect sense: how to differentiate between schools? This is what is behind the audit culture reforms that are swamping us–a whole slew of new “learning outcomes” and “accountability” forms and procedures that are constantly being dumped on faculty and non-faculty teachers with increasing insistence. As someone I talked with today put it: “this country is not known for the strength of its high school educational system, it is known for the strength of its university system. Why would we want to make university education look more like high school education?” So, on the other hand, why try to brand undergraduate education as distinctive? Why not just assume that a university education is a university education is a university education? I tend to agree with an analysis made popular by Malcolm Gladwell, which is that if you can get into a school, that is a clear indicator of your ability to do well later in life, regardless of where you choose to go. If you can get into Harvard, but go to Cal State Northridge, so what? you’ve already proven your worth. This has two implications: first, that what your CV says really reflects only the reputation of the school you went to, not your ability and that whatever you do in college has very little effect on your ability or employability there after. So why worry about anything other than admissions, in a branding sense? If you can move a university up in the rankings of “hardest to get into” then why bother worrying about what happens afterward?

    3. Taylor’s analysis is bogus because it confuses the problem of contemporary research on hard problems with the equally hard problem of contemporary bildung. These are two different things: we don’t know what makes for a well-rounded, liberal democratic citizen anymore, and that is a problem. But whatever the answer is has little to do with the organization of disciplines or the role of tenure in the incentive structure of research and teaching (except maybe as a research problem in education schools). You are right: universities have many functions, and administrators profit by relying on the confusion of research and teaching missions.

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