Sunday, May 3, 2009

End the University as We Know It?

Mark Taylor's recent essay in the New York Times raises a dizzying and sometimes ditzy (abolish  tenure as well as specialized dissertations???) set of issues. At one point he suggests turning disciplinary graduate and undergraduate programs into interdisciplinary groups:

The division-of-labor model of separate departments is obsolete and must be replaced with a curriculum structured like a web or complex adaptive network.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.

Just a few weeks ago, I attended a meeting of 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.

It would be far more effective to bring together people working on questions of religion, politics, history, economics, anthropology, sociology, literature, art, religion and philosophy to engage in comparative analysis of common problems. As the curriculum is restructured, fields of inquiry and methods of investigation will be transformed.

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.

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.

A Water program would bring together people in the humanities, arts, social and natural sciences with representatives from professional schools like medicine, law, business, engineering, social work, theology and architecture. Through the intersection of multiple perspectives and approaches, new theoretical insights will develop and unexpected practical solutions will emerge.

So far so good. Project-driven collaborative work makes good sense from the undergraduate classroom to the interdisciplinary evaluations that go on each morning in the local hospital. We named our Integrated Studies journal "Intersections" with precisely this in mind: multiple perspectives and approaches converge to create unexpected solutions.

What Mr. Taylor forgets is that perspectives and approaches come from disciplinary training. For his Water project, as he notes, he'll need trained hydrologists, legal experts, political scientists, and so on. Where will these people come from if the Department of Earth Studies and the law school have been abolished?

In our Program in Integrated Studies, we struggle with this conundrum every day. As our senior theses demonstrate again and again (at least the best of them), coming at a single problem from the perspectives of two different disciplines proves very fruitful. But our worst theses also prove that coming at a single problem without good tools learned in disparate disciplines is an exercise in futility.


michael morrow said...

This is a great topic for intense discussion. Mr. Taylor seems to think the answer to improving the poor grades of our business centered educational system is to throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water.

Separated departments not only provide strength and integrity in the form of cohesive interactivity of like-minded people. Separate departments provide an organized way to measure progress and organize validity of ideas and research. Not only that, separate departments provides a safe place to come on those dark days of frustration when the world of one's individual interests seems barren and mind parching dry.

I agree that, like so much of our day-to-day existence, division-of-labor business philosophy is the super-structure (attempting to) holding society together. But I dont think that a big mosh pit of anything, including some of the most brilliant minds around, is the most productive way to distill new and innovative ideas from society's young and/or more experienced individuals. Society has spent centuries working to find a means for cultivating and extracting productive ways to discover "a" purpose for everyday, good ole' living. Structure is a vital element of every surviving section of nature, also known as society.

I have learned after many years of free-for-all living that structure is vital in order for individuals to climb step-by-step whatever ladder lifts personal ideas about religion, health, profession, family life, etc.above one's inherited level of too-long-lived ignorance.

Some form of business savvy and organization is always a major player in any successful venture into exploring edgy, or not, people/society building exercise. I think the biggest stumbling block in maximizing educational, and many other societal means of life-enhancing cultural interactivity, is that making "money" is too often the major intention when business-for-business' sake dominates any structured endeavor. Absolutely, money, trade of energy-for-energy in some form is an important factor. But as for education, education-for-educaton's sake of those actively engaged in the process must be the most important factor of the endeavor; not making money for book sellers and other business minded people.

I think Mr. Taylor's response to the our present "division-of-labor" educational model demonstrates the confusion too many educators embrace. The problem lays with those in administration who could not be further removed from education in their packed ivory tower meetings tabled with rich finger foods.

Oh yes, I do believe Mr. Taylor has nailed the current central problem with our educational system. But the problem is not that people are isolated within their own, individual areas of expertise. The division-of-labor wall is not between departments. The division-of-labor wall exists between superficial business-minded dollar-sign crunchers in the beautifully decorated offices and boardrooms on the hill and the intensely motivated, well educated thinkers manning classrooms full of people who are torn between getting an education and finding a job to re-pay book peddlers and administrative talking heads whose business is education.
Oh how I do love this journey into personal education

deutschlehrer said...

Greetings from Berlin. I have to agree with you. Even though there is room for change and growth, there is a reason the ivory tower has stood as long as it has, and I am not inclined to believe it needs a complete overhaul.--just some tweeking.

(check out the new (finally) posts over at my sight

deutschlehrer said...

I just read Michael's post, which leads me to clarify my own. For me the ivory tower has always been the "motivated well-educated thinkers manning the classrooms" not the administrators who are often out of touch with those classrooms. As for the gulf that Michael describes between the two, it seems that finding a way to bring administrators back down into the trenches might go a long way to bridging that gulf.

michael morrow said...

As a non-traditional, 62 year returning student, I agree there are individual professors living an ivory tower reality. But, granted I can only speak from my outside looking in view of inter-departmental politics, I do not see departments experiencing the "division-of-labor"issue Mr. Taylor is so concerned about. What I see is, as you have mentioned, is administrators whose main concern seems to be about running a business. I dont think students and the vitality of education enters the equation much beyond the financial/profit-loss level.

Scott Abbott said...

Hey Scott:

Response to your post on End the University as we know it.

I agree with key parts of Mark Taylor's essay.

IMHO Interdisciplinary programs are the future of the university.
Traditional departmental structures have become hidebound and the newest
and often most exciting fields are developing outside of the traditional
departments. In my university the potential to create a PHD program in
Chemistry was nil, instead they went with an interdisciplinary program
in nanoscale science. Or take a look at Optoelectronic programs
nationwide combining physics and engineering. Those interdisciplinary
programs are often more nimble in funding and scientific output
responding to emerging research areas, than the traditional departmental
based programs.

The social sciences and humanities are not behind in creating cross
disciplinary research areas and are being successful at grants when
traditional departments have not been as aggressive.

I agree that tenure is not necessary. Historically it's done a lousy
job of protecting radically outspoken critics from within the academy.
Why not have renewable 5 or 7 year contracts? It would keep faculty
productive and not encourage what I've seen too often‑‑faculty who
stopped making significant contributions and were just marking time.
Maybe, just maybe, a competitive market based on multiyear contracts and
agreed upon standards for review would make faculty salaries more, not
less, competitive as well. A couple of Universities I've worked at had
5 year contracts for research faculty. And many of that faculty had 30
year careers at the same institution under those contracts.