Thursday, October 14, 2010

How to Pump a Bad Idea

into a Book: Mark Taylor's

Crisis on Campus

From a sad/funny review of the latest fad book in higher ed:

Does This Man Deserve Tenure?

David Bell

[Princeton history professsor and former Dean of Faculty in College of Arts and Sciences at Johns Hopkins]

Crisis on Campus: A Bold Plan for Reforming Our Colleges and Universities
by Mark C. Taylor, Knopf, 256 pp., $23

The syndrome has become all too common. A provocative op-ed piece appears in a major newspaper (for preference, The New York Times). Its logic is fragile and its evidence is thin, but the writing is crisp and the examples are pungent, and the assault on sacred cows arouses a storm of discussion (much of it sharply critical, but no matter). It goes viral. And almost immediately, publishers comes calling. “This should be a book...”

But far from reinforcing the original logic and evidence, the new accretions of text only strain them further, while smothering the original provocations under thick layers of padded anecdote, pop sociology and oracular pronouncement. Call the syndrome Friedmanitis, after a prominent early victim, the New York Times columnist Tom Friedman.      

Mark C. Taylor’s unbelievably misguided book provides an almost textbook example. 

 In April, 2009, he published an incendiary New York Times op-ed entitled “End the University as We Know It,” which denounced graduate education as the “Detroit of higher learning,” demanded the abolition of tenure, and called for the replacement of traditional academic departments by flexible, short-lived “problem-focused programs.” Widely criticized (by me, too, in this magazine), the piece stayed at the top of the Times’s “most e-mailed” list for a cyber-eternity of four days. Enter Alfred A. Knopf.

Just sixteen months later, the book is here, and the signs of the syndrome are all too evident. Taylor, the chair of the Department of Religion at Columbia, has enveloped his original argument in an overblown, cliché-ridden theoretical framework about the on-going shift from a “world of walls and grids” to a “world of networks.” The globe, Taylor declares, with a certain lack of originality, has become “more interconnected.” “Global financial capitalism” is replacing “industrial and consumer capitalism.” And “as cross-cultural communication grows, it transforms old assumptions and ideas.”

[Hmm... did Morrill Hall get a preview copy of this book...]

In their elaborate new packaging the arguments remain incendiary, but they are no more convincing than when Taylor first presented them in the Times. Incendiary does not mean true. And, ironically, there is no better demonstration that this is so than the book itself. Taylor is the great avatar of interdisciplinarity, of drawing eclectically on half a dozen different fields to illuminate a single problem such as global water supplies or diabetes.

Taylor has tried to draw on so much, however, that he has ended up mastering very little of it. In fact, a common—and not unfounded—complaint about the humanities today is that too much of it has become an indistinguishable mass of “cultural studies.” Where are Taylor’s walls?

 Things do not get much better when Taylor turns to earlier history. He traces the origins of the modern university entirely to Kant at the end of the eighteenth century, mistakenly seeing earlier universities as concerned with little but theology. (Where does he think Adam Smith worked?)

Most egregiously—and surprisingly, for someone with a considerable background in philosophy—Taylor fails to distinguish adequately between forms of communication and forms of knowledge.   The new technologies have supplemented conventional forms of learning and argumentation in fascinating ways, but they cannot replace them.

Near the end of his book, he positively swoons: “No longer constrained by words in black-and-white, ordered in straight lines and right angles, you become free to reconfigure words with any color, image or sound in designed texts that can be layered and even set in motion.” Yes, we can do this, but for what purpose? Just for the sake of doing it? It is worth noting that despite the supposed superiority of new media to the boring old written word, Taylor himself has chosen the most traditional of forms—“words in black and white, ordered in straight lines and right angles”—to put across his own ideas. 

It might seem from Taylor's hostility to academic authority that his politics run to standard left-wing anti-elitism, but this is far from the case. To begin with, he has no truck with the scholarly progeny of 1960’s-era identity politics, stridently attacking gender studies and ethnic studies programs as “politically motivated” and “divisive.” Far from decrying corporate influence on the academy, he would like to see more of it (he particularly likes the idea of universities partnering with for-profit companies to sell on-line courses), and he sees research for the sake of pure knowledge (which he weirdly traces back, again, to Kant) as an idea whose time has passed. In fact, in the history of education, Taylor resembles no one so much as the British utilitarians of the nineteenth century, with their emphasis on profitable knowledge and their frequent contempt for the ivory tower. Not surprisingly, Taylor often conflates economic profitability and intellectual profitability, as in his blanket pronouncement that “the scholarly monograph has no future.” As an economic venture, perhaps not. But as an intellectual one? How does he know?

Taylor’s hostility to universities in their current form of course leaves him with little concern for the future of the professoriate. He wants to slash graduate programs, assuming blithely that their current size is due solely to the need for cheap labor to teach discussion sections, although many universities want to maintain a critical mass of students for very good intellectual reasons as well.

He wants to eliminate whole departments—“religion, history, anthropology, ethnography, philosophy and psychology,” perhaps?—with students taking online courses at other universities where necessary, without regard for what might be lost to the world of learning by firing senior scholars. And he is entirely hostile to academic tenure. He dismisses—in a few sentences—the idea that it might protect academic freedom, noting that he has never personally seen it under threat, and that in forty years of teaching he has never met a professor “who was more willing to express his or her views after tenure than before.”    

[here's one...]  

On the second of these points, I can only conclude that Taylor and I know a very different set of academics. As to the first of them, well, Taylor’s personal experience came at Williams College and Columbia University. Perhaps he should think for a moment of what it might be like to teach at a large public university in a state where Tea Party members increasingly dominate the legislature, denouncing “radical professors” and calling for the further slashing of university budgets. Would he feel entirely free, at such an institution, to start a research project on, say, homoeroticism in American poetry? The evolution of dinosaurs? The history of racial discrimination in American evangelical churches? Corruption in the state senate? Lifetime tenure, for all its problems, still provides a very real safeguard for the advancement of unpopular ideas.     

Taylor is obviously right to say that university systems today, in this country and abroad, face an unprecedented crisis. Costs continue to spiral upwards even as revenue shrinks. Successive cohorts of graduate students move from the Ph.D. to the unemployment lines, or to the wilderness of adjuncting. While magnificent advances in knowledge continue to take place, many tenured professors produce little of real scholarly value. But it is one thing to say that universities have problems. It is another to argue, as Taylor is effectively arguing, that the universities are the problem—that the system that allegedly began with Kant (in fact it began much earlier) has reached the end of its intellectual and social usefulness, and needs to be swept away in favor of something radically new and untested, in accordance with technologies that are still evolving at breakneck speed. That is a reckless, wrong-headed idea, and it has no place in serious discussions of higher education’s future, even if it puts a buzz on an op-ed page.

Delicious skewering of a fathead... 


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