Mark C. Taylor, chairman of the Department of Religion at Columbia, hits the nail on the head describing the contradictions lying at the heart of university teaching today.
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).
Widespread hiring freezes and layoffs have brought these problems into sharp relief now. But our graduate system has been in crisis for decades, and the seeds of this crisis go as far back as the formation of modern universities. Kant, in his 1798 work â€œThe Conflict of the Faculties,â€ wrote that universities should â€œhandle the entire content of learning by mass production, so to speak, by a division of labor, so that for every branch of the sciences there would be a public teacher or professor appointed as its trustee.â€
Unfortunately this mass-production university model has led to separation where there ought to be collaboration and to ever-increasing specialization. In my own religion department, for example, we have 10 faculty members, working in eight subfields, with little overlap. And as departments fragment, research and publication become more and more about less and less. Each academic becomes the trustee not of a branch of the sciences, but of limited knowledge that all too often is irrelevant for genuinely important problems. A colleague recently boasted to me that his best student was doing his dissertation on how the medieval theologian Duns Scotus used citations.
The emphasis on narrow scholarship also encourages an educational system that has become a process of cloning. Faculty members cultivate those students whose futures they envision as identical to their own pasts, even though their tenures will stand in the way of these students having futures as full professors.
The dirty secret of higher education is that without underpaid graduate students to help in laboratories and with teaching, universities couldnâ€™t conduct research or even instruct their growing undergraduate populations. Thatâ€™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 â€” with no benefits â€” than it is to hire full-time professors.
In other words, young people enroll in graduate programs, work hard for subsistence pay and assume huge debt burdens, all because of the illusory promise of faculty appointments. But their economical presence, coupled with the intransigence of tenure, ensures that there will always be too many candidates for too few openings.
His proposed solutions, I’m afraid, are, on the other hand, mostly utterly and completely daft. There is no possibility that interdisciplary relevance can be achieved by abolishing footnotes and departments and assembling groups of diverse scholars to tackle topics like “Mind, Body, Law, Information, Networks, Language, Space, Time, Media, Money, Life and Water.” It would be kind of fun though to take a few Structuralists, a Straussian Poli Sci professor, and a few Cultural Studies specialists, hand them a bucket and tell them to go study Water.