Restructuring Universities and the Two Cultures
A bit over a month ago, Mark C. Taylor–chair of the Religion Department at Columbia, and one of the most prominent philosophers of religion in the US– published an Op-Ed for the New York Times titled ‘The End Of The University As We Know It’. The essay created a buzz on the blogosphere (unfortunately almost only there) and produced different reactions, from complete agreement to hostile opposition. The core of the essay has been summarized well by Dan Coleman at Open Culture Blog:
Taylor proposes six ideas: 1) Getting rid of free-standing academic departments and making academic work cross-disciplinary, 2) developing multi-disciplinary programs that focus on “real” problems, 3) increasing collaboration among institutions, partly with the help of the internet, so that universities don’t have to develop redundant strengths, 4) moving away from traditional, citation-packed dissertations and instead having grad students communicate their research in more contemporary digital formats, 5) helping grad students plan for a life beyond scholarship itself, and 6) imposing mandatory retirement and abolishing tenure, essentially in order to keep faculty responsive and productive.
I completely agree with Taylor’s positions and propositions, but I want to acknowledge some limitations. There are a couple of interesting posts by Michael Mitzenmacher, Professor of Computer Science at Harvard Engineering School (here) and by his colleague Matt Welsh also Associate Professor of Computer Science at Harvard (here) which take an interesting poinf of critique. Summarizing their positions (hoping not to misinterpret them) the main point fundamentally is that Taylor’s argument might apply to a certain part of the University curricula (i.e. the Humanities) but his observations simply do not apply to scientific studies, which happily go on producing graduate students with an high market value. Mitzenmacher concludes:
I know these anti-University diatribes come out from time to time, but it’s sad to see such a poorly argued one. While it’s beneficial for universities to be self-reflecting, in this case the article just made we wish for some clearer, more rational, dare I say more SCIENTIFICALLY thought out criticism.
And Welsh, on similar lines
Even for students dead set on a faculty position, many can get a job straight out of graduate school — postdocs are still the exception rather than the rule. This situation could change, but I’m not sure it’s time to end universities as we know them. Religion departments are maybe another matter.
Now, I think that this is worthy of comments. Especially so since we have just passed the 50th anniversary of C.P.Snow’s famous lecture on the ‘Two Cultures’ (for a discussion see the recent public panel discussion at the Royal Society). I must admit my own position: I am, on the one hand, a grad student in a Study of Religions department (even though my work is more philosophy oriented, but the point is still valid) and, on the other, a part-time ‘undergraduate’ (inverted commas because its not exactly an UG degree) in a Physics department. It is hard to say where my loyalties lie, also because I think that to polarize the discussion like that is precisely the pitfall to avoid.
I agree with the two CScientists above, when they observe that Taylor’s exposition comes from the experience gathered in a career in one specific kind of department, especially when it comes to the restructuring of the ‘dissertation’ and to the future career prospects of grad students. BUT, I do not agree with the tone they use in these observations, as spite and sarcasm do not help the very cross-disciplinarity that Taylor proposes and that they agree it is an important goal (if, according to them, already achieved by scientific departments).
In my own personal experience, for what it is worth, I had to face the probably unconscious but almost ubiquitous skeptical reaction of physicists when they learn I am a grad student in a SoR department, as they seem to perceive you as a B-rated researcher (which becomes C-rated when I carefully introduce that I work also on postmodern critiques of science…). Honestly I resent that, just as I resent the tone of Welsh and Mitzenmacher: when I am in my ‘physics’ frame of mind, I do my homework and I respect and admire their work, and I would like to be reciprocated. For once, I think that it should be realized that to work towards a PhD in philosophy requires just as much intellectual effort as one in physics.
On the other hand, it is completely true that (many, not all–I am generalizing here) humanities scholars should get out of their offices (or at least turn on the PC) and start to break down some old and quaint academic ‘traditions’ that pollute our departments. First of all, they should learn to use technology and the Internet. I have never made a scientific survey of it, but as a general impression it seems to me that the great majority of blogs run by academics are written by ‘scientitsts’ of a variety of fields, and that there is a very very small quantity of , say, historians or anthropologists. Not to mention the quantity and quality of podcasts of courses to be found online or on YouTube (speaking of which, I cant refrain from advising [thanks Sean Carroll] the new lecture series on General Relativity by Leonard Susskind availlable on YouTube through Stanford University)
Taylor’s proposals are good ones, and if they have already been implemented in other fields and if his exposition is limited, then scholars from these fields should give constructive comments and advices, not trench themselves behind the ‘we are SCIENTISTS, of course we know better than you smoke-sellers humanities people’ attitude.
There could be much more to say but I don’t want to overflood this one post. Next time in fact I would like to go deeper into the issue of how can universities (and, mainly, the public) benefit from the aforementioned online offer of academic podcasts.