Monday, April 27, 2009


In an insightful and suggestive article yesterday, Columbia professor of religion Mark Taylor discusses the structure of higher education in the United States, and its future. Despite it's rather anxiety-inducing title, "The End of the University As We Know It," the article is not as doom-saying as all that. Rather, he carefully isolates the major recurring problems of academia, which those of us involved in it know all too well, and considers solutions to these problems.

Among his major complaints, and rightfully so, is the debillitating specialization and inability to foster innovation that the current system necessitates:
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. ... The emphasis on narrow scholarship also encourages an educational system that has become a process of cloning.
All other problems aside, the siloing of academia has made it less and less relevant and by extension made the sometimes very important work that happens in both practical and theoretical fields within university communities arcane and inaccessible. This problem connects, in my mind, to that of jargon, which Edward Said wrote about brilliantly in Representations of the Intellectual. When the work that academics do cannot be understood as relating to the world outside the ivory tower, it becomes relegated to navel-gazing and self-indulgent diatribe. In just the same way, when departments and the faculty and students within them turn away from the connections implicit in their work they become diminishingly important. It is these connections that justifies more obviously the humanities, but the sciences as well.

This is to say, also, that all fields of study are equally rich with connections. That poetry (as I firmly believe) is as relevant as chemistry for addressing the world's multiplying and complex problems.
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.
I think that there have been surges in this direction in academia. Comparative Literature departments, to some degree, address the necessity for looking outside single national literary traditions to form complete pictures. New Historicism in literary criticism requires the situating of a text and its author in a socio-historical, political and economic context for the fullest understanding. I'm drawing examples from my own discipline, but I'm sure there are many others.

It's no surprise to me that the author of this article is a professor of religion. One of the monumental and formative moments of my undergraduate academic experience was a spirited discussion in a study of religion class (which became a second major for me, in part because of this) in which we examined the place of the study of religion in academia. Was it even possible to study religion without equal parts anthropology, history, economics, politics and literature? Was it reasonable to expect to be able to study any of these independant of the others? As a class, we came to the conclusion that it would make more sense to have a Cultural Studies field in which one could focus, like a wide-angle camera, on a particular aspect without excluding the others. Our professor agreed.

The problem is that these steps are too small. Even the collapse of autonomous and disconnected departments is not enough. It is also the problem of national in the place of international. Taylor addresses this through the increased use of technology and resources, allowing universities around the world to simultaneously share resources and faculty, but this leaves 2/3 of the world behind. In order for academia and scholarship to truly transform, it needs to break free of the elitism that is endemic in the institutions. The elitism isn't mearly in the absurd over-specialization, or in the equaliy pretentious use of jargon, but in the basic assumptions of what higher education can accomplish, and what its intent is in the world. A dissolution of boundaries between disciplines is a good first step in a larger examination of the role of the intellectual in public life.

Critics of these ideas say that it is the ability to specialize so minutely that allows great ideas to develop, and while I don't doubt that for some that's true, I think for the most part it rewards elitism and arcane scholarship. There must be not only room, but encouragement, for both. Critics of these ideas say that these kinds of changes would take away from the scholarship that is possbile, for who is making the decisions once professors aren't guarenteed a life-time position? God forbid it be the administrators! The answer, of course, is more innovation: boards - perhaps much like editorial boards, for example, that determine areas of inquiry and whether to discontinue unsuccesful focuses. There

I, unlike Taylor, have no solutions. His are radical, and will be rejected but shouldn't be. Even the suggestion of aboloshing tenure, though this made me flinch with aprehension. He's right, though, aboloshing tenure to be replaced with long-term contracts would allow for more innovation in universities, and make it possible for younger professors to find footing. There's a risk here that by aboloshing tenure universities would merely increase the exploitation of adjunct and graduate student teachers (another institutionalized problem addressed in the article), without creating opportunities and a system of rewards that would encourage the change Talyor is hoping for.

This is perhaps why change occurs so slowly in institutions as old as the university. The risks run high, and the people in power have a lot at stake. There are no shareholders to call for radical restructuring, only students whose futures are at the whim of the system they are a part of. There are too many people who have too much to gain by maintaining the status quo, and no one in the position to push for immediate and comprehensive change. It is a system dependant on evolution. But I don't find this discouraging.

I've already seen the inklings of this broadening of perspective in academia. Literary translation, perhaps the best example of looking outside the singluar specialized field, has begun to find a place in academia in the UK and the US. Interdisciplinary studies programs are popping up, still new, unfunded and untested, but there. The possibilites for real change are out there - but only if the existing power structures can evolve towards it.

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