Reinventing academia, but for whom?

Columbia University campus
Columbia University campus

The New York Times published an interesting opinion piece saying its time for major changes in academia. Dr. Mark Taylor of Columbia University’s Religion Department says tenure must be abolished, replaced with 7 year renewable contracts. He wants a problem based curriculum structured by themes like “water”, “information”, and “energy”. He claims his fractured department is typical of academia. There’s no overlap, rather intense niche specialization.

Dr. Taylor’s principal lament is that some of the “best students” are studying irrelevant Medieval literature. Is this not what we expect from the Humanities? I was there once. My recollection is that when you’re not delving into the Canon, you’re deconstructing comic books, or reinventing Rimbaud as Jim Morisson’s muse. This is to be expected in the Humanities.

The sciences are problem-based by definition. Social relevance is rewarded. This is reflected by the grant making process and “requests for proposals (RFPs)” that motivate the natural sciences economy. Science journals are not obscure, as Dr Taylor claims for his journals of religion. It could be argued that Science and Nature drive media coverage of the sciences, hence public awareness.

Most of Dr. Taylor’s suggestions for reinventing academia seem fundamentally sound. A theme-based curriculum is particularly exciting. I believe the implementation would create a dynamic learning environment. However, the problems that concern him seem typical of the Liberal Arts. So, the question is: would academic restructuring make the Humanities more relevant?

What these people need is a chemistry class. LOL. Just kidding. I love the liberal arts. Wish I had more in high school.

Op-Ed Contributor
End the University as We Know It
Published: April 27, 2009

If higher education is to thrive, colleges and universities, like Wall Street and Detroit, must be rigorously regulated and completely restructured.

5 Replies to “Reinventing academia, but for whom?”

  1. I don’t think this is limited to the humanities. Permit me some Devil’s advocacy:

    1) general interest – While folk read Science and Nature, I ask you, how many folk out there read Oikos or Oecologia or MEPS? How many of those articles are of immediate relevancy?

    2) Jobs – how many of us will be able to get academic jobs? The promise of “mass retirements” have been heard since time immemorial. I look at my field, and some of its founders have _only just_ retired in the last 5 years. And many of those jobs are not being replaced. The market is way too saturated, and very few of us are trained for extra-academic jobs. And our training is not generally geared towards how our skills can be used outside of the ivory tower.

    3) Departments – applied questions do not require a single discipline. While IGERT programs and the like make us cross boundaries, they are rare, and are usually run by scientists, anyway. Heck, I don’t even KNOW who in other departments could use my expertise. Nor do I, honestly, know if other folk are working on parallel questions to my own in other groups. I look, but this is not always clear when you don’t know much about other related disciplines.

    So, the Devil would say that yes, this article hits quite close to home. Is it time for us to rethink things as well? Or are fine as we are?

  2. God forbid that Religion students should be doing something horrible like studying Medieval literature where all those yucky heresies were introduced.

    “Unfortunately this mass-production university model has led to separation where there ought to be collaboration and to ever-increasing specialization” (from the article)

    Ever increasing specialization or mass production? seems to me you can’t have it both ways.

    Here’s my take on it: when we get away from specialization, we end up talking about HOW to do something rather than WHY to do something. We end up with trained monkeys instead of thinking individuals. Ideas don’t change that way.

    “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”

    So why are all the jobs in academia? Seems to me that especially in science there should be more private sector or government jobs. Why aren’t more people looking at water quality? Energy alternatives? Genetic studies to better our fishing industry? Horticulture research? It isn’t like we don’t need this stuff.

    Unfortunately, when it comes to education PERIOD there are too few openings. If we’re going to recreate the education system to match with the current job environment, rather than taking Biology and Calculus, we’d be taking Burgers 101 and Hair Styling Basics.

    I’m not sure if we need to revamp education to come into line with society, or reconstruct society to be more functional through education.

  3. With all due respect to Professor Taylor, the criticism and proposed solutions are heavily biased (and easily noticeable) towards a “religious professional.” While I’m sure philosophical and religious perspectives greatly affect modern issues, it is difficult for me to accept a regulated standard for their input. Situations like these make me appreciate the often-mocked “Flying Spaghetti Monster” analogy. Does a religion’s simple popularity deserve automatic recognition, regardless of validity?

    It surely doesn’t surprise me that a religious professor is criticizing the practicality of the higher education system. I’m curious to see how the Biotechnology, Environmental Engineering and Law departments respond to a Religion department’s attack on their preparation. Of course, there is a need for philosophy and ethics in all of society. However, without pursuing Law, Political Science, or Social Work degrees, a lack of practicality should be accepted.

    When analyzing the years of religious conflict -most still being fought today- I find pleasure in excluding water quality issues to water quality experts…or (as The Onion so appropriately mocked) we’ll finally be agreeing on how to spend potential relief funds: a memorial.

    I agree…make his students take organic chemistry and genetics. Maybe they’ll understand why environmental engineers and analytical chemists find work and generally lack student loan debt.

  4. “how many folk out there read Oikos or Oecologia or MEPS?”

    Their readership is low compared to mainstream media like Science and Nature, but search engines and online media outlets like are doing more to increase the profile and relevance of articles in those journals. I shudder to think of religion’s equivalent to ScienceDaily.

  5. The biggest argument for tenure has always been that it grants the holder unlimited freedom to research as they choose and speak their mind. Now, that doesn’t mean you’re getting competitive research dollars if you decide your muse is, say non-cmmercially harvested invertebrate larval genetics or the popes of the 1500s, but tenure is a hold over from the days of learned men, given time to be idle and think. Or even learned women, back in Mendel’s day, where the abbeys were less concerned about segregating the sexes.

    So this argument interests me from a profssional school perspective — i.e. shouldn’t MBAs and laywers be trained by people who have practiced those jobs — but I think it’s the wrong metric for tenure more broadly. Does having tenured professors encourage greater dialogue and innovative opinions because of the job security?

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