Marc C. Taylor, chairman of the religion department at Columbia, wants to “end the university as we know it.” But he wants to do it wrong: “The division-of-labor model of separate departments is obsolete and must be replaced with a curriculum structured like a web or complex adaptive network,” meaning “abolish permanent departments, even for undergraduate education, and create problem-focused programs;” “increase collaboration among institutions,” especially “through teleconferencing and the Internet;” “transform the traditional dissertation,” meaning “develop analytic treatments in formats from hypertext and Web sites to films and video games;” help graduate students “prepare students for jobs at businesses and nonprofit organizations,” to “enable them to adapt to a constantly changing world;” and, finally, “impose mandatory retirement and abolish tenure.”
In every case, the recommended course of action is a response to a real pathology diagnosed correctly. There is no doubt but that the university is in distress. Beyond money trouble , it has become ‘siloed’, and that this is in keeping with a rather tedious insistence that every field of knowledge is utterly self-sufficient and self-foundational. It is also true that universities could stand to gain a lot by increasing educational interchange and collaboration; meeting one’s colleagues only at annual conferences is hard on real intellectual collegiality (and the liver too). What Taylor says about dissertations is a crying shame but a master fact of graduate life, which you can triumph against only at risk of appearing intellectually unserious (“You dare to write for a . . . larger audience?! “). There are, strictly by the market, too many graduate students, and all of us know it, and we accept living with this dread largely because we the only greater dread in our lives is working at a business in a constantly changing world. And, yes, tenure is a kooky system that sticks famous eccentrics in positions of publicity and authority from which they are impossible to dislodge short of Nazi party membership.
Nonetheless: Taylor’s schema would replace all this in pursuit of a single, inappropriate goal: solving problems together. Yes, I know, it’s good to solve problems together. Our bobo-led consciences get anxious when we see Problems and don’t see ourselves acting to Solve Them Together. They get even more anxious when we feel anxious to begin with yet can’t seem to organize our anxiety into an identifiable Problem we can Then Solve Together. Well. Sarcasm aside, there are some fields of inquiry and practice which are appropriate to solving problems together and some that are not. And setting shared problem solving atop the pyramid of restructed academics will not save the university from its pathologies so much as finish off the last vestiges of the one thing which political and social theorists, along with philosophers and (gasp) theologians, might recognize as the whole point of highest education: the slow, deep, patient, disciplined, costly, and assuredly ‘impractical’ transmission of authoritative knowledge* from teacher to student. For all the tunnel vision that Straussianism sometimes induces, the Straussians often really do grasp this, and their outsized influence on the world is, I think, proof of just how few other authoritative transmission chains persist to this day. Small wonder they appear in caricature as either embattled or all-powerful, marginal or ubiquitously occult. Ironically, I might add, Straussianism became the cartoon menace of some people’s imaginations the minute that anyone with any history in the transmission chain started trying to Solve Problems Together. Forget about departments, if you like, but not at the expense of schools . The purpose of graduate education as I have learned it is to study under a set of persons, some of whom are living but most of whom inevitably are dead. This whole frame of thinking, and the unique ‘product’ that it generates, is to be half-consciously dismissed should we follow Taylor’s lead. Baby, meet bathwater.
* Note incidentally that this is a vision of impracticality a lot different from Stanley Fish’s, for whom useless fatuousness is to be celebrated and protected. We are badly in danger of thinking that the ‘impractical’ is meaningless and the only argument left is over whether to celebrate or condemn it as such.