Wednesday, April 29, 2009

How to Reform Graduate Education (or not).

Via Half Sigma, an op-ed in the NYT on the problems with graduate education.

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). . . . [A]s 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.

So far, so good. But Mark C. Taylor, the chairman of the religion department at Columbia, goes on to offer solutions that range from trite to dangerous.

1. Restructure the curriculum, beginning with graduate programs and proceeding as quickly as possible to undergraduate programs. The division-of-labor model of separate departments is obsolete and must be replaced with a curriculum structured like a web or complex adaptive network. Responsible teaching and scholarship must become cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural.

Just a few weeks ago, I attended a meeting of political scientists who had gathered to discuss why international relations theory had never considered the role of religion in society. Given the state of the world today, this is a significant oversight. 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.

Recommending an interdisciplinary approach to problems is not a bad idea, but it is hardly new; in fact, I'm pretty sure my own graduate school makes widespread use of interdisciplinary "research centers". But I'm less sure it's appropriate for undergraduates. More on this later.

2. Abolish permanent departments, even for undergraduate education, and create problem-focused programs. . . . Consider, for example, a Water program. In the coming decades, water will become a more pressing problem than oil, and the quantity, quality and distribution of water will pose significant scientific, technological and ecological difficulties as well as serious political and economic challenges. These vexing practical problems cannot be adequately addressed without also considering important philosophical, religious and ethical issues. After all, beliefs shape practices as much as practices shape beliefs. A Water program would bring together people in the humanities, arts, social and natural sciences with representatives from professional schools like medicine, law, business, engineering, social work, theology and architecture.

Here is see two problems. First, there is the matter of Professor Taylor's assertion that water supplies will be a significant issue in "the coming decades." Now, I'm not a water guy, but then neither is Taylor, so I'm not sure what makes his prediction especially informed. And in general, predictions of impending resource scarcity have a very poor track record of being, you know, accurate. So . . . what if he's wrong? Sure, graduate students are supposed to specialize in something, and it might as well be water supplies. But undergraduates are supposed to obtain skills applicable to a broad discipline rather that a narrow problem. Taylor is asking them to specialize from the get-go on the prediction that the demand for water people will increase in the future. This strikes me as a very bad bet for an undergraduate to make.

My second objection is . . . theology? Don't get me wrong: it should be obvious from my blog that I think theological issues are important. But I try, as I'm pretty sure I should, to keep theology bracketed from science. It all comes back to the fact/value distinction. And the looming water shortage is first and foremost a technical problem with policy implications. It is not clear to me what we accomplish by involving, say, social workers and theologians in its solution. Sure, the social works and theologians get to say, "Look at me! I'm relevant to the real world!" But what would they do other than become enforcers of political correctness. Issues involving stem-cell harvesting involved far more glaring ethical problems, and I would be surprised to find that Columbia's theologians had provided much in the way of push-back.

3. Increase collaboration among institutions.

Taylor's one good idea. It should start with making credits more easily transferable.

4. Transform the traditional dissertation. For many years, I have taught undergraduate courses in which students do not write traditional papers but develop analytic treatments in formats from hypertext and Web sites to films and video games.

So one of the solutions to the problem of too many graduate students than their fields will support is . . . web pages and video games? Words fail me.

5. Expand the range of professional options for graduate students. Most graduate students will never hold the kind of job for which they are being trained. It is, therefore, necessary to help them prepare for work in fields other than higher education. The exposure to new approaches and different cultures and the consideration of real-life issues will prepare students for jobs at businesses and nonprofit organizations. Moreover, the knowledge and skills they will cultivate in the new universities will enable them to adapt to a constantly changing world.

This sounds like the age-old liberal-arts conceit: because its students have learned, not a marketable skill, but how to think, they are thus qualified to jump into any position. It hardly needs to be pointed out that this self-promoting line hasn't persuaded corporate America in at least a generation. As for non-profits, I can't really say, but it is not clear to me that non-profits are a growth industry. Those latched to the federal teat certainly are, but those that rely on private money are hardly positioned to make room for a spate of new liberal arts grads, no matter how much those grads have "been exposed to new approaches and different cultures and the consideration of real-life issues, etc." In any case, I will humbly submit that what America needs right now is a greater portion of its population working in non-productive sectors of the economy.

6. Impose mandatory retirement and abolish tenure. Initially intended to protect academic freedom, tenure has resulted in institutions with little turnover and professors impervious to change. After all, once tenure has been granted, there is no leverage to encourage a professor to continue to develop professionally or to require him or her to assume responsibilities like administration and student advising.

Oh yes, tenure. It is a measure of the left's perception of its own political invincibility that they are now treating academic freedom as some sort of medievel relic. I suspect that this proposal would have been greeted with much hostility 25 years ago, or even four years ago, but now the prospect of abolishing tenure invites relish at the opportunity of punishing, say, Kevin McDonald.

The concept of tenure is problematic on a number of levels, certainly, but then direct public support to educational institutions is also problematic. Ideally, the problems of university governance would be corrected by the market: the "leverage to encourage a professor to continue to develop professionally" would be that no students would pay to attend his classes. But higher education has become sclerotic. There is no meaningful competition: the Harvards, Yales, and Standfords of 100 years ago are the Harvards, Yales and Standfords of today, and poor performance is almost never punished with failure and bankruptcy. Nothing Professor Taylor proposes is going to change that.


Anonymous said...

I agree with the basic thrust of your criticisms, accept for this point:

"And the looming water shortage is first and foremost a technical problem with policy implications."

If you're not a "water guy", how can you be so sure? And by definition policy implications are political. If it were all that easy to convince people that "technical problems" are outside the arena of "values", then we wouldn't really need to have politics at all. But we do, and as result "social workers" and "theologians" and even scientists, may represent interest groups, for example, interest groups that lobby against the construction of hydroelectric dams in particular regions, perhaps because they may create water supply issues.

And another point: the push-back against stem-cell research is coming from, not specifically, theologians attempting to enforce another type of political correctness: "the dignity of life".

Φ said...

Anon: Your first point is well taken, and I didn't mean to imply that engineers and bureaucrats were competent to make policy, especially water allocation policy, in a vacuum. Certainly all interests should be represented in the decision-making process. I'm rather trying to say that the scientists should be allowed to "do the math", i.e. determine what kind of solutions are technically possible, before we deal with the political issues.

As to your second point about the dignity of life, the class of ethicists and theologians represented by Mark Taylor have singularly failed to offer any resistance to a whole range of policies affecting said dignity, for reasons that aren't too hard to discern. Now, on the other hand, if Φ got to pick the theologians . . . . But then we already know where these fault lines lie. If this kind of "applied theology" winds up looking like politics by another name, why bother?

Thanks for visiting.