Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Changing the Idea of the University

Amid all the breaking news today regarding the Swine flu, there was an interesting op-ed piece in The New York Times.

Mark Taylor, chair of the religion department at Columbia writes that the current model of the American university is as outdated as anything coming out of General Motors, Ford, or Chrysler these days. He advocates changing the entire system, and his argument has merit.

Taylor bemoans the fact that many courses at the university are taught by graduate students who are hired as cheap labor, often being paid “as little as $5000 a course—with no benefits.” This is less expensive than hiring a full time professor and giving her tenure.

Universities are producing doctoral candidates with little hope of finding a permanent position. Most will be doomed to pick up classes here and there at a number of colleges and schools in order to make ends meet.

“If American higher education is to thrive in the 21st century,” Taylor writes, “colleges and universities, like Wall Street and Detroit, must be rigorously regulated and completely restructured.”

He advocates replacing the isolated departments and curricula with one “structured like a web or complex adaptive network. Responsible teaching and scholarship must become cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural.”

I find that many of my most successful lessons over the years have been ones where I integrate several disciplines into literature and writing. Students must make connections among current events, literature, art and culture. Therefore, I stress the interconnectedness of their studies throughout my curriculum. I want them to make these connections and continually discuss them in my class notes and lecture/discussions.

Taylor believes that stressing the inter-disciplinary approach will bring students into true creative and analytical thinking about real world problems. “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.”

He thinks that university curricula should not be organized by departments, but that schools should “create problem-focused programs” with a shelf life. These new kinds of departments could be modified or discontinued after reaching conclusions. They would evolve naturally. “It is possible to imagine a broad range of topics around which such zones of inquiry could be organized,” Taylor says. Some of these zones would include “Mind, Body, Law, Information, Networks, Language, Space, Time, Media, Money, Life, and Water.”

The one area I disagree with Taylor is in the writing of papers and dissertations. He wants to transform the traditional dissertation into other formats that may not include writing at all. He asks students to “develop analytic treatments in formats from hypertext and Web sites to films and video games.” We live in an age where students are urged to read less and less. Newspapers and traditional publishing models are mutating. I recognize this fact, but the idea of the university embodies wide reading. Writing is a primary method of communication. Maybe the traditional dissertation “with more footnotes than text” is a thing of the past, but we should continue to have students write and read in depth. I would think such an inter-connected curriculum as Taylor proposes would demand such reading and writing from students.

Finally, Taylor supports the need to impose mandatory retirement and the canceling of tenure. He believes tenure, although enacted to protect teachers and allow them academic freedom, has become a shield to protect teachers’ jobs and allow them to be “impervious to change.” Taylor writes that “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.”

Years ago, I attended a workshop where middle school teachers took some of the same approaches Taylor advocates in their classrooms. We observed these teachers and students in action for a week. The faculty planned lessons by themes or ideas with each department contributing some aspect of the selected theme. The process worked very well and led to a richer experience for the students.

If education is to move forward into the twenty-first century, we must examine and revise our models and methodologies. We cannot retreat into theories and education school methods that do not address real life problems and experiences. Our future depends on continual evaluation and striving to improve how children and adults learn.