Just about everything that is wrong with higher education today can be distilled down to the arcane eight-point type found at the bottom of the page. Which is to say that most of what takes place on college campuses these days is as old-fashioned and piddling as a washed up old footnote.
In these globalized times, history moves fast and, as the Columbia University religion professor Mark C. Taylor has been pointing out recently, university life has failed to keep up with the times, becoming increasingly irrelevant to undergraduates no longer interested in disciplines like the old standards such as History, Classics and Philosophy. Students are bored by lectures and are in the market for a less specialized, more flexible approach to learning, one that won’t have them slogging through the footnotes appended to some tired monograph (a word that can put you sleep) written by some pampered, tenured professor who is more interested in jetting off to some conference to burnish his reputation than in teaching students. In the world of higher education today, minutia is the order of the day. The phrase footnote to history has veered off the road to become footnote as history. As Professor Taylor writes in the New York Times: “A colleague recently boasted to me that his best student was doing his dissertation on how the medieval theologian Duns Scotus used citations.”1 What a bunch of schmoes!
We academics—and surely it is no coincidence that the word academic itself means not just a teacher or scholar but denotes in its adjectival form something of no practical relevance—need to reinvent the university by tearing down the walls of the ivory tower and acknowledging that in the twenty-first-century economic world we can scarcely afford an institution that does not bow down to market imperatives. As Taylor so nicely puts it: “Let’s make no mistake: higher education is a business.”2
The idea of graduate students running around writing doctoral dissertations as if they were living in the Middle Ages would be funny were it not for the fact that thousands of such students are today squandering their very best years, squirreled away in the archives writing treatises about as likely to be read as documents with titles such as Erring: A Postmodern A/theology3 or Altarity4 or “nO nOt nO” (admittedly works written by Professor Taylor himself in an earlier, perhaps more medieval time in his life).5 Almost inevitably, Taylor concludes, the monograph is a “financial failure” and the dissertation process itself a “rite of initiation [that] produces little of lasting value.”6
Channeling Milton Friedman, Taylor saves his powder for tenure, which he describes as nothing but a giant “liquidity issue.”7 There is no arguing with him here. Tenure is a retrograde concept that has no place in the post-Fordist world centered on flexibility in the workplace. “To be able to adapt to a rapidly changing world,” Taylor helpfully notes, “it is essential for higher educational institutions to maintain flexible workforces.”8 Lucky for us that about two-thirds of the people teaching at colleges and universities today are contingent workers, as Taylor duly notes, meaning that they have no job security whatsoever and have to answer to the iron laws of supply and demand just like the rest of the working population.9
Meanwhile, the idea that tenure protects academic freedom is, as Taylor points out, simply nonsense. You would think rich people were still running around, as they were in 1901, prevailing on university presidents to fire professors because they did not like their views on economic policy.10 That couldn’t possibly happen again, which is why Taylor concludes that tenure, plain and simple, needs to be ended. Some might think it heartless of me, but I rather applaud Taylor’s courage for telling it like it is: “The reality is that faculty members are in no better position to resist such an initiative [the abolition of tenure] than the autoworkers’ union is to oppose changes in Detroit.”11
Sweeping away tenure, dissertations and monographs (some of which have just a single footnote the length of all the endnotes—nicely streamlined into just three pages—found in Professor Taylor’s new book12) would, of course, help break down the walls between the disciplines and leave more room for creativity and innovative courses. One such course that Taylor co-taught back in his days at Williams College is titled What is Life? Not surprisingly, teaching the course, according to Taylor, “takes a serious commitment, much hard work and lots of time to reach a level of competence” commensurate with the task of educating students on what is, quite obviously, the ultimate question.13
This kind of creative approach to teaching is just what the doctor ordered and Taylor’s recommendation that academics embrace it comes none too soon given the current economic meltdown. After all, the world is still recovering from a financial crisis that the discipline of economics did absolutely nothing to help us understand when it wasn’t actively promoting precisely the commodified forms that created the crisis in the first place. If only all these economics majors would branch out. “Imagine how different our world might be,” writes Taylor, “if the people making financial decisions that impact all of our lives had studied not merely mathematical models but also history, literature, sociology, political science, anthropology and, yes, even religion.”14 Imagine if Richard Fuld at Lehman or Angelo Mozilo at Countrywide or Phil Gramm or Alan Greenspan had taken a more wide-ranging approach in college or, even better, if they had had the benefit of Professor Taylor’s guidance and learned about the importance of private enterprise to higher education. Who knew?
- Mark C. Taylor, “End the University as We Know It,” New York Times, April 26, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/27/opinion/27taylor.html (accessed January 1, 2011). ↩
- Mark C. Taylor, Crisis on Campus: A Bold Plan for Reforming Our Colleges and Universities (New York: Knopf, 2010), 168. ↩
- Mark C. Taylor, Erring: A Postmodern A/Theology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984). ↩
- Mark C. Taylor, Altarity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987). ↩
- Mark C. Taylor, “nO nOt nO,” in Derrida and Negative Theology, ed. Howard Coward and Toby Foshay (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992), 167–198. ↩
- Taylor, Crisis on Campus, 195. ↩
- Ibid., 207. ↩
- Ibid., 209. ↩
- Ibid., 43. Sadly, Professor Taylor may actually understate the success of the casualization of the workforce. The president of the Association of University Professors Cary Nelson asserts that there are almost one million contingent faulty out of a total of 1.4 million faculty teaching in U.S. colleges and universities. See Cary Nelson, No University Is an Island: Saving Academic Freedom (New York: New York University Press, 2010), 81. ↩
- Some conspiracy-minded people have floated the idea that in 1901 Mrs. Leland Stanford objected to the economist Edward Ross’s ideas and prevailed on the president to fire him from his post at the eponymous university. See, e.g., Joan Wallach Scott, “The Critical State of Shared Governance,” Academe Online, http://www.aaup.org/AAUP/pubsres/academe/2002/JA/Feat/Scot.htm (accessed January 4, 2011). ↩
- Taylor, Crisis on Campus, 214. ↩
- Ibid., 227–230. ↩
- Ibid., 150. ↩
- Ibid., 152. ↩