At least according to the rec of Prof. Mark Taylor, formerly professor of “humanities” at Williams and now the head of the Columbia religion department.

His Op-Ed in the New York Times today is a classic for him.  It was posted in Speak Up a little while ago, but I also got it via email from a fellow former religion major and was coming here to post it.

There are few academics out there able to so seamlessly link the current budget crisis in higher education, the ethics of higher ed generally, accessible writing, and some quotes from Kant:

Widespread hiring freezes and layoffs have brought these problems into sharp relief now. But our graduate system has been in crisis for decades, and the seeds of this crisis go as far back as the formation of modern universities. Kant, in his 1798 work “The Conflict of the Faculties,” wrote that universities should “handle the entire content of learning by mass production, so to speak, by a division of labor, so that for every branch of the sciences there would be a public teacher or professor appointed as its trustee.”

Another decent quote:

Unfortunately this mass-production university model has led to separation where there ought to be collaboration and to ever-increasing specialization. In my own religion department, for example, we have 10 faculty members, working in eight subfields, with little overlap. And as 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. A colleague recently boasted to me that his best student was doing his dissertation on how the medieval theologian Duns Scotus used citations.

The emphasis on narrow scholarship also encourages an educational system that has become a process of cloning. Faculty members cultivate those students whose futures they envision as identical to their own pasts, even though their tenures will stand in the way of these students having futures as full professors.

The dirty secret of higher education is that without underpaid graduate students to help in laboratories and with teaching, universities couldn’t conduct research or even instruct their growing undergraduate populations. That’s one of the main reasons we still encourage people to enroll in doctoral programs. It is simply cheaper to provide graduate students with modest stipends and adjuncts with as little as $5,000 a course — with no benefits — than it is to hire full-time professors.

While my opinion of Mark Taylor could never be as high as his own opinion of himself, he is a really bright guy with a…unique perspective on education.  He was on the forefront of the idea of using technology for “distance learning” and analyzing how technology affects human interaction.  Of course all of that in addition to his general philosophy/religion theorizing and prolific book writing.

I know we have some folks in higher education who read/participate in EphBlog.  I’d be interested in your perspective from the inside…should graduate study be dramatically restructured?  What about the idea of eliminating departments as such?  What is a “liberal arts” type education at its heart and how best to achieve it?

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