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Morty on Campus Unrest I

Former Williams President Morty Schapiro wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal in March on the “The New Face of Campus Unrest.” It is not good. Let’s spend a week dissecting it! Today is Day 1.

In 2001 I co-wrote an op-ed, “When Protests Proceed at Internet Speed,” arguing that the Internet would make it much more difficult to maintain civility on college campuses. Economists have a dismal prediction record, but that one was spot on. Seemingly every day brings a new crisis, a new set of issues that threatens to disrupt the lives of students, professors—and college presidents.

This paragraph illustrates the truth of Mark Taylor’s (in)famous quip about Morty — “Williams needs a wise man, not a wise guy.” Has “civility on college campuses” really decreased over the last few decades? Of course not!

First, consider the public spaces at places like Williams and Northwestern, the dining halls and dorms rooms. Does Morty (or anyone) provide any evidence that these locations are less civil today than they were 25 years ago? No. And that is because they are, if anything, more civil, more polite, more solicitous of the feelings of others, especially less powerful others. You are much less likely to hear casual slurs — e.g., “Don’t be such a fag.” — in public today than you were then. (Of course, the Williams of the 1980s was a very civil place, but Morty’s argument depends on it being more civil today.)

Second, consider the classrooms. Were Williams professors like, say, Robert Waite or Laszlo Versenyi, much more civil than current professors? No. They were certainly different. (Who can imagine a current Williams professor requiring his male students to take off their baseball caps for class, as Waite always did?) But, if anything, they were much more ready to make students uncomfortable in class than any current professor would be. Now, “making students uncomfortable” in class is not the same thing as being “uncivil,” but it is a sign of Morty’s parochialism that his complaints is unmoored from actual lived experience, both outside and inside the classroom.

Third, are students (and others) any more uncivil in their private thoughts and conversations than they were 25 years ago? Again, the answer is No. Students back then had lots of horrible things to say about Williams presidents like Chandler and Oakley, especially about topics like divestment from South Africa or affirmative action.

Given these facts, why would Morty — a smart and keen observer — believe that civility has decreased? Because he and his fellow presidents are no longer the only ones with the megaphone.

The major change between now and then is that, today, students/faculty/staff/alumni with complaints about Williams are better able to make those complaints heard by the broader College community, and the world. Morty’s real complaint is not about a general drop in civility but about the increased power of non-presidents to make their voices heard.

When students in 1985 were agitating for divestment from South Africa, their options were limited. Contact all the alumni? Impossible. Update their supporters who didn’t live in Williamstown? Very difficult.

Students today arguing for divestment from fossil fuel companies have much more power. They can easily reach alumni all over the world. They can coordinate with peers at other schools.

In 1980s, students could make life X difficult for John Chandler. Today, students can make life 10 times X difficult for Morty Schapiro. Students, and others, are not any less civil now than they were then. They are simply more powerful. And Morty doesn’t like it.

Entire op-ed is below the break for those without a WSJ subscription.
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Deserve Tenure?

From The New Republic:

The syndrome has become all too common. A provocative op-ed piece appears in a major newspaper (for preference, The New York Times). Its logic is fragile and its evidence is thin, but the writing is crisp and the examples are pungent, and the assault on sacred cows arouses a storm of discussion (much of it sharply critical, but no matter). It goes viral. And almost immediately, publishers comes calling. “This should be a book,” they coo, and the author, entranced by a bit of sudden fame (not to mention, perhaps, a decent advance), eagerly agrees. He or she sets to work, and soon enough the original 800 words expand to 50,000. But far from reinforcing the original logic and evidence, the new accretions of text only strain them further, while smothering the original provocations under thick layers of padded anecdote, pop sociology and oracular pronouncement. Call the syndrome Friedmanitis, after a prominent early victim, the New York Times columnist Tom Friedman.

Mark C. Taylor’s unbelievably misguided book provides an almost textbook example. In April, 2009, he published an incendiary New York Times op-ed entitled “End the University as We Know It,” which denounced graduate education as the “Detroit of higher learning,” demanded the abolition of tenure, and called for the replacement of traditional academic departments by flexible, short-lived “problem-focused programs.” Widely criticized (by me, too, in this magazine), the piece stayed at the top of the Times’s “most e-mailed” list for a cyber-eternity of four days. Enter Alfred A. Knopf.

Just sixteen months later, the book is here, and the signs of the syndrome are all too evident. Taylor, the chair of the Department of Religion at Columbia, has enveloped his original argument in an overblown, cliché-ridden theoretical framework about the on-going shift from a “world of walls and grids” to a “world of networks.”

Read the whole thing. I was attacking Mark Taylor more than 15 years ago, so this is nothing new for me.


Difficult Truths

Professor Mark C. Taylor opineth:

The difficult truth is that their education has not prepared them for the world they[‘re] facing.

Though many young people have become disillusioned with Wall Street and all it represents and would like to pursue alternative careers, they have neither the educational nor financial resources to do so. The situation is critical – colleges and universities must be reformed in ways that allow students to develop the knowledge and skills they need for creative and productive lives.

Sounds about right to me.  Anyone have an opinion?


The Perils of Being Mark Taylor

From former Williams professor Mark Taylor:

Several years ago I was teaching a course on the philosophical assumptions and cultural impact of massive multi-user online games at Williams College. The students in the course were very intelligent and obviously interested in the topic.

But as the semester progressed, I began to detect a problem with the class. The students were working hard and performing well but there was no energy in our discussions and no passion in the students. They were hesitant to express their ideas and often seemed to be going through the motions. I tried to encourage them to be more venturesome with tactics I had used successfully in the past but nothing worked.

Not to be too rude, but maybe it is you not them? Are you as interesting as you were 25 years ago? As energetic? Are you as able to connect with students now that you are in your 60s as you were in your 40s?

But, wait! This is Mark Taylor. It can’t be him . . .

One day I asked them what was or, perhaps better, was not going on. Why were they so cautious and where was their enthusiasm for learning? They seemed relieved to talk about it and their response surprised me. Since pre-kindergarten, they explained, they had been programmed to perform well so they could get to the next level. They had been taught the downside of risk and encouraged to play it safe. What mattered most was getting into a good elementary school, middle school and high school so that they would finally be admitted to a top college. Having succeeded beyond their parents’ wildest expectations, they did not know why they were in college and had no idea what to do after graduation.

I would love to hear from some students in that class . . .

Every sentence in the rest of Taylor’s essay is either wrong or trite. Thorough fisking available on request.


Chronicling Mark Taylor

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently ran a long feature on idiosyncratic former Williams professor Mark Taylor. Williams gets relatively scant (but warm) mention:

His pedagogical focus seems of a piece with the small and intimate environment of a New England institution like Williams College, where he taught until 2007 and was the sole professor unattached to any department (it is one small irony that he left the quads of Williams for the research-oriented campus of Columbia). And given his Williams background, with its small class sizes and predilection toward teaching, it isn’t difficult to imagine how nothing could be more an anathema to him than the stereotype of the professor as a claustral Casaubon oblivious to the needs of students.

The piece otherwise emphasizes his fascinating and circuitous scholarly biography and his idiosyncratic and provocative predilections.


Burke on Taylor

Swarthmore professor Tim Burke on Mark Taylor:

I do indeed like quite a lot of what Taylor has to say. Let me start with the part I dislike the most. I think he way oversells the degree to which some kind of online instruction can let universities share specialists. Frankly, this works against his first two proposals, in that it speaks to preserving a largely conventional understanding of specialization rather than rethinking what “collaboration” might mean in ways that are more native to online communication and media. Taylor has a long record of enthusiasm for online and distance education in forms that I look on skeptically. He made a presentation at Swarthmore some years ago on behalf of a company called Global Education Network, a company that seemed to me to be long on dot-com hucksterism in its pitch and short on real grounded value. What online collaboration can do is erode some of the apparatus that shields conventional forms of academic expertise from wider forms of skeptical review and inhibits the circulation of knowledge. Online collaboration is less about teaching and more about publication and conversation.

What I like most in Taylor’s proposal is his desire to rethink the administrative and intellectual infrastructure of the department. At a recent meeting on budget issues here, I was trying to push this kind of argument, but I think I got misunderstood as making a more conventional call for the outright elimination of some departments. The useful functions of departments, especially at small institutions, are easily distributed to larger administrative units or completely decentralized to individual faculty. Mostly they’re just barriers, both to teaching and to generative conversation.

Read the whole thing.


Insightful to Crackpot

The Transcript reports that:

For Mark C. Taylor, retiring from Williams College will not mean time for rest, relaxation and reflection, but instead the Cluett professor of humanities emeritus will continue working at another institution about four hours away.

“For the last few years I have been teaching down at Columbia (University), and finally I had to decide whether I would stay there or come back here. I decided to retire from Williams and finish my career at Columbia” he said Thursday.

Taylor became a visiting professor of religion and architecture at Columbia University in 2003, and has since become chairman of the religion department and co-director of the Institute for Religion, Culture and Public Life.

He said a situation arose at the university where a variety of circumstances presented an opportunity for change in which the way the graduation program is done in the religion department. He plans to be at the university to be a part of that change.

“The situation there is allowing me to put into practices many of the ideas I have developed and wrote about while I was here at Williams,” he said.

Those ideas include the integration of technology in a way that links classrooms and lessons between colleges and making education less specialized to a subject or topic.

He said the higher education system is unsustainable as it is now, and needs to be changed beginning at the graduate level.

True, but, as we have discussed, it is not clear that Mark Taylor is the solution. Best description of his recent New York Times op-ed?

It’s a frustrating piece, since it moves quickly from ‘insightful’ to ‘crackpot’ and back again.

Back to the Transcript:

“For me the teaching, research and writing have always gone together and reinforced each other that doesn’t happen as often in graduate programs,” he said.

He said the challenge academia is facing is how to create an education system that is intellectually responsible and economically viable.

Taylor retired from Williams College on June 7 after 36 years of teaching religion and philosophy among other courses including art, architecture, literature and literature theory.

“I’ve always liked teaching, and Williams has been a terrific place,” Taylor said. “I also, over the years, have done a lot of writing, and Williams was supportive and gave me the opportunity to do that.”

He said one thing he will miss about Williams College is its students.

“I’ve been fortunate over the years to have terrific students, which I have stayed in touch with,” he said. “I’ll miss the daily interaction I have with them.”

He said people often ask him why he has stayed at Williams so long.

“The answer I give is always true; the students and the mountains,” he said.

A nice line.

Taylor’s fellow Williams faculty members will note what he left out . . .

Taylor said he doesn’t plan to leave Williamstown, as he completes his teaching career at Columbia University in New York City.

“I would not have written what I have written if I had not been in this barn,” he said. “What you think is a function of where you are.”

A few years after Taylor and his wife, Dinny, moved to their house on Stone Hill in 1989, he converted a barn on their property into his study.

Taylor has written 25 books over the years, and is hoping to have three more completed by the end of the summer; a philosophical memoir, a book about art and a book about the ways higher education needs to change.

While Taylor has a doctorate in religion from Harvard University and a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Copenhagen, he has always wanted to teach.

“I don’t think there is anything better to do than work with young people at the most formative period of their lives. Nothing is more rewarding,” Taylor said.

Agreed. And that’s why I will be teaching again next Winter Study! Look for me in STAT 10: Applied Data Analysis. Taking my class will significantly increase your chances of getting a good internship or job.

Taylor’s father taught high school science, and his mother taught high school literature.

Besides teaching religion and philosophy, Taylor is a photographer and landscaper, and has had his artistic work displayed at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams.

Taylor said the humanities are always in peril because they’re the least practical, but if economists studied history and literature instead of algorithms, the financial crisis wouldn’t have happened.

“I think it’s very important for people to study religion, philosophy, literature, art and history. You can’t understand the world without them,” he said.

Classic Taylor stupidity. Almost all the people involved in the financial crisis had elite educations, with plenty of history and literature. Jimmy Lee ’75 majored in economics and art history at Williams.


SWPL Culture

Continuing our week of commentary on Mark Taylor’s op-ed, here is Half Sigma:

But the question is, if everyone knows that graduate degrees (excluding professional degrees) are such a bad deal, why do so many enroll?

Well, I guess the answer is that SWPL culture highly values liberal arts graduate degrees, and U.S. society encourages people to have an optimism bias (no one in America likes a pessimist), so if only 10% of graduates get a decent job, 100% of students anticipate that they are going to be in the top 10%.

There’s also the factor that many of these students have rich parents, so they don’t really care if they can’t find a job, their parents will carry them.

Maybe, the real mystery is how can the university faculty look themselves in the mirror each morning knowing how they are screwing over their students?

Indeed. What does Taylor tell students who are admitted to graduate school at Columbia? Does he encourage them to do something else with their lives?

PS. “SWPL” stands for Stuff White People Like, but I prefer to think about it as Stuff Williams People Like.


Parker on Taylor

Mark Taylor’s op-ed generated this commentary from Randall Parker:

Consider, the cost of cars isn’t going up as fast as the overall rate of inflation while universities are hiking their prices faster than the rate of education. Then there’s quality. Detroit’s made huge strides in improving quality.

The online realm is causing a collapse in printed newspaper circulation. Well, it is only a matter of time until online education starts making substantial inroads into live bricks-and-mortar education.

I see signs and indications that online education will take off and some colleges will get converted to commercial office buildings or other uses.

Online education will take off but I am not sure that this will have meaningful impact on Williams. First, there will always be rich parents who want to send their children to Williams and 18-year-olds who want to go. Second, the more that Williams gets rid of lectures, the less likely that anyone would imagine that a Williams education can be replicated on-line.

The tutorial program is our key comparative advantage. We should continue to expand it.


Gerrard on Taylor

Jeff points out this letter to the New York Times from Professor Steven Gerrard.

To the Editor:

Mark C. Taylor, a former colleague, raises some good points. Abolishing tenure is not one of them.

Fellow professors across the country will be surprised at the hidden inference that tenure is now old-fashioned because McCarthyism is dead. It was only a few months ago that Sarah Palin attacked Barack Obama for associating with “yet another radical professor from the neighborhood.”

Tenure protects free thinkers (like Mr. Taylor) from the pitchforks of the current mob, and until human nature changes will always be needed.

Steven B. Gerrard
Williamstown, Mass., April 27, 2009

This seems 99% wrong to me. Click below if you want to know why.
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Yawp of Pain

Daniel Bell is not impressed:

Mark C. Taylor’s yawp of pain about academia in The New York Times yesterday is a handy compendium of virtually every complaint currently circulating about the American university system. We are, he claims, overspecialized, obsolescent, irrelevant, and rigid. We learn more and more about less and less, while mercilessly exploiting successive generations of graduate students whom we then cast out into unemployment or the wilderness of adjuncting. In short, we stand with the auto manufacturers and (one might add) newspapers in the ranks of ill-adapted social dinosaurs awaiting extinction.

More fundamentally, it’s worth asking if the American university, and its system of graduate education, is really in quite the dire position that Taylor describes. Highly placed academics do have a tendency these days to decry their own supposed obsolescence. The former president of my own university, William Brody, liked to compare academia to the buggy whip industry. But where, exactly, is the proof of this obsolescence? Admissions to top American universities and college remains as competitive as ever–no matter how much, it seems, tuition rises. Despite an academic job market that has been anemic at best and disastrous at worst for more than 35 years, top Ph.D. programs still receive far more qualified applicants than they can hope to admit, include a rising proportion from overseas.

Maybe. But I think this is because applicants are systematically deluded/misled about the likely outcome of going to graduate school. If you go to graduate school in, say, history, you are highly unlikely to get a job at anywhere as nice (in terms of salary, workload, student quality) as Williams.

Those of us who actually oversee online learning programs know that when they are done well, they involve just as much faculty effort and expertise per student, and just as much investment per student, as classroom learning. There are no simple economies of scale.

Isn’t that an utter fantasy? Informed commentary welcome.


Drezner ’90 on Taylor

What does Mark Taylor love more than anything? Other people talking about his ideas! So, in the spirit of springtime, I will post daily link to commentary on Taylor’s New York Times op-ed, first discussed by JG here.

Start with Dan Drezner ’90:

Every time I think I’m done with the policy relevance of the academy, some postmodernist pulls me back in

Taylor was a professor at Williams College when I was an undergraduate. I took a course called Religion and Modern Secularism there, which assigned Taylor’s book Erring: A Postmodern A/theology. I found Taylor’s application of deconstructionist thought to theology to be completely inpenetrable somewhat difficult to absorb. So my first thought when I read Taylor’s plea for interdisciplinarity and accessibility in the academy to be along the lines of, “Great, 20 years late and $17 short.”

“Abolish permanent departments, even for undergraduate education, and create problem-focused programs.” Among the “problem-focused programs” he suggests are, “Mind, Body, Law, Information, Networks, Language, Space, Time, Media, Money, Life and Water.”

Hey, this is a fun idea — let’s try to come up with other one-word concentrations!

* Power
* Earth
* Love
* Mud
* Chocolate
* Nothing
* Puppies!

Let’s be clear — this idea is crap. Utter, complete, ridiculous crap. There are plenty of interdisciplinary majors, and more are being created as new problems arise. Taylor’s topics are so silly that I began to wonder if he was purposefully self-sabotaging here.


To sum up: this is a mostly silly, badly written op-ed that seems designed to provoke peals of laughter in order to scuttle the few good ideas contained in it.

Just like EphBlog!

Errr. I mean . . . uhhh . . . Read the whole thing.


Grad School as the Detroit of Education

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.”

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