The NYTimes Says “End The University As We Know It”

Dear readers: every time I try to get out, they keep pulling me back in. I don’t know why the New York Times published Mark Taylor’s op-ed on “ending the university.” If they hadn’t done so, I could have kept on with the work of figuring out how to write my dissertation without a teaching position, as UCI will probably not renew its TA contracts for seventh-year graduate students. Alternatively, I could have simply focused on writing about music in my spare time. Y’all should be sure to check the PopMatters “Sound Affects” blog for the upcoming post entitled “Just Say No To Dylan.”

But instead, I have to add to Marc Bousquet’s characteristically wonderful reaction piece my own observations about Taylor’s faddish and wrongheaded plan for academic “reform.” Thankfully, Bousquet has saved me the trouble of responding to Taylor’s calls for the end of tenure, and to his off-the-cuff, factually incorrect statements about the job market and probable compensation for so-called “contingent” faculty (who do not have tenure and are not on a tenure track).

I am throwing in my own two cents because still more of Taylor’s arguments compel a response: first, his proposal for re-inventing the dissertation; second, his ideas for re-designing the disciplines, ideas that are very subtly and very insidiously political.

Taylor believes that graduate students should produce multimedia dissertations, along the lines of undergraduate “final papers,” which have been transformed into all kinds of other rhetorical exercises, including websites, video games, films, and so on.

The overwhelming direction of these new assignments options is towards visual media; there is, increasingly, an assumption that visual media (or mixed media with some text) is preferable to plain text. This is not necessarily the case. It should go without saying that a certain depth of analysis usually requires a predominance of text. Of course it is possible to create a film that conveys as much meaning as a book, but the people who can do this usually end up in film school. The reason that most dissertations end up in a dusty attic, metaphorically speaking, is that they are written for a small audience of specialists rather than for Malcolm Gladwell’s audience. The problem is one of content, not one of form. Graduate students could be encouraged to write for a popular audience, but this would naturally lead to a disconnect between the demands of two very different readerships. Perhaps we have reached a point in the cultural history of the West where specialization no longer holds much value for us, other than in practical fields like medicine. Be that as it may, we have to discuss the matter directly, and not dodge it by telling graduate students to put their ideas about Duns Scotus in the form of a theology video game.

On to the second proposal. Taylor writes that we should

…abolish permanent departments, even for undergraduate education, and create problem-focused programs. These constantly evolving programs would have sunset clauses, and every seven years each one should be evaluated and either abolished, continued or significantly changed. It is possible to imagine a broad range of topics around which such zones of inquiry could be organized: Mind, Body, Law, Information, Networks, Language, Space, Time, Media, Money, Life and Water.

This goes together with his insistence that academia be regulated and reformed in the same way as “Detroit” and “Wall Street.” To begin with, one can only wish that academia received the same treatment as the villains in the world financial crisis, who were bailed out in handsome fashion because their services were deemed indispensable to the society. Moreover, in looking at Taylor’s proposed new disciplines, we discover a very cynical conglomeration of topics that would feel at home in a newspaper’s Sunday magazine, all of which quietly reinforce the capitalist notion of the empowered, optimized, mechanized individual. In other words, Taylor’s naive belief that Wall Street and Detroit are the thriving beneficiaries of centralized liberal planning — as opposed to irresponsible entities exploiting their stranglehold over taxpayers by dragging everyone down with them — is an alibi for Wall Street that goes hand-in-hand with his desire to re-frame academic labor in terms of politically acquiescent “deliverables.”

Consider how ludicrous it is to discuss “Time” as part of a program with a built-in “sunset date” of seven years, after which point it will be either “abolished, continued or significantly changed.” According to this model, the “Time” program is already defined in advance by a “project completion date.” It is unthinkable that such a nebulous “ad hoc” field would produce any radical new insights; instead, after seven years, the researchers would of course come to the conclusion that there are two types of time: managed occupational time, and leisure time, which we need to feel happy and fulfilled. They would cite old studies by Ford, and new ones conducted by Google at their employee complex, in order to help answer questions about how to make workers more productive; they would cite Proust and Bergson in their discussions of “off-duty” leisure time.

The same goes for the rest of Taylor’s categories. Notice how quickly he re-establishes Cartesian dualisms by splitting “mind” from “body”: the former would reduce down to cognition and strategies for optimizing cognition, and the latter would become a faintly nauseating playground for discussions of health, wellness, and sexuality. He invokes “Money” (“Are You Making The Most Out Of Your Dollar?”) but not “Labor.” He calls us to the study of “Life,” but is silent about death. Finally, he comes around to “Water,” the most incongruous discipline, which was his real darling all along. In giving us a quick glimpse of what the “Water” department would look like, he reveals that it is primarily a public works and urban planning department, concerned with problems of distributing water. As a professor of religion, his role would be to legitimize not merely the secularization of modern life, but the instrumentalization of human beings. Notice that he puts “theology” together with the “professional schools,” and apart from the humanities, who apparently do not have professional practitioners: “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.”

It is downright frightening to consider how the “religious turn” in academia has been used to justify what ought to be called the “neo-liberal turn.” What on the surface appears to be an interest in religion is really an interest in containing and controlling everything subjective through the definable practices and ideologies of this or that faith. Religion, like leisure time, comes to stand for certain human needs that those at the top reluctantly recognize as extending beyond food and shelter. As long as those needs can still be anticipated and regulated, they can be tolerated and even encouraged. The search for meaning can be doled out, after consultation with the experts, like so many cups of water, and the university as we know it can be brought to an end.