Philosopher of religion and Derridean “atheologian” Mark Taylor’s recent NY Times op-ed End the University as We Know It has generated a lot of discussion in academic circles and blogs. Reading the article reminded me of a situation my institution, the University of Vermont, went through recently, after being approached by a foundation interested in dropping a truckload of money into curricular restructuring toward a more problem-based and “solutions-oriented” model of a “green university.” Our president had committed himself to making UVM “the environmental university,” and so the group that initiated this restructuring felt it was well positioned to make a case for some kind of wholesale restructuring. Much time was spent debating what this might entail and whether it should involve institution-wide restructuring or just a grafting-on of a new “meta-college” that would facilitate cross-institutional and extra-institutional collaboration, but wouldn’t essentially alter the existing structure of the university. But in the end, the initiators seem to have misjudged the extent of resistance to systemic change, and the foundation lost interest, for reasons external to the process itself.

But there’s something I think they missed in that “resistance” which Taylor’s critics have been quick to identify. Taylor’s op-ed succeeded in what it set out to accomplish, which was to generate discussion, and it did include some generally smart (if not original) ideas, like restructuring the curriculum so it’s more “like a web or complex adaptive network” (that sounds good, doesn’t it?), increasing collaboration among institutions, transforming the traditional doctoral dissertation, and expanding the range of professional options for grad students outside the “pyramid scheme” structure that exists now. Even the proposal to “impose mandatory retirement and abolish tenure,” substituting the latter with renewable (or terminable) seven-year contracts, has its virtues which those of us who defend tenure would willingly acknowledge.

At the same time, some of his proposals sounded like a reshuffling of the deck chairs of the Titanic — abolishing departments and creating temporary, problem-focused programs like “Mind, Body, Law, Information, Networks, Language, Space, Time, Media, Money, Life and Water” — without taking into account the main virtues of the current structure of fields, disciplines, and canons that make it up. Some of those programs he suggests — Law, Mind, Space, Time, Media, Life — already exist, as, um, Law, Psychology, Geography, History, Media Studies, and Biology. But while each of these may be too walled-in in its current state, too closed from interdisciplinary collaboration, the traditional disciplines have the important virtue of being largely self-correcting, knowledge-producing organisms. I’m an interdisiciplinarian by training — my Ph.D. was in Environmental Studies, and there are many of us around now whose higher degrees are in, say, women’s studies, urban studies, cultural studies, science and technology studies, global studies — all interdisciplinary fields that draw from traditional disciplines but try to interface more creatively with the uncharted frontiers of the real world. That’s why interdisciplines arise in the first place, and there are more of them doing that now than at any time in the past. But I can’t imagine functioning with no disciplines to draw from, because I’m not sure where I would look to in order to learn the methods I need to do my work. If we didn’t have anthropologists, would we know what it means to do good ethnography? Without philosophers, would our philosophizing about science, or the social sciences, or geography, or knowledge, be as good as it is today? Without historians, how well would we be able to judge the historical analysis the rest of us must engage in, at least from time to time? Historians have thought more about what constitutes good history — what makes a good narrative account of temporal change and development — than the rest of us, and losing our ability to consult with them on it would be a loss.

Inside Higher Ed’s Dean Dad, in “Project-Based Education? A Response to Mark Taylor,” puts his finger on a lot of these issues and suggests that Taylor can only make these arguments in the absence of an understanding of how university programs are administered. “Who would evaluate” the problem-based programs and “make the decisions to ‘abolish, continue, or significantly change’ them?” How would standards develop in them? “What happens to a student who enrolls during, say, the fifth year of a seven year program?” “In the absence of disciplines,” he argues, “we’d have nothing but fads.” We’d have “faculty hired by nobody in particular, based on ever-shifting job descriptions written by nobody in particular” and teaching “uh, whatever, to students who happen to start at the right time, and who never drop out or transfer. (‘Sorry, kid, we aren’t accepting new students this year. Try again next year, when the theme will be cyborgs and we’ll have all new faculty to teach it.’)”

And yet, the essential argument — that curricula, disciplines, canons, and the university as a whole need to be opened up to the full complexity of the world’s problems — is one I agree with completely. Other have argued this in various ways; see, for instance, Immanuel Wallerstein on the social sciences here and here, Bruno Latour’s critique of the bifurcation of the social and natural sciences, Julie Thompson Klein’s and others’ work mapping the contours and growth of inter- and transdisciplinarity (e.g., here and here). So in response to Dean Dad, I would caution us against dismissing the general argument. Without the kind of challenge Taylor has presented, we wouldn’t be as prepared to say what it is about the disciplines and canons that is worth defending, and worth struggling over.

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