On Campus
May 13, 2009, 09:05AM

Our Failing Academic-Industrial Complex

The de-centering of individual departments has made liberal arts education a purely self-serving industry.

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“I think, like, Dickinson is always talkin’ about guns and stuff, and like a lot of rappers are talkin’ about guns too, you know, when they're rappin’ and like... it’s like, a lot of rappers must have read Dickinson cause I think they’re all like talkin’ about the same things, you know?”

As unbelievably stupid classroom comments went, this one really set the bar higher than I thought it could go. It came during my last semester as a senior at the University of Maryland, in a 300-level survey course on pre-20th century American literature. When the professor responded with, “Hmm. That's definitely interesting. That could make for a good thesis in your final paper,” I knew that I'd wasted most of the last four years.

The course itself, ENGL 307, one of the required survey courses for English lit majors at my alma mater, was taught by a woman in her late 20s or early 30s, a few years out of a competitive grad school program that had obviously prepared her for writing lengthy screeds for publication in obscure journals and little else. Teaching was not her forte, and the syllabus didn't do much to hide her politics: one month on early settlers diaries and travelogues, two months on slave narratives, one week on Whitman and Dickinson combined. It was a little horrifying to watch the English Canon be beaten into the ground right in front of me, but I needed the credits to graduate.

I made it through those four years mostly by taking as many classes as I could with one of the oldest professors in the department (a Johnson scholar with a profound interest in Romantic and early modernist poetry), but the various rifts in the English department—and in other academic departments generally—were obvious even by my sophomore year. More and more bizarrely specific specializations meant that two professors in the same department (an English professor who had made a career out of analyzing Beowulf, say, and one who only teaches African post-colonial literature) might have almost nothing to say to each other. Younger professors fought for tenure, which usually meant focusing almost exclusively on research and publication: racking up a lengthy list of books and articles, so prized by the administration, and only made possible by the cheap labor of some poor Ph.D. candidate (See Thomas Benton's recent piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education). Most of the older professors who had tenure became more complacent every year. Most of the courses were so concerned with test scores (often multiple choice or short answer) it felt like high school redux.

Part of the problem, of course, is our assumption that everyone should go to college, which is why most of high school is just college prep: take AP courses, meet with the guidance counselor, consider your extra-curriculars (“Oh, you're in the band and volunteering at a soup kitchen? Good, good.”), take SAT practice exams, go through multiple drafts on your essay, and so on. But this only means that more and more college students are under-qualified (“18-year-olds who find Newsweek over their heads,” as Richard Rorty put it in his book Philosophy and Social Hope), and that the college curriculum is dumbed down in turn. The colleges make up for it by offering more advanced students options like honors programs (which usually amount to a couple of more classes and papers). And the idealized Liberal Arts education turns 100- and 200-level foundation level courses into huge lecture-based surveys for students who need the credits to graduate. No one can honestly think that my taking two gym classes, one lab science, one social science, and one math course turned me into some kind of Renaissance man, but it did get me to pay out a few thousand dollars more.

In an op-ed for The New York Times a few weeks ago, Mark C. Taylor, chair of the Religion department at Columbia University, laid out the framework for a wholly redesigned university system—one that would, among other things, dissolve all departments in favor of “problem-focused programs.” As Taylor writes:

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.

Consider, for example, a Water program. In the coming decades, water will become a more pressing problem than oil, and the quantity, quality and distribution of water will pose significant scientific, technological and ecological difficulties as well as serious political and economic challenges. These vexing practical problems cannot be adequately addressed without also considering important philosophical, religious and ethical issues. After all, beliefs shape practices as much as practices shape beliefs.

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. Through the intersection of multiple perspectives and approaches, new theoretical insights will develop and unexpected practical solutions will emerge.

If you think all this sounds too radical to ever be achieved, I'd probably agree. Colleges are increasingly in the business of making money, and nothing about Taylor's ideas are particularly friendly to that end. But if you think it all sounds too much like vocational training, I'd argue you haven't considered the increasing irrelevance of many academic departments, and the failure of a modern Liberal Arts education to bring together increasingly disconnected disciplines in any meaningful way.

  • Both Taylor and Pannapacker (Benton is a pen name) are tenured faculty, writing from the safety and affluence of the academy, complaining that academia mistreats its children. Perhaps it's too strong to call them hypocrites, but Taylor certainly seems to lack a coherent ideology - he has written against the publication of academic books and has also published over thirty academic books. It irritates me that this criticism of academia from an unassailable position within academia is becoming routinized. And, as Zach writes, Taylor's suggested reforms are much too radical to ever be achieved, which means that Taylor can enjoy renown for his bold stance without ever having to worry about his own job. Furthermore, interdisciplinary programs like the "water" program he suggests already exist (I'm, in fact, a member of one), without having to destroy disciplinary boundaries or academic departments. Your points about bad teaching and hilariously dumb curricula are great, much better than Pannapacker and Taylor's deeply flawed arguments because they point to something that can actually be improved, quickly and without rebuilding the whole system.

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  • I'm struggling to remember when Emily Dickinson talked about guns...but then again I was pretty solely focused on British Lit in undergrad. I'm with you that a literature survey course should be a greatest hits of a period. But I'm really skeptical about the problem-oriented restructuring. I don't think that courses, especially at the undergraduate level, should be geared towards esoterica and ephemera, as is increasingly the case in the States especially. That's forcing new historicist dogma on people without necessarily telling them what your bent is. But neither do I think that practical application should be the sole focus of a liberal arts education. As far as I can tell, a traditional liberal arts education is *already* structured around those "problems," just minus the terminology that reeks of management strategy.

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  • i always get a little annoyed when people shit on the humanities. science is of value, we're told, because it is "real." i don't have any problem with that. but some people just aren't built to do that type of work. i hate science. i think it's fascinating on like TLC or the discovery channel, but i would never want to take a class and be graded on it. i think that the real issue is that students are becoming more and more professionalized and job focused. they're obsessed with careers, at least at my place. everyone has some secret plan to be an investment banker or a lawyer or an entrepreneur of some sort. ahhhhh it's so fascinating, because some people maybe don't belong in college but i don't think that's a reason to fault the entire liberal arts system. of course, i'm biased with my research interests in luxury, fashion, performance studies and nightlife cultures. :)

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  • Thank God the student didn't say Dickinson had communed with rappers yet to be born and that's why she wrote about guns. Yes, Dickinson did write one poem called, "My life had stood-a loaded gun" not exactly a rap. What could the prof have told the student? "You're stupid and there's no redeeming you from yourself?" Remember we are intent on decreasing the learning and achievement gap in the USA. Thomas Schaller thinks that socialism has got a bum rap in America and we should equalize the playing field for all the folks who live here--bring everyone up. The liberals on the left who favor socialism are also intellectually pretentious and tend to form exclusive clubs. They don't want to be associated with people who make stupid remarks even as they idealize an economic model that would bring people out of poverty and give everyone similar opportunities. Can't have it both ways. The smart have to be patient- suffer the stupid until the stupid catch up. But then again who is to say who is smart and who is not. This intellectual relativism is today's reality--the Internet gives everyone a chance at expression-misspelled or mauled. The teacher may not have been far from the truth. There is an entire thesis possible comparing Fifty Cent's rhymes about guns to Dickinson's allegory about a loaded gun.

  • I faced a lot of the rampant stupidity that you're talking about here when I was a senior at a university that shall not be named. Let's just say I was a little shocked at the median IQ when I got there from high school.

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  • What you're saying implies that people in poverty are stupid. To imply that is itself very stupid. Creating more economic equality and raising the caliber of academic discussion are in no way mutually exclusive.

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  • You also either completely missed the point of the article or just can't rattle on about anything but socialsm. Maybe both.

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  • "Teaching was not her forte, and the syllabus didn't do much to hide her politics: one month on early settlers diaries and travelogues, two months on slave narratives, one week on Whitman and Dickinson combined. It was a little horrifying to watch the English Canon be beaten into the ground ... " I don't really get this. It's not like canons are static, and it's just as much a political decision to focus on Whitman and Dickinson as it is to focus on slave narratives. Though, to be fair, I can't say I've ever read a slave narrative that wasn't completely boring.

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  • Zach, Your editorial is guilty of a rhetorical imprecision that is unfortunately typical of arguments from every side of this debate about the future of the academy. Here are just a few comments: 1) What criteria do you have in mind when you deem an institution such as an academic department to be useful or useless, relevant or irrelevant? Useful to whom, and why? Relevant to whom, and why? Aren't there, in fact, millions of other kinds of jobs in our post-industrial "knowledge economy" that we might deem "useless" given pretty uncontroversial criteria? To work with some semi-arbitrary examples... Why is the labor performed by a marketer to sell more of some dumb product (televisions, fast food, silverware with a "classic, yet contemporary design") "useful"? Because s/he "adds value," i.e. puts more money in the TV/fast food/silverware company's bank account? Why is the labor performed by some "quant" in a hedge fund "useful"? Because s/he makes rich people's portfolios grow? There are some fundamental needs that we can all agree are essential for everybody: food, water, shelter, medicine. But in our crazy postmodern society, so few jobs deal with these necessities in any direct way. 2) Which industries are not "self-serving"? The vast majority of the private sector is unabashedly self-serving. That's intrinsic to the nature of capitalism itself. The only point of a corporation like Exxon is to grow bigger, to give larger and larger dividends to its shareholders over time. Perhaps the real problem is that everybody perceives education as a means to an end, while other industries/institutions are permitted to be ends in themselves, beyond reproach. This is the ridiculous neoliberal logic of "preparing our students to be competitive in the international knowledge economy." It's like the only point of the academy is to output graduates who are capable of adding the most "value" to the GDP. If your method for measuring the worth of an education gets to be determined and codified by the capitalist society at large, then obviously things like a liberal arts major will be deemed "irrelevant." If, on the other hand, your method for determining the worth of an education is more open-ended, and provides allowances for the possibility that graduates will transform society after they leave the academy -- rather than meekly submitting to the principles of the extant reality -- then a liberal arts major may be deemed "useful" in unexpected ways. 3) Your argument is bereft of historical context. When, if ever, was a liberal arts education "useful"? Why was teaching Shakespeare in 1809 "useful"? Why was teaching Proust in 1947 "useful"? Was it? And if it was, then why couldn't an essay on, say, gender and sexuality in the "Twilight" books -- assuming it was written at a high level -- not contribute something intelligent to a conversation about the persistence of heterosexual romantic norms?

  • Thought: Zach Kaufmann's article certainly struck a nerve with you. I'm guessing you're part of the academic community. I think Kaufmann's point about high schools being factories for colleges, with courses that aren't particularly challenging, is correct. As for his criteria in judging academic departments, since he's a recent college graduate, I'd say he's in an excellent position to write about the deficiencies he found.

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  • Ignoring all the Marxist, postmodern blah blah blahs in your argument, the problem is you're mostly disputing me on things I never even said. Most of the issues you have with my article I think come out of the quoted portion of Mark Taylor's Op-Ed for the NY Times, which I at no point said I endorsed, just that I found it interesting and worthy of discussion. Go back and read the article and you'll find that the points I'm actually making are roughly as follows: 1) Most college depts are becoming more and more fractured and unmanageable -- Professors with tenure vs. those without; the emphasis on scholarly publication necessary for tenure that distracts from actual teaching; professors with increasingly specific concentrations of research that makes, in some cases, for two professors in the same dept who have very little if anything to actually say to eachother. 2) Because colleges are more and more in the business of making money there's been this idea created in our society that absolutely everyone should get a college degree. This means HS is turned into basically 4yrs of prep work for getting into college, and that there is more and more discrepancy in education in an average college freshman class. The first two years of college turn into playing catch-up for the below average students. This is especially true at state schools, like the one I went to. 3) I never said that a liberal arts degree isn't useful -- I said we by-and-large don't have liberal arts degrees anymore. We have, "Oh, take a math, a 100-level lab science, and a couple social science courses to complete your General Foundation Requirements." The liberal arts degree has been twisted into a money-making strategy (which I didn't think was particularly news to anyone). Let me give you an example, at UMBC our requirements to complete the "liberal arts education" were roughly what I said above: a math, two social sciences, and a lab science. But, for example, the lab science that 99% of non-science majors ended up taking to fill the requirement was a course specifically created for non-science majors called Sci 100: The Science of Water -- there was a lecture component, which no one attended, and a lab component, which no one who was even semi-conscious could fail. It was a joke course that taught me nothing, but it did get me to pay more money. It was the same with the math requirement. Most students took Math 100, Introduction to Contemporary Mathematics, which involved no math above say, a 7th grade level, just word problems and basic logic and probability. There is literally almost nothing you can do to fail these classes. Most professors bend over backwards to pass you ("Oh, just turn that in whenever you can..."), because they know you need the credit to graduate, and they couldn't care less about teaching the course in the first place.

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  • OK, first of all, I would be the last person to disagree with your argument that liberal arts classes need more rigorous standards. Beyond that, I think I've pinpointed my difficulty with your argument. You're decrying how "the liberal arts degree has been twisted into a money-making strategy"; I get that. You also end the article saying "if you think it all sounds too much like vocational training, I'd argue you haven't considered the increasing irrelevance of many academic departments." So there you're declaring, to some extent, that you sympathize with the "vocational" flavor of Taylor's prescription. Again, however, I'm left wondering what you mean by "relevance". You may not agree with my politics, but you should see that your argument pivots on a nebulous idea of "relevance" that you don't really flesh out. This is echoed in your comment on the article on gossip in the academy, where you write about "the complete uselessness of 90% of the academy," the supposed evidence being that dissertations have esoteric titles. Now, if you want to make an argument about atomization and over-specialization, a la Taylor, that's one thing; but since you're insistently vague about what constitutes "use" and "relevance," the reader's left wondering what a good model of liberal arts education would look like... And again, I think it's pretty ahistorical to claim that humanities departments are "increasingly" irrelevant. By what measure was studying Shakespeare or Milton or Goethe ever "relevant" to society at large? And why? Then again, if the tone you intended to strike was merely one of exasperation and ambivalence, then that's another matter entirely...

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  • My "complete uselessness of 90% of the academy" comment was obviously hyperbole. My point about relevance, however, is NOT one that prizes science and engineering and the like over the humanities as others have suggested. I don't particularly feel inclined to spell out the relevance of reading Shakespeare or Milton or Goethe because, and no offense intended, but if you're someone who has to ask that question we're not going to have much of an argument to begin with. A good model of liberal arts education wouldn't ask that question -- but it would understand that teaching Shakespeare or Milton or Goethe can be brought together in all kinds of interesting ways with other departments: history, psychology, sociology, theater, philosophy, etc. etc. It's not that this kind of interdepartmental teaching doesn't happen, it's that it doesn't happen nearly enough in my experience. Instead, what most of my English courses gave me was frustrating academic nonsense -- professors more concerned with Derridean deconstruction than anything else. Still my main point with this piece, whether I successfully got it across or not, was the problems caused by thinking that every high school student should go to college, and that the way to achieve that is to construct a system where standards are lowered, you're teaching to the test, private tudors are hired to ensure solid SAT/ACT score and a college application essay that is flawless oprah-like inspirational bullshit, etc etc. I only find Taylor's arguments interesting for the grand sweeping changes it would necessitate.

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