Mark Taylor Deconstructs the University

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Mark Taylor
, Chair of the CC Religion Department, published an Op-Ed in the Times today urging us to, “End the University As We Know It.” He focuses on the problem of the graduate school system, calling graduate education the “Detroit of higher education.” Oof.

He also condemns the trends of early specialization in the university system and cites the Religion Department as emblematic of the problem of “narrow scholarship”: there are 10 religion faculty working in 8 subfields with relatively little overlap. Taylor calls for a complete restructuring of the graduate system and then immediately moving to a reconstruction of undergraduate programs. 

Stemming from his frustration with departmental structure and politics, Taylor suggests eliminating all permanent departments and creating in their place “program-based” departments that focus on issues and draw in academics from multiple fields. He lists off a few such departments: Water, Space, and Time (!) among them.

Taylor finally proposes that we expand professional opportunities for grad students and – gasp! – abolish tenure. He finishes with a quote that he often shares with his students with hopes of stirring up even the loftiest fake elbow-patched professors: “Do not do what I do; rather, take whatever I have to offer and do with it what I could never imagine doing and then come back and tell me about it.” 

Photo via nytimes.com 



  1. wrong

    the comments pretty much shredded this article and made a mockery of the head of columbia's religion department. first, without disciplinary training from traditional departments, no grad students would be trained to be able to participate in the interdisciplinary quest for the answer to the world's water, time (?), etc. problems.

    second, taylor somewhat misses the point of the university in general and his own discipline in particular, which is to stand outside the narrow utilitarianism of vocational training and public policy programs in order to produce scholarship on topics that may not be useful in the moment, but have inordinate value in terms of understanding our past, our culture, the human condition, and other intangibles that may, someday, be useful in a crisis that doesn't happen to exist right now. social welfare requires broader thinking than narrowly-applied problem solving units; you need people thinking so far outside the box sometimes that no one thinks what they're doing is useful or relevant. to use my apparently irrelevant humanities-burdened core curriculum knowledge, taylor is saying that it is a waste of time and energy for philosophers to try to drag people out of plato's cave when they have a radical insight into the misapplied nature of the social machine.

    finally, it was just bad taste to insult his departmental colleague and his own department's grad student for the narrowness of his dissertation. it sure sounds like a misrepresentation to act as if the student's entire scholarship is based on some obscure medieval theologian's footnotes for no good reason. in fact, it's hard to believe taylor can be so down on religion as a discipline when it's one of the world's central problems/quandaries/animating forces in and of itself today.

  2. Weweep!  

    I'm sick of schoolwork. SUmmer?

  3. CC01

    Of course, he's tenured. That's why this tool can shovel this horse manure with impunity.

    And I'm still absolutely shocked that he dismissed a student's dissertation like that. Let's see what totally relevant scholarship he's been producing recently.

    His official Columbia page lists a 2007 book about "Mystic Bones." Yeah, that's totally relevant.

    • Other dissenters

      David Helfand is another professor who's well-known for being opposed to tenure. In his case, though, he actually refused to take tenure for himself. He works on a five-year contract instead.

  4. huh  

    since when does everyone who goes to graduate school go to graduate school in order to become a professor?
    that seems like a ridiculous assertion to me. this guy is insane.

  5. more huh  

    Important quote from the article: "These constantly evolving programs would have sunset clauses, and every seven years each one should be evaluated and either abolished, continued or significantly changed."

    So... we're making undergraduate education into trade school that'll make our ($200k) education outdated within 7 years? That sounds promising... not.

    • ...  

      i hate to break it to ya. but the only marginally useful tools you'll ever get out of your 200k education are those which resemble what you'd find in a trade school.

      all that crap about the core teaching you how to analyze and think for yourself? it's crap. you either have it or you don't.

      • also wrong

        believe it or not, every individual human being is not capable of synthesizing information such that they can reproduce all literature, history, or philosophy through shear force of analytical will. and even if they could, actually learning different perspectives/happenings/cultural phenomena is a hell of a lot easier than positing or seeking them all out yourself.

        • ...  

          who said anything about synthesis? if the classics are worth studying because they're riddled with timeless truths and ideas, doesn't that then mean that by their very nature the ideas they contain are evident in today's world?

          • wrong again

            and it's not just that they're "timeless principles", although that's true. they're common cultural touchstones. your elders make reference to homer. how will you understand? you could teach yourself everything, but it would be a pain in the ass and you have no guarantee you're going to get all of it. kinda makes sense to trust in an institution to deliver.

            I could argue that I could learn chemistry or nuclear physics through trial and error, too, but who could/would/has the time? if we acknowledge that they're equally important, they should both be taught in the classroom in this way, because there's a big efficiency argument for institutionalized education in anything, including the humanities.

      • I think you forgot  

        having Columbia's name on my resume. that's worth a lot.
        and no, you're also incredibly wrong. I've worked with kids who were trained at trade schools in CS (I'm a CS major)... they know the trade of CS, but that's it. Once Java and the like are no longer in constant use, they will have to go back to school, while I'll be just fine.

        if you're an english major on the other hand, you're better off just giving blowjobs...

  6. omfg  

    "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."

    And it takes 7 years to graduate undergraduate...

  7. ugh  

    abolish tenure! have grad students shoulder the entire burden of teaching!

  8. noobs  

    I don't understand why it has to be one or the other. Why not just increase inter-department collaboration and create task forces between departments to tackle problems?

  9. because  

    that's not what he said in his article.


  10. Needy Souls  

    We need Mark Lilla to put this in the ground.

  11. Anonymous

    I agree with him. Graduate school is outdated.

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