Daniel W. Drezner

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

Though I’ve been obsessed interested in the topic of a policy-relevant academy, I was reluctant to respond to Mark C. Taylor’s op-ed in the New York Times on this topic because of a fear of personal bias.  Taylor was a professor at Williams College when I was an undergraduate.  I took a course called Religion and ...

Though I’ve been obsessed interested in the topic of a policy-relevant academy, I was reluctant to respond to Mark C. Taylor’s op-ed in the New York Times on this topic because of a fear of personal bias.  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." 

Because Taylor’s op-ed contains such a unique combination of useful ideas and complete and utter silliness not-so-useful ideas, however, a lot of people are talking about it

Part of the problem lies in Taylor’s inexact writing.  Let’s "deconstruct" it a bit, shall we?  Here’s how he opens the op-ed:   

Graduate education is the Detroit of higher learning. Most graduate programs in American universities produce a product for which there is no market (candidates for teaching positions that do not exist) and develop skills for which there is diminishing demand (research in subfields within subfields and publication in journals read by no one other than a few like-minded colleagues), all at a rapidly rising cost (sometimes well over $100,000 in student loans).

See, with the $100,000 line, you’d think Taylor is talking about either professional schools or undergraduate degrees, but I don’t think that’s right.  He’s talking about doctoral programs.  And, at this point, while graduate students in doctoral programs might earn meager to no stipends, the only debt they accumulate comes through living expenses.  Say what you will about the job market for Ph.D.s, but at this point, the only way for a Ph.D. student to rack up a hundred grand in debt is to develop some serious gambling and drug problems while procrastinating (grad students of the world, feel free to disabuse me of this notion in the comments). 

Similarly, the Detroit analogy implies that America’s Ph.D. programs are somehow uncompetitive vis-à-vis foreign Ph.D. programs.  This is patently false.  Indeed, American higher education continues to outperform other university systems in attracting foreign students.  So, again, inexact language muddies the waters.  See TNR’s David Bell for more on this point. 

Taylor goes on to criticize my own field: 

Just a few weeks ago, I attended a meeting of political scientists who had gathered to discuss why international relations theory had never considered the role of religion in society. Given the state of the world today, this is a significant oversight. There can be no adequate understanding of the most important issues we face when disciplines are cloistered from one another and operate on their own premises.

It would be far more effective to bring together people working on questions of religion, politics, history, economics, anthropology, sociology, literature, art, religion and philosophy to engage in comparative analysis of common problems.

Methinks Taylor is exaggerating the role that the humanities can play in problem-solving.  That said, I have little problem with interdisciplinariy.  Last I checked, however, neither do most policy schools.   

Taylor makes some other concrete proposals – let’s run through them:

1.  "Restructure the curriculum, beginning with graduate programs and proceeding as quickly as possible to undergraduate programs."  I partially agree with the first point.  I’m all in favor of encouaging Ph.D. students to take courses that overlap with their substantive interests but might be outside their department.  As for undergraduate programs, well, that’s just silly.  Undergrads have majors, not specialties — they’re quite capable of diversifying their own corsework, thank you very much. 

2.  "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.   

3.  "Increase collaboration among institutions."  Taylor implies here that universities could specialize, promoting learning "through teleconferencing and the Internet."  At this point, I think it would behoove Taylor to chat with some of the people who study the relationship between computers and education.  Long story short, distance learning has some serious constraints.

4.  "Transform the traditional dissertation." Into something with "analytic treatments in formats from hypertext and Web sites to films and video games."  Note to Fletcher Ph.D. students:  don’t even think of trying to argue that your blog can substitute for a dissertation.  Not gonna happen.   

5.  "Expand the range of professional options for graduate students."  This is a good idea.  Seriously.  No mockery on this point. 

6.  "Impose mandatory retirement and abolish tenure."  You know how Democrats/Republicans were convinced that regulating money/imposing term limits would improve democracy?  That’s kind of like this proposal.  It’s not going to happen, but even if it did, tenure would re-emerge in a different form. 

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. 

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