On Campus

Blow up the university and start again?

American prof calls for a graduate education revolution in New York Times article. Did he hit the mark?

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).

That’s the lead of an angry, entertaining opinion piece published in the New York Times a few weeks back by Columbia University religion professor Mark C. Taylor. Taylor opens with a novel take on one problem facing the modern university — one problem that nobody much wants to talk about.

Taylor’s contention is that the university is broken because it turns out too many graduate students for the job market to support — and in any case, the only job these grad student will be qualified for if one in the professoriat, where they will spend a lifetime producing clones of themselves. The author describes an academy marked by increasing specialization and insularity, where disciplines are carved into increasingly small (and irrelevant) subdisciplines, producing work that no one will read or care about, for the sake of producing work and justifying one’s existence. As an example, he cites a colleague proudly informing him that his best Ph.D. student is doing a dissertation on the use of footnotes by the medieval theologian Duns Scotus.

There’s been push back against Taylor’s proposals, including this response in the Chronicle of Higher Ed (for what it’s worth, the comments following this article, in which various posters join the debate, is better value than the article itself.). One could also argue that Taylor’s critique may be less relevant in fields such as medicine where increasingly narrow research specializations may be necessary for scientific progress.

Should we change graduate schools as Taylor proposes? Should we at least experiment with different models? Good questions, particularly given that nearly every university in Canada has made it part of its core mission to increase the number of graduate students enrolled, and the university sector as well as various governments (notably Ontario) have agreed to fund substantial increases in the number of Master’s and Ph.D.’s produced.

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