Wednesday, April 29, 2009

New York Times: End the University as We Know It

Here is a recent NYTIMES article I've come across that is pertinant to our world (and especially for anyone in the flux of academic transitions). The suggestion for reorganizing of study disciplines in terms of general basic interests, ie Mind, Body, Time, Space etc., is especially intriguing and pertinent I think. I wish my undergrad years had more of an interdisciplinary focus as it is!

Enjoy! -Lisa

End the University as We Know It

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).

Widespread hiring freezes and layoffs have brought these problems into sharp relief now. But our graduate system has been in crisis for decades, and the seeds of this crisis go as far back as the formation of modern universities. Kant, in his 1798 work “The Conflict of the Faculties,” wrote that universities should “handle the entire content of learning by mass production, so to speak, by a division of labor, so that for every branch of the sciences there would be a public teacher or professor appointed as its trustee.”

Unfortunately this mass-production university model has led to separation where there ought to be collaboration and to ever-increasing specialization. keep reading...


  1. Hi Lisa, Thanks for this! The article is a very humanities-oriented view of university life. There are some good points, but at the same time it seemed to me that some of the "solutions" would fix some problems and create others that could be worse. For example, while increased levels of collaboration would be good, getting rid of departments altogether to work on "Topics" seems to be to throw the baby out with the bath-water. Departments are essential for keeping everyone in a field broadly educated in their field, and the Topics would quickly become very political. Suddenly, in biology, you might find that you have to work either on cancer, global climate change, or genomics, or move to another school. Etc. etc. I don't think the university system in the U.S is terribly flawed, actually, such as to demand a complete restructuring from the ground up into a totally new system. But I do agree that improvements can always be made.

  2. Hi Shawn, I agree that research is being done very successfully with our current departmental setup. But I think it would be a wonderful option to tackle these listed topics like the Mind from many different angles all within the same research team. I envision recruiting a team that comes from diverse backgrounds like neuroscience, cultural and physical anthropology, evolutionary and developmental psychology... that would focus on the same general research questions and inform each others on respective sub-questions. Maybe you wouldn't put them all into one lab, maybe this would manifest as a creating links between labs. How exciting would those discussions be?

  3. Lisa & Shawn,

    I understand Lisa's desire for more cross-disciplinary education, but I must say I do not like the idéas put forward in this article. I do thus agree fully with Shawn, that it would have a negative and "political" impact on university education.

    Cross-disciplinary research and education would be better promoted by strong independent department in the classical disciplines, where people collaboration is based on mutual respect for intrinsic differences in subjects and different traditions. Thus, I think collaboration between (say) a classically trained biologist and an analytical philosopher is likely to result in more interesting outcomes than trying to force them in to a single department or a more-or-less artifical cross-disciplinary "centre". As Shawn points out, these centres tends to become VERY politicized and do not produce very strong science in the long run.

  4. Hi Erik,
    I very much see both yours and Shawn's points about the politicization and potential compromise of science when it becomes just another cog in the machine rather than standing on its own. That is an excellent point.
    I suppose I'm a bit of an idealist when I think about the benefits from such associations. For me, I will try to keep learning different analytical tools for my research. Who couldn't use a little Computer Science knowledge (now thats quite the beast to tackle!). And who wouldn't do better being armed with evolutionary philosophical arguments when confronted with anti-science politics?

  5. Lisa:

    It is good to be an idealist, and as you remember, I organized a workshop recently entitled "The Biology-Physics Interface". I strongly believe in collaboration, but the crucial question is HOW this should be promoted?

    It is much more difficult than one usually thinks. Believe me, I have collaborated in the past with both statisticians and immunologists, so I know! I do not think that any of these collaborations would have been easier if we had been sitting in the same departments, though. What is needed are "meeting places" and that is what university leaders could promote: seminars, discussions etc. Organization of departments is better left to the researchers, not to the politicians or university administration.