A number of concerned citizens called my attention to Mark C Taylor’s op-ed in the New York Times about “The end of the university as we know it.” (When did he move to Columbia? I wasn’t looking.) Speaking as a minor-league educational radical, I’m pleased that Taylor called the world’s attention to the possibility that higher education might be thinkable on some basis other than that which prevails in the U.S., that we have exported to the rest of the world.
Yes, but. Community College Dean presents a sensible pushback to Taylor’s somewhat err-atic expostulation. I hear CCD’s objections too, and they make a great deal of sense, institutionally speaking. What I suspect we need is someone who’s willing to imagine as widely as Taylor, but with a little more of a view to the wider networks from which our teaching and learning derive their meaning and find their value. So, in partial response to CCD, I would point out that many aspects of academic life are grossly over-managed, and Taylor’s apparently adminstration-free modules would represent a more congenial environment for learning about stuff than does the regimented, micromanaged Fordist education industry (to be fair, CCD also decries “seat-time-based measures” of educationl progress). How do we move away from commodified classes without the airy unreality of being a major in “Space”? (Who said one needs a “major” anyway?) How do we un-logjam faculties ossified by tenure without sacrificing one of the most improbable victories of academic workers?
I’ve talked and written about this before, but the most promising alternative curriculum that preserves to some extent the current infrastructure of education would shift our studies away from a grid of requirements satisfied by “seat-time-based measures” and toward a more Oxbridgean system of lectures, seminars, and tutorials, culminating in assessment based on demonstrable accomplishment. One could preserve a bulwark of academic freedom while at the same time reforming tenure by offering multi-year contracts on a rolling basis (guaranteeing senior faculty a generous number of years in which to look for another job if they are to be terminated) (I don’t like talking about alternatives to tenure, but I’m inclined to think it best for faculty to come clean about dysfunction in this particular system and come up with a better alternative before educational middle-managers force one down our throats). As faculties attain fluency i expressing themselves in non-print media, they’ll be in a position to receive assignments (and ecnourage advanced work) in other media — but heaven help us, not before then.
There’s lots to be said and done on this front, but Taylor has mostly just stirred the pot, and CCD has pulled out some stones and twigs that had been masquerading as nutrients. Let’s keep trying. We can do better; we owe that much to the world for supporting us. (And then let’s talk about what that “supporting” looks like — however bad the educational process has gotten, I don’t see us as having caused as horrible a disruption in the culture or economy as did brokers, bankers, and managers who were paid ten times what we are.)