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When Practicality Runs Amok

"Graduate education is the Detroit of higher learning," declares Columbia University's Religion Department Chairman Mark C. Taylor in his NYT Op-Ed End The University As We Know It.  In this provocative piece, Taylor bemoans the impracticality of the contemporary mass-production university model, noting that it produces a product (smart, specialized souls who are candidates for teaching posts that don't exist) for which there is no market and burnishes skills for which there is dwindling demand.  Furthermore, Taylor highlights that this inefficient system costs us (sometimes in excess of $100K in loans). Taylor offers six steps to begin the reinvention of the wheel of graduate education.  These steps are intriguing, often insightful, approaches to shifting away from an entrenched status quo of professor-cloning and complacency.  I particularly like the advice that Taylor gives his students: "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.”

Now my admittedly emotional response to Taylor's practical prescriptions:

(1) Yes, the bottom line is always beckoning.  But aren't there some things -- like passionate academic inquiry, however obscure -- that are priceless? And should remain so?

(2) People have never gone to graduate school for practical reasons.  They are not under the illusion that there will be a bevy of teaching spots to pick from at the other end.  They devote years to studying their subjects because they feel they have no other choice, they are passionate, they often wouldn't be happy doing anything else.

(3) A precious few of us spend our days thinking creatively.  Overhauling the university system, making it more streamlined and efficient and collaborative, might very well stifle the little inventive thought that is going on.

(4) Perhaps we should focus our attention on the arguably more practical forms of higher education.  The ones that produce "products" for which there is a "market" and "skills" for which there is consistent "demand."  You know -- the systems that are spewing out dozens of corporate lawyers and plastic surgeons and investment bankers?  Now, I'm not sure who's to blame for this fierce financial crisis, but I'm pretty sure that grad students studying the nooks and crannies of literature and philosophy and history didn't sink the ship.

(5) I know this is a bad economy.  I know that we are becoming accustomed to conceiving of almost everything in terms of the Market Metaphor.  But we are not talking about Detroit.  We are not talking about assembly lines and cars.  We are talking about people.  And ideas.

(6) Professor Taylor is a smart and accomplished soul who has enjoyed the freedoms and inefficiencies of the very system he now attacks.  Or, more fairly, re-imagines.  Now I hate cliches (almost as much as I hate practicality), but I can't resist: What happened to not biting the hand that feeds you? Okay, maybe he's just nibbling.  But still.

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