Abolish the university — but then what?

April 18, 2013 § 4 Comments

In reading Tony Wagner’s Creating Innovators, I came upon a reference to an op-ed published — where else? — in the New York Times written by Mark C. Taylor. Professor Taylor is the chairman of the religion department at Columbia University. In his 2009 opinion piece titled  “End the University as We Know It,” this is his opening sentence:

“GRADUATE education is the Detroit of higher learning.”

He had me at Detroit.

I won’t rehearse the entire piece here, but like much of Wagner’s book and so many other education articles, the piece unnerves and offers some telling — and depressing — anecdotes. Such as:

[A]s departments fragment, research and publication become more and more about less and less. Each academic becomes the trustee not of a branch of the sciences, but of limited knowledge that all too often is irrelevant for genuinely important problems. A colleague recently boasted to me that his best student was doing his dissertation on how the medieval theologian Duns Scotus used citations.

That’s actually kind of hilarious.

He suggests six main improvements. Some of them are bland (e.g., “increase collaboration”) while some are intriguing. For example, his second suggestion is to

Abolish permanent departments, even for undergraduate education, and create problem-focused programs. These constantly evolving programs would have sunset clauses, and every seven years each one should be evaluated and either abolished, continued or significantly changed. It is possible to imagine a broad range of topics around which such zones of inquiry could be organized: Mind, Body, Law, Information, Networks, Language, Space, Time, Media, Money, Life and Water.

I’d like to see something like that occur because it would decrease fragmentation and open up connections between subjects. It’s fascinating: in the call to end specialization, in the call to decrease the isolation of classes and departments, reformers are implicitly affirming what has always been an emphasis in Catholic education: the unity of all knowledge, the intrinsic connectivity of every branch of learning, stemming of course from the theological idea that God is the author of all knowledge.

As I was reading Taylor’s article, I began thinking about our own subjects here at Xavier. What if we abolished our departments and centered our curriculum around something like Taylor suggests? What kind of “problem-focused” programs are necessary for teenagers at the high school level? (I like the term “themes” instead of “problems”.) If, for example, we had a curriculum centered around the theme of “Origins,” we’d have classes necessarily moving in and out of science, religion, and philosophy. Thought patterns and associations would be reconfigured. Students would (perhaps) see not science and religion as different, as opposed, but as two lenses into a similar inquiry.

Lots to ponder.

Teachers and students, what do you think?

See Taylor’s full article here.


§ 4 Responses to Abolish the university — but then what?

  • Kelly Wilson says:

    A man after my own vision. What’s hard is not travelling so far down the path of why it’s not possible that you lose your way.

    I start at the end; what is the quality of life that we want the people of this nation to enjoy after their educational path is over? Shouldn’t the goal be for them to have the skills necessary to have fulfilling work and contribute to society? I agree with the Taylor vision of education and I think that change needs to start at the highest level of education. Like it or not, they are our gatekeepers. They drive the requirements that we have to ascribe to in order to traverse that path. Else how do we convince them that the methods we choose to educate our students with have prepared them for entrance into their institutions?

    I also think that we as a nation need to remove the fear that having multiple paths towards a vocation somehow abolishes the premise that all men are created equal. All persons are not suited for a purely academic path of education. Nor should we as a nation continue to encourage students to major in fields that will have no applicable usage. We will always need thinkers and dreamers, but we need more “doers”. I think this includes more vocational type training that starts at an earlier age.

    So I do want to help reform education; I want students to be excited about education because they can see its applicability. Can it start with one Jesuit high school forging a new path? Maybe…

    • Kim McNulty says:

      LOVE this conversation!

      “Can it start with a Jesuit high school forging a new path?” — YES!

      Why not?

      What if we could help our students begin to vision what that personal goal might be for them?

      Are there ways we could give students an opportunity to explore how work and community function real-time, introduce them to professionals, help them ask good questions and discover a personal passion, and then encourage them to develop and apply their gifts/talents today and beyond graduation?

      Could that inspire a real curiosity and hunger for learning?

      How could we support teachers in this work?

      I remember at Xavier’s very first Information Nights, Chris used to talk about how Xavier would help students discover their strengths and weaknesses, build them both up and give them away. Done well, that is powerful.

      So many students “do school” without having much internal direction other than a vague notion that they must get into college — and then what?

      I’m working with a school that used Design Thinking to build a new 11th/12th grade academy focused on a bio-medical/science/technology theme. Every Friday, the students work on their own “Passion Project” – it’s amazing to see students totally engaged in research, problem-solving and learning, with the teachers there to help support that discovery. And some of their Passion Projects are focused on arts, or service unrelated to the science theme.

      There is so much potential here…

      A favorite quote is Yeats — “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire” — Amen!

      • memerson says:

        Kim —

        Thanks for the comments! Great stuff. Your recent project sounds exciting and cutting edge.

        I think Jesuit education is positioned to move in in a similar direction, committing to innovation while maintaining aspects of the curriculum that are more traditional but essential. Our schools need to recognize the need for design and creativity in STEM fields, and they must, as you say, “give students an opportunity to explore how work and community function real-time, introduce them to professionals, help them ask good questions and discover a personal passion . . .” That’s the kind of stuff that I see happening in clubs (we certainly do that in mock trial), but I think it could occur with classes, as well.

        At the same time, Jesuit ed must remember that the human person has deep needs that require classes and projects that explore matters that cannot be tested or verified or which may not have any correlation with a job. I refer to questions of personal identity and of self; of meaning; happiness; relationships; and above all the question of God. The worst days for our students (or for adults for that matter) come because they doubt the possibility of love and happiness, or because they have been wounded by someone they love and have no idea how to respond.

        I’d hope that the school you mentioned above integrates their bio-medical/science/technology track, which I like, with questions of the ethical and anthropological issues that arise. At any rate, I’d really like to hear more about the project and consider the possibilities for Catholic education.

        Thanks for sharing!

    • memerson says:

      Thanks Kelly. It strikes me that education reform is a lot like social security or medicare reform. Everybody seems to agree that changes are necessary, that the current system cannot stand: and yet it seems that the current system is so entrenched, new directions are close to impossible. But you’re right, we cannot become so sidetracked by the challenge that apathy wins.

      You highlight the dilemma at the heart of it: we have to show that we can prepare kids for college, but that means we are limited in what and how we can teach. Or does it? Can Jesuit education still conceive of itself as college preparation even if it begins to reduce emphasis on standardized testing and AP scores? One of our colleagues once said we should be Xavier Life Preparatory to better reflect our mission. I’m already thinking of conversations with parents…

      The great Jesuit Fr. John Becker used to say that Jesuit education was not designed to get kids into Harvard; it was designed to prepare them to meet Jesus eyeball to eyeball. (Now I know for a fact that Fr. Becker taught kids who later went to Harvard, and Fr. Becker must have thought Jesus was going to require a lot of writing, because Fr. Becker churned out outstanding writers.) But can you imagine if that’s what admissions directors told parents?

      I think your comment ultimately returns us to a question that perhaps is too obscured but is most important: what is the purpose of education?

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