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.