End the University as We Know It

A friend sent me this interesting article from NYT that discusses the sorry state of the American graduate education that current economic troubles have brought into full fore but which have actually been around for ages. It is an insider’s account to a topic that I recently touched upon myself – an increasing specialisation and the division of knowledge into ever increasing number of subfields that have little contact with each other and even less with the rest of the world. And while I am, at least to a certain extent, symphatetic towards viewing knowledge as transcendent good, the relevance of the knowledge produced by the system of higher education has long been a serious issue – and not only in economic terms.

As the shit has now officially hit the fan also in terms of academic funding, there are cuts and pinches all across the board. Several highly reputed universities are drastically reducing their intake of graduate students this year – at Emory it will be down by 40% in 2009, Columbia is cutting 10% and so on. At the ACLA conference at Harvard, the availability (or rather, the lack thereof) of tenure track jobs was something that was being discussed both formally in panels as well as informally between aspiring PhD students in pubs. What has long been a kind of a game of musical chairs (in terms of there always being less faculty positions available than there are graduate students who hope to eventually get a tenure) has now officially turned into a bloodbath. The evaporation of already slim chances of getting tenured are now combined with the overall drastic worsening of the job market and this is very bad news indeed for young people who have been studying something obscure for last six years while taking student loans in order to pay their undergrad tuitions and living expenses.

Mark Taylor makes some very pertinent suggestions in his article – but if you thought that turning around the US auto industry is difficult then watch this. Although it is evident that the current system is seriously flawed, I am not overly optimistic that plans to do away with the academic disseration or tenure system as we know it; or forcing people from different fields into an applied research would be greeted with much joy and support. For all practical purposes concerning the present academia, this would be a transformation akin to the one that started with nailing of 95 theses to a Wittenberg church door in 1517. Many of the things that Taylor recommends have actually been tried, to varying degrees of success and disaster, in smaller universities, but have so far been mostly even beyond consideration for the most prestigious and well-known istutitions of higher education. Academia has indeed become a kind of a modern clergy and while there has been some heresy at margins, the center has remained true. But it looks as if things might be falling apart now also here.

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