Monday, April 27, 2009

What-the-bleep watch

Mark Taylor -- a professor of religion somewhere -- has a Truly Awful op-ed in the Times today on how specialization is bad and the idea of the department should be abolished. His suggestions for restructuring universities:
1. Restructure the curriculum, beginning with graduate programs and proceeding as quickly as possible to undergraduate programs. The division-of-labor model of separate departments is obsolete and must be replaced with a curriculum structured like a web or complex adaptive network. Responsible teaching and scholarship must become cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural.

Note the skilful manipulation of the web metaphor. I'm impressed by how swiftly and seamlessly he goes from the internet and Santa Fe theory to "cross-cultural."
2. 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 must say this prospect fills me with horror at an aesthetic level -- "I'm a professor of Time. I don't know none of that Space stuff." Besides, Taylor doesn't seem to get the rationale behind specialization, which is that there's an internal coherence to certain bodies of knowledge, e.g. physics, that has very little to do with what they're ostensibly about. This coherence is useful because it helps you see that some problems are like other, apparently unrelated, problems, which saves a lot of effort. E.g. percolation is like the onset of magnetism, which is like the vulcanization of rubber, and many of these problems -- because they're percolation-like -- can be solved by similar techniques. The original percolation problem is not particularly interesting in itself, but this is often the hallmark of a good problem to study -- most problems of actual interest are messy and intractable as posed.

I'm strongly in favor of people from different disciplines talking to each other: some very puzzling geology problems are physics problems in disguise, some physics problems have solutions that come from chemistry, and everyone needs mathematicians from time to time. But this sort of collaboration presupposes that there are physicists, mathematicians, geologists, etc. to start with. If, instead, everyone knew a mass of logically disconnected information -- everything about water, say, from creation-myths to chemistry -- no one would ever have fruitful connections to make or tools to make them with.

I don't know how far this extends to the humanities because a lot of the disciplinary boundaries are new and ad hoc, but surely it does to some extent. "Duns Scotus's use of citations" (Taylor's stock example of triviality) is in fact emblematic of the differences between medieval and modern notions of scholarship, and therefore of wider differences between medieval and modern approaches to knowledge; this sort of difference is interesting if one is trying to get a handle on e.g. Dante or Chaucer, and someone like Duns Scotus is presumably a better case to study because he's simpler, without all the irony and the literary devices.

Btw, I agree with one of Taylor's points, viz. that universities admit grad students in unreasonable numbers as a cheap way of filling TA slots. This isn't an easy problem to fix, however, and I'm not aware of any useful ideas.


andy said...


I don't take it you caught the comments for this op-ed, one of which was quite fitting. The commenter simply wrote "Sounds a lot like Hampshire College."


Zed said...

yeah, there were like 200 of them by the time i read the article. that's pretty apt though.

Anonymous said...

His recommendation to "Abolish permanent departments" is ludicrous. He goes on to say the new "constantly evolving programs" would be centered around "Mind, Body, Law, Information, Networks, Language, Space, Time, Media, Money, Life and Water. " Ah, I see what you mean: psychology and sociology, medicine, law, information technology/management information sciences/computer science, english/linguistics, atmospheric science and physics, communications, economics, and biology. We just call them different names? Admittedly some may be interesting to look at with an interdisciplinary group, such as the one he mentions, water and maybe some others. But these departments still serve as a decent framework.

Zed said...

It's worse than that I'm afraid: he wants to replace depts by these annoying interdisciplinary things where you study "water" from many different perspectives, or "mind" from a neurological _and_ an aesthetic point of view and so on. i.e. it's not just renaming, it's vandalism. And it's based on this dumb belief that if you want to solve, e.g. the water crisis, the best way to do that is to make a bunch of bright but uninformed college students read _everything_ about water. (Similarly w/ mind: instead of studying the circulation of blood, you'd have prospective neuroscientists read about Plato's cave. And so on.)

Anonymous said...

Yes, I see your point. This really has nothing to do with science does it? In science when you study "space" you really don't care what Kant and Marx said about it, or what "space" really means... (here's a space, " ").

I don't see how you train people to bring unique viewpoints to the table when they have been trained in this interdisciplinary department. How do you get what we call an economist out of this system? Presumably some of these interdisciplinary departments would need an economist. These types of collaborations seem good for PI's to get grants to do, similar to our new emergent superconductivity institute. Basing a graduate education around it is crap.

Zed said...

Yeah, I'm fine with interdisciplinarity in research, it just doesn't belong in education. I should note, btw, that Taylor makes fallaciously argues that because political scientists would be better off knowing more about religion, political science depts should be abolished. Try this, _mutatis mutandis_, with physicists and math.