I really do not get the vitriol directed at Mark Taylor’s op-ed that we discussed here briefly last week. Elsewhere, in more insane corners of the academic blogosphere, Taylor has been characterized as naive, out-of-touch, anti-specialization, bent on asserting religion’s hegemony in the intellectual world, and in general a moron who never should’ve been given space in the New York Times — I trust that everybody slinging mud at the Times would turn down their invitation on general principle to write an op-ed.
Marc Bousquet’s column in the Chronicle of Higher Education is apparently ground zero of criticism, and he does everybody a service in making Kugelmass’ screeds completely unnecessary. Consider yourself fortunate. While I’m very sympathetic to Bousquet’s work in general, and even think he makes very good arguments here, some of his central points ring hollow to me. He pounces on Taylor’s lede: “Most graduate programs in American universities produce a product for which there is no market.” Bousequet rightly points out the major problems with this observation, but fails to notice that Taylor’s argument is not wed to his (in my estimation, half-assed) criticism of the labor-situation in the contemporary university. It seems to me Taylor wanted to do something with the Detroit analogy, and simply didn’t follow through on it very well — something I think happens throughout Taylor’s oeuvre. It would’ve been far more effective if he’d just stuck with his observation a little later: “The dirty secret of higher education is that without underpaid graduate students to help in laboratories and with teaching, universities couldn’t conduct research or even instruct their growing undergraduate populations.” This actually seems to get at the point of his op-ed, and actually seems very uncontroversial — indeed, based on his own column, it looks like Bousquet actually agrees with this! If this is the case, I don’t see how Taylor’s inflated notion of how much adjunct professors make p/course undercuts his point — Bousquet makes a big deal out of this, but it may simply be that Taylor’s perspective is skewed by his present pay-grade or that Columbia maybe pays really well — time to dust off the CV!) If anything, the reality on the ground (i.e., that adjuncts get paid much less $5000 p/course) would support Taylor’s broader point that adjuncts are badly utilized. Who, besides administrators (aka, the Enemy), disagrees with this?
Now, obviously Taylor’s contention that the tenure system is to be blamed for this is not readily apparent for all to see. It is, to be sure, a radical and controversial suggestion, and arguments could definitely be made in defense of tenure. Indeed, as mentioned above, I think Taylor errs in beginning his argument from the point of view of labor. He may have sympathies here, but it doesn’t seem this is where his heart is at (certainly not in the degree to which it is for most on this blog or, apparently, Bousquet). As Adam K. pointed out in a conversation this morning, Taylor very likely would have a problem w/ the current setup even if the labor situation was fine. Some have “argued” that Taylor makes this point in the spirit of following a fad. This is ridiculous. I’ve followed Taylor’s evolution as a thinker since my first year in graduate school, with various degrees of intensity and agreement, and think it accurate to say that if he is guilty of anything it is creating fads, not following them. Taylor is not jumping on tenure because it is the cool thing to do; more even than his concerns for the exploitation of adjuncts, I would argue that his attack is a natural outgrowth of his philosophical inquiries, esp. as they relate to complexity theory. Of course, some might say complexity theory itself is already faddish, but I challenge you to show me how it has seriously affected the structure of the contemporary university and/or its curriculum.
Now, personally I have no problem with his take on inter- and cross-disciplinarity, or the restructuring of the university. Taking aim at over-specialiation is not the same thing as destroying specialization; and interdisciplinarity does not mean the end of disciplines. As I argue in my dissertation, itself awaiting publication in the woefully misguided academic publishing system, thus participating in the ridiculous game of meritocracy, specialization and disciplines in a complex system would not be eradicated so much as they would actually emerge (and yes, decline) organically. Again, one could certainly disagree with this notion and come up with solid arguments against or to supplement it, and invite you to do so here, since it doesn’t seem to be happening anywhere else.