Tuesday, April 28, 2009

End the University religion department as we know it?

In today's New York Times the most e-mailed article is an Op-ed piece, End the University as we know it, by Mark C. Taylor, chairman of the religion department at Columbia University. The article is worth reading and raises issues worth considering. The opening sentences are provocative:
Graduate education is the Detroit of higher learning. Most graduate programs in American universities produce a product for which there is no market (candidates for teaching positions that do not exist) and develop skills for which there is diminishing demand (research in subfields within subfields and publication in journals read by no one other than a few like-minded colleagues),
I disagree. I think overall US graduate education is the envy of the world and is one of the most effective institutions in the USA (besides the car industry, compare research universities to health insurance, public schools, immigration, banks, Wall street, welfare, public housing, ....). Most graduates, particularly in science and engineering are highly sought after by industry... (and until recently Wall St.)... There are certainly things to improve. I did a Ph.D in physics at Princeton and am very familiar with the strengths and weaknesses of the U.S. system. But overall, I think Taylor's views and arguments are coloured by his own experience. He states:
In my own religion department, for example, we have 10 faculty members, working in eight subfields, with little overlap. And as 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.
Unfortunately, I fear this may be an apt description of much research that goes on in religion departments. I certainly would not describe research in the physics department at Columbia in these terms. A return to academic theology, in the tradition of Karl Barth, would go a long way towards addressing the problems of irrelevance plaguing religion departments.


  1. Taylor's description of the environment and relevance of research certainly bears no relation to the day to day reality in engineering departments at research universities. My own experience comes from holding positions at Carnegie Mellon and Georgia Tech. At both institutions, millions of dollars in sponsored industrial research is done every year (on top of large volumes of research sponsored by government agencies). So the straw man description of universities in the NYT article doesn't need to be taken seriously.

    A separate (and important) issue is what value and skills should be associated with pursuing "fundamental" academic pursuits (i.e. those that can't be reasonably expected to make a company a profit in a forseeable time frame).

    David Sholl

  2. A quote from an article called "The Best and Brightest Have Led America Off a Cliff" by Chris Hedges:

    "I sat a few months ago with a former classmate from Harvard Divinity School who is now a theology professor. When I asked her what she was teaching, she unleashed a torrent of obscure academic code words. I did not understand, even with three years of seminary, what she was talking about. You can see this absurd retreat into specialized, impenetrable verbal enclaves in every graduate department across the country. The more these universities churn out these stunted men and women, the more we are flooded with a peculiar breed of specialist. This specialist blindly services tiny parts of a corporate power structure he or she has never been taught to question and looks down on the rest of us with thinly veiled contempt."