A reader asks for my take on this opinion piece that appeared in The New York Times on the 26th of April. The essence of the piece is that the old organizational structure of the university based on disciplinary integrity is outdated and we should move to an interdisciplinary model driven by important questions. It is written by a religion professor at Columbia University.
There are three main points I want to make. The first is the flaw of logic that is so large you could drive a cruise ship through it. This is the assertion that we need to break down the old disciplinary groupings and focus instead on cross-disciplinary problems. Religious studies scholars should talk to political scientists, for example, to solve the religiously motivated political tensions that exist in the world. The problem here is: where do the religious studies experts and political science experts come from so that they can get together and solve all the worlds problems? Without training in traditional disciplinary programs, there is no expertise, no canonical education that produces precisely the type of expert that Prof. Taylor speaks of. Without the discipline-based education what you would get are students who are knowledgeable in many things but experts in nothing. This is a huge distinction that is lost on many people. As a public policy student I became very knowledgeable and could have been a very useful member of society in applying that knowledge. But it was in the core economics education I received that gives me the expertise to apply economics to public policy questions. It is people like me, in other words, that create the knowledge that the generalists use. I think an inevitable result of breaking down discipline specific programs would be the prevalence of ‘good sounding ideas’ but no real way to study just how good they really are.
This leads to the second point. It may be that religious studies students are studying things of no real use, but this is a problem of religious studies not academics in general. I have a hard time thinking of any research in economics that is not directly relevant and valuable to contemporary real world problems. In fact, economics is often accused of straying too far into other disciplines so you might think we are eager to see these lines blur, but this is wrong. Without the intense core economics education such intrusions in other fields would be useless, it is precisely the economists eye on a psychological problem that adds value (and a psychologists eye on economics as well). Rather than blaming academia as a whole for the failings of religious studies, Prof. Taylor, the chair of the religion department at Columbia, should be focusing on why his own discipline has been so stuck in medieval ways.
The last point is that economics has already responded to the changing marketplace for higher education and research (which is perhaps why economics is so successful). Our dissertations today look nothing like those of medieval dissertations or economics dissertations of thirty years ago. Economics has become flexible and our dissertations are usually just bundles of papers on diverse topics because this avoids precisely the sub-sub field problem described by Prof. Taylor. Our graduates are in high demand and not just for academic jobs, but in government, business, consulting, banking and even journalism. Clearly the training and expertise we provide have a high value precisely because of how applicable they are to real world problems.
Two other more minor points also need to be made. First Prof. Taylor argues for an end to tenure, but without tenure, the incentive is to avoid researching the hard questions and rather focus on areas that are popular, have good funding and are easy to publish in. This is not what you want out of university scholars. Tenure is not job security for life, but it does represent intellectual freedom. It does have incentive problems but the alternative is not attractive. [And, as pointed out on this blog before, tenure is a part of compensation, without it you would likely have to increase faculty pay]
Second, as is pretty clear from my comments, think Prof. Taylor is startlingly myopic – unable to see past the problems of his own field - but yet he is quite ready to generalize his problems to the entire academy. For instance, teaching via teleconference might be effective when you are just delivering a long speech on say, early Christian thought, but trying to teach economics that way is unlikely to be successful as there is a lot you have to do to build mathematical models, draw the resulting graphs, perturb them to make predictions and quiz student to make sure they get it. There is a lot of value added to being in the same room, not to mention all the help faculty provide outside of class.
All of the problems he lists are really problems of fields like religious studies where, essentially, the problem is lack of jobs. Clearly the presence of PhD students for whom there are no jobs in his department is what motivates Prof. Taylor to write this. It can be read as a desperate attempt to say, "religious studies PhDs really are valuable, it is just that the old structure devalues them!" So the answer is: they should be hired by political science departments... But it is not the structure of higher education that has devalues religious studies, but religious studies as a field itself that has done it. If the important questions are about religion and politics, that is where the field should place emphasis.
Fortunately, economics is very responsive to markets and remains a valuable field both in and out of the academy. Almost all economics PhDs in the US have a job in their field within a year of getting their degree. As I have mentioned before, university graduates earn wages that are about 75% higher on average than high school graduates, so universities must be doing something right. But Prof. Taylor never mentions undergraduate education, funny that...