David A. Bell Reviews Mark C. Taylor’s “Crisis On Campus: A Bold Plan For Reforming Our Colleges And Universities” | The New Republic
An hilarious and damning review.
A few quotes:
The syndrome has become all too common. A provocative op-ed piece appears in a major newspaper (for preference, The New York Times). Its logic is fragile and its evidence is thin, but the writing is crisp and the examples are pungent, and the assault on sacred cows arouses a storm of discussion (much of it sharply critical, but no matter). It goes viral. And almost immediately, publishers comes calling. “This should be a book,” they coo, and the author, entranced by a bit of sudden fame (not to mention, perhaps, a decent advance), eagerly agrees. He or she sets to work, and soon enough the original 800 words expand to 50,000. But far from reinforcing the original logic and evidence, the new accretions of text only strain them further, while smothering the original provocations under thick layers of padded anecdote, pop sociology and oracular pronouncement.
Mark C. Taylor’s unbelievably misguided book provides an almost textbook example. In April, 2009, he published an incendiary New York Times op-ed entitled “End the University as We Know It,” which denounced graduate education as the “Detroit of higher learning,” demanded the abolition of tenure, and called for the replacement of traditional academic departments by flexible, short-lived “problem-focused programs.” Widely criticized (by me, too, in this magazine), the piece stayed at the top of the Times’s “most e-mailed” list for a cyber-eternity of four days. Enter Alfred A. Knopf.
Taylor is obviously right to say that university systems today, in this country and abroad, face an unprecedented crisis. Costs continue to spiral upwards even as revenue shrinks. Successive cohorts of graduate students move from the Ph.D. to the unemployment lines, or to the wilderness of adjuncting. While magnificent advances in knowledge continue to take place, many tenured professors produce little of real scholarly value. But it is one thing to say that universities have problems. It is another to argue, as Taylor is effectively arguing, that the universities are the problem—that the system that allegedly began with Kant (in fact it began much earlier) has reached the end of its intellectual and social usefulness, and needs to be swept away in favor of something radically new and untested, in accordance with technologies that are still evolving at breakneck speed. That is a reckless, wrong-headed idea, and it has no place in serious discussions of higher education’s future, even if it puts a buzz on an op-ed page.