My students and colleagues today pointed me to this New York Times editorial by Mark C. Taylor, the chairman of the religion department of Columbia, that begins with "Graduate education is the Detroit of higher learning." As pointed out by my students and by my colleague Matt Welsh on his blog, a lot of his arguments seem to break down when viewed from the perspective of computer science and engineering departments -- where, generally, we do try to train students to possibly do something besides becoming an academic -- and it's fun to deconstruct his article with this in mind. In particular, let's look at his 6 steps to fixing American higher education.
1. Restructure the curriculum, to become more cross-disciplinary.
I think CS (and in particular theory) does a very good job with this already, thank you, what with algorithmic game theory, quantum computing, the study of social networks, etc. And outside of theory I can point to my colleagues like Matt Welsh using sensors to monitor volcanos or Radhika Nagpal studying cell behaviors as multi-agent systems as further examples. (Yes, I know David Parkes and Yiling Chen are also obvious choices of cross-disciplinarity in action...)
One thing I generally think people (or perhaps just chairs of religion departments) fail to understand when saying education should become more cross-disciplinary is that before trying to do cross-disciplinary work it is, in my opinion, extremely beneficial to actually be an expert in (at least) one field so one has a base to work from. The corollary is that you can't just erase traditional structures and expect wonderful things to suddenly bloom.
2. Abolish permanent departments and create problem-focused programs.
Again, my opinion (and to be clear, it's an opinion) is that while problem-focused programs have their place, you need a solid base to work from. In his own example, to handle the problems with the future of water, he suggests bringing together people from humanties, arts, social science, natural sciences, law, medicine, and business together to deal with the problem in the large. That's great, but it implies you need experts in these areas in the first place to get together, which means you still need a great deal of specialized training.
3. Have smaller, more focused institutions; use technology to offer best-of from all over.
This is certainly an area for exploration, though I know it's the subject of wide debate whether distance education methods are as good as "being there". Certainly, many universities are already doing this to various degrees. I don't think we know all the answers on how to best make use of technology in this way yet, although our understanding will keep getting better.
4. Transform the traditional dissertation.
I don't think he explains exactly what it should transform into, but he seems here to be speaking to humanities people whose dissertations are essentially books nobody ever reads. Computer science dissertations are rarely read, but generally they're a collected form of papers that hopefully some people have read. I think we're fine here.
5. Expand the range of professional options for graduate students.
Good idea. CS graduates can, as again my colleague Matt Welsh pointed out, go into work in academia, research labs, industry, and government -- never mind entrepreneurial opportunities. (As a whole, theorists are perhaps a bit behind in this regard -- we really should make sure our graduates obtain some practical CS skills as well -- but apparently we're much better off than our other university counterparts.)
6. Abolish tenure.
In CS, tenure has always seemed less about "academic freedom" (a common argument for it for humanities) and more about providing a perk (commensurate with academic traditions) to make up for the generally lower pay scale versus industry. And it's a perk that demonstrates its value in periods like the current economy. What would abolishing tenure do to the university system? Who knows. It seems a situation ripe for the Law of Unintended Consequences, and I'm loathe to try to predict whether it would be a good or bad thing. Mark C. Taylor, naturally, is more confident of the benefits.
For several other criticisms of this editorial, there are plenty of comments at the NY Times site. I know these anti-University diatribes come out from time to time, but it's sad to see such a poorly argued one. While it's beneficial for universities to be self-reflecting, in this case the article just made we wish for some clearer, more rational, dare I say more SCIENTIFICALLY thought out criticism.