• September 11, 2014

Q&A: Why Mark Taylor Wants to Abolish Your Department

Amid Calls for Change, College Majors Seem Firmly Fixed 1

Richard Howard

Columbia U.'s Mark Taylor has called for the creation of new majors centered around problems, like water issues.

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close Amid Calls for Change, College Majors Seem Firmly Fixed 1

Richard Howard

Columbia U.'s Mark Taylor has called for the creation of new majors centered around problems, like water issues.

"End the university as we know it." That was the title of a much-debated essay in The New York Times last April by Mark C. Taylor, a professor of religion at Columbia University.

Mr. Taylor would like to abolish traditional academic departments and do away with tenure. What higher education needs, he wrote, is "a curriculum structured like a web or complex adaptive network."

The essay generated enormous response, not all of it friendly. At The New Republic, David A. Bell, dean of faculty at the Johns Hopkins University, replied: "The very word 'interdisciplinary' implies a disciplinary base. Presumably Taylor himself would not want academics or policy makers to address (say) the issue of radical Islam without the sort of knowledge of Islamic history and theology that a department of religion is best able to provide. Nor do I think he would want dams constructed by engineers who have degrees in water, as opposed to engineering."

But Mr. Taylor says he also received hundreds of supportive letters—and he now has a contract with Alfred A. Knopf to write a book-length version of his critique. (Meanwhile, Columbia University Press has just published Mr. Taylor's Field Notes From Elsewhere: Reflections on Dying and Living, an account of his recent experience with cancer.)

Mr. Taylor recently took a break from drafting his Knopf manuscript to speak with The Chronicle.

Q. You're hardly the first person to make arguments along these lines. For decades certain critics of higher education have called for the dissolution of traditional disciplines, generally with little effect. What makes you think this moment might be different?

A. American colleges and universities are facing unprecedented financial challenges. … Harvard, to service its current debt with no additional debt, will have to pay $517-million a year until 2038, according to some reports. The problem that you have with many of these universities is identical to the problem you have with banks. You have declining assets. You have fixed expenses, which are rising. They're overleveraged. And the sources of their income, whether private or public, are plummeting. So I think the U.S. monopoly on higher education is over. There will be increased competition from different kinds of players. … The traditional model of higher education is already obsolete.

Q. And what do you see emerging?

A. The fundamental shift that I'm talking about is a shift from a model of grids to a model of networks. Grids divide and separate; networks connect and relate. Grids are closed; networks are open. Everything in higher education should be open. The structure that we have now, where it's a fixed-length course of 14 weeks, and it takes 32 or however many credit hours—it's all fixed. Departments are frozen. Tenure is permanent. All of that has to be broken down.

Q. You've often written about strengthening ties among the humanities, the social sciences, and the natural sciences. But in the kind of fluid, build-your-own-major world that you're describing here, don't you worry that many students would design their own customized business majors, and never touch chemistry, or Dante, or Derrida?

A. You set up parameters. But there's no reason why everyone should be required to spend four years getting an undergraduate degree. That's a quantitative model. You have to have so many courses, so many years, so many credit hours. We need to shift to a qualitative model, in which we would say: I don't care how many credit hours you take. I care what you know. You're not going to get your degree in business unless you've read Melville's The Confidence-Man. Or whatever. …

When you talk to young people, the best and the brightest are frozen out by these disciplinary structures. I mean, over the years, my best students don't sit in the categories that the curriculum of the university offers them. Look, disciplines are made to punish. You've read Foucault. They're pigeonholed so long that whatever creativity they once had is pounded out of them.


1. tridaddy - September 01, 2009 at 09:16 am

Too bad this will never catch on in any form b/c the very individuals (faculty) who want students to come to the university to enhance their thinking, problem solving, and analytical skills are the very ones who will adamantly oppose an interdiscplinary, open approach to education. Scientists, at least from a research perspective, have increasingly understood that the most complex problems require a mult-faceted (discipline) approach to begin solving them. Yet, we must not forget that those same scientists are trained very specifically regarding a discipline. I've had experience with "problem-based learning" a sort of not-one-discipline approach, but trying to get students to think about a problem in a variety of ways (read disciplines). This works for some and not for all students. So, the idea of "open" major might sound good and is probably worth a look in some particular areas but caution is warranted b/c in the end this is not a game, students must graduate with a greater ability to interact and impact society in a beneficial and tangible way.

2. dcostanz - September 01, 2009 at 10:46 am

The problem with this approach is that, if extended to its logical extreme, it will extinguish the discipline specific scholars with the knowledge base necessary to teach future interdisciplinary students. From where will the biologists come? An analogy: many social scientists rave about meta-analysis as a tool for identifying "real" relationships among variables and how it is so much better than conducting individual studies because it helps correct for sampling errors, publication bias, unreliability due to small samples, etc. However, meta-analysis wouldn't exist if not for the individual studies being meta-analyzed, and simultaneously criticized by the researchers. Some middle ground, more interdisciplinary opportunities (and I am in a stand-alone interdisciplinary department) but with strong disciplinary bases supporting the academic enterprise. Extreme and simplistic solutions, such as this one, are seldom the answer.

3. rlanigan - September 01, 2009 at 11:08 am

Mark Taylor's comments do signal a crisis, but one that is always with the university as an institution. The "grid" model of "disciplines" does not respond quickly enough to structural changes in an internet world, but few faculty or administrators want to acknowledge the fact. Changing things involves risk, but also hard work (usually avoided by all). However, Taylor fails to realize that the "network" model is alive and well, but not at the undergraduate level. The network is post-grduation in the faculty societies and associations where various forms of "networks" maintain disciplinary coherence, while also interacting with cognate disciplines. Where special problems, methodologies, etc. emerge, you'll find a society and and a journal for that. So, the responsibility of the faculty is to read more widely and then incorporate the knowledge into the teaching at all levels, but especially for undergraduates (we assume sabbaticals allow for this). The best pedagogical model for making disciplines responsive to interdisciplinary knowledge is a Matrix of Modules. The "quarter system"is the best undergraduate model here. But, it can be refined so that given modules can be incorporated by any department/discipline into their own courses. For example, I teach Communicology (human communication interaction). A module on "Public Speaking", "Interviewing", or "Small Group Interaction" could be a module in any other discipline where that "competency based knowledge" is required. Some departments in some disciplines use the matrix model "in house" or as Continuing Education short courses, but the need is for modules in other departments, especially their undergraduate courses. Finally, let me suggest that there are great examples of the matrix system out there (like the University of Chicago matrix of "committees"), but they have to be used by more than one institution. Why don't we have every professional association develop a core matrix of modules to define itself (very useful for accrediting purposes as well), then invite all disciplines to utilize what they need most. This type of evolution (not revolution) is possible.

4. dpsinha - September 02, 2009 at 08:16 pm

Using Harvard's financial situation as evidence that higher education is "broken" is laughable. Their problem is similar to that of the banks for the very reason that they were heavily invested in various markets which have crashed.

Let me make an analogy, arising from experience in the sciences (which have actually been "inter-disciplinary" for hundreds of years), which points to what I see as a significant flaw in Taylor's arguments. The analogy is between disciplines and spoken languages. The undergraduate major is akin to (a choice of) the first language one learns. Some manage to grow up bi-lingually (double-major). We often need to learn another language. Learning the second language is easier because one already has the framework of the first language, and subsequent languages are even easier. Trying to learn more than one or maybe two languages at first would present serious problems, meaning in particular that there would be not enough time for depth, nuance, poetry, colorful idioms, etc. In a world where knowing six languages is needed for some problems, it would be tempting to try to learn that many at first, but that would ultimately be mis-guided.

Our undergraduate system is already broader/ more liberal than our European counterparts. European students who come here are generally better prepared for graduate school than their American counterparts because of their exclusive focus in their areas. I don't see a need to become more diffuse. Majors and concentrations are meant to lead students to achieve a significant level of depth of thought. I don't see the need for further sacrifice of depth for breadth, which would be an outcome of Taylor's suggestions.

5. sdryer - September 03, 2009 at 06:12 am

What he proposes would be chaos.

6. agcrittenden - September 05, 2009 at 09:23 pm

With respect, there is a greater point here everyone has missed.

Today's students don't give a tinker's damn about grid vs. network. They really don't even care what courses they take. All they care about is getting a peice of paper that they hope will get them a job.

Students are forgetting why they are in school. They are task oriented: assignments are drudgery to be completed but not learned from. A few manage to learn in spite of themselves, or because they truly care.

We need to look at the reasons WHY students are in our classrooms. Too many of mine just want to "get through" the nursing program where I teach so they can take the NCLEX and get a license. They are focused on working, not learning.

And if I bounced every student who thought that way out of my classroom, I would have an empty room. It is endemic in the generation.

7. rclariana - September 05, 2009 at 09:31 pm

Disciplines are here to stay (and proliferate), get over it. And don't confuse the purposes of undergraduate education with graduate education; the critiques that apply to one do not to the other and vice versa

8. chron7 - September 06, 2009 at 10:42 pm

Interdisciplinary research is a function of determination on the part of students and faculty, not whether we are organized into departments or networks.

As long as there are separate buildings on campus, there will be separate entities, no matter what they are called. I challenge Mr. Taylor to demonstrate a working network that does not have those boundaries - or depend on determined innovators to cross them.

9. chinaprc - September 07, 2009 at 04:12 am

This is so right on that Mark Taylor is nothing less than a visionary. We are already in a world where knowledge gets old very fast and the traditional ways of organizing learning are obsolete. While some of the ideas need to be refined, the basic points are 110% correct. We need to explode our existing universities and re-build these institutions to accord with the new imperatives driving work, life, and social interactions in the 21st century. We need a new pedagogy and the only to get that is to break apart what we have in place right now. This is not going to happen through a linear extrapolation of where we are right now. Mark Taylor needs to be commended for having the courage to step forward. Insteading of fearing the unknown that lies ahead, we ought to embrace it and accept it as a challenge rather than as a threat to our established norms and values.

10. authors - September 07, 2009 at 10:11 am

Out here in the provinces, the absolutely mania for quantifiable assessment has enshrined the discipline for the foreseeable future. When the bean counters are fully in the saddle, you can forget anything but the most calcified way of looking at higher education. It's the departments who have been given the task of generating the assessment. So the departments might go away?

11. nerd_for_hire - September 07, 2009 at 09:38 pm

Thank You, mark taylor. Thank you, thank you.

12. muscatine - September 10, 2009 at 09:43 pm

Mark Taylor is right on. By coincidence, I happen to have just published a book that elaborates on the same argument in many ways. I humbly call your attention to "Fixing College Education: A New Curriculum for the Twenty-first Century," Univ. of Virginia Press, Sept. 2009. Prof. Charles Muscatine

13. muscatine - September 10, 2009 at 09:43 pm

Mark Taylor is right on. By coincidence, I happen to have just published a book that elaborates on the same argument in many ways. I humbly call your attention to "Fixing College Education: A New Curriculum for the Twenty-first Century," Univ. of Virginia Press, Sept. 2009. Prof. Charles Muscatine

14. muscatine - September 10, 2009 at 09:43 pm

Mark Taylor is right on. By coincidence, I happen to have just published a book that elaborates on the same argument in many ways. I humbly call your attention to "Fixing College Education: A New Curriculum for the Twenty-first Century," Univ. of Virginia Press, Sept. 2009. Prof. Charles Muscatine

15. muscatine - September 10, 2009 at 09:43 pm

Mark Taylor is right on. By coincidence, I happen to have just published a book that elaborates on the same argument in many ways. I humbly call your attention to "Fixing College Education: A New Curriculum for the Twenty-first Century," Univ. of Virginia Press, Sept. 2009. Prof. Charles Muscatine

16. muscatine - September 10, 2009 at 09:48 pm

Sorry about the repeated message; I'm a computer novice. Charles Muscatine

17. intered - September 21, 2009 at 11:29 am

We need many more Mark Taylors.

The structure and function of higher education is an embarrassing throwback to a time when we got around in horse drawn carriages and based academic calendars on the need to get farm work done. Are we not intellectually treasonous for making our living teaching the sciences while ignoring 50 years of significant pedagogical, learning, organizational, management, and decision sciences? Are we not demonstrating our incompetence by failing to adapt to our new market and audiences, nearly half of whom are now working adults, or by employing assessment methods that would earn a 'F' in an introductory course in measurement science? What would an objective outsider say of a group who will fight to the death to retain the right to develop and mange content (curriculum) via an 18th century model when technology has given us the ability to develop structured learning objects? Are we not unethical when we insist on practices that stretch four-year degrees out to five, six, and even seven years when we have the science and technology to achieve better learning outcomes in two and one-half years? What can you say about college administration that attempts to make rational decisions with an 18th century accounting model that provides not the slightest idea about the markets and margins of the institution's programs or the productivity of its employees.

Affordability is nearing the crisis stage and accrediting bodies are a major contributor to higher education's inefficiency. In the best case, they function as preservers of the inappropriate and inefficient past; more typically, they function as employment and culture guilds, ensuring that people who think and act as they do will be in charge. Search the GIRs of any accrediting body for a single constructive instance of the term "efficient" or any guidance that institutions should manage resources well. You will not find one. Is that not shameful?

Yes, we do many things well in higher education, much in fact. Yet I believe the tipping point has been reached. Yes, the health care industry is in worse shape but, unlike higher education, health care has kept abreast of the modern world. We can now get a new kidney or hip, and antibiotics and immunizations have significantly extended life span. Were higher education delivering health care, we would still have the country doctor, administering little more than comfort for a fee that would place us in debt for a decade or more.

Unfortunately, as Mark Taylor appears to understand, change will not come from within; it seldom does. New university structures are emerging as we debate this topic. A decade ago, these structures claimed 0.5 percent U.S. higher education's market share. Today, they claim 10% market share -- and their rate of growth is increasing. Stand by for more exogenous change!

Robert W Tucker
InterEd, Inc.

18. wej1955 - January 28, 2010 at 10:19 am

Read Leon Botstein's book Jefferson's Children and the idea of educational reform at k-12 should be apparent. We still need faculty that are there for the long haul in one place though in specialties. I think the four year undergrad curriculum needs overhaul with year round courses and curriculum. Summer is a dead zone financially and intellectually. Then you can do interdisciplinary and integrated curriculum better.

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