Is Academia Outdated?

Mark C. Taylor, chairman of the religion department at Columbia, seems to think so, at least as it’s currently structured. His New York Times op/ed, “End the University as We Know It,” argues:

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), all at a rapidly rising cost (sometimes well over $100,000 in student loans).

This follows on the heels of similar laments, such as Thomas Benton’s piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go.”

Contained within both articles is the sense that school–particularly graduate school in the humanities–extracts value from students by having them teach intro college classes at low wages while stringing them along with promises of an academic career that will fail to materialize for the majority, all while loading them up with debt.

I think colleges, both undergrad and graduate programs, are going to have to change their emphasis to really show a return on investment to students in years ahead. I think a liberal arts education is a wonderful thing, but it’s hard to justify going tens (or even hundreds) of thousands of dollars into debt to pursue a degree that won’t bring with it a basic standard of living.

Similarly, I think the academic emphasis on a life of the mind–students and faculty cloistered in the pursuit of knowledge–will give way to smaller-scale certification programs aimed at passing along specific skills and proficiencies. Something will be lost, and it would be good for some broad elements to remain, to encourage critical thinking and depth of experience, but as it stands, the process of higher education feels more and more like a scam.

2 thoughts on “Is Academia Outdated?

  1. College has long been little more than a post High School default option, rather than a coveted privilege granted to those truly interested in learning, at least for the middle class. I’m all for a good four year social experiment, as long as people accept that’s what college really is.

    The real tragedy is that the schools with the best reputations probably give the least effective educations. These are research Universities who care little about the quality of the teaching. I have a friend at a major University who was recently denied tenure. He was told “The reports on your teaching skills shone off the page. But that’s not something we considered in our decision.”

  2. I don’t disagree with you about the “four-year social experiment.” I just think colleges are killing the golden goose by making it so expensive. Shuffling along to a theology/American studies/other not-career-oriented degree with little debt? No problem. Mortgaging decades of your life to achieve it? Big problem!

    The tenure track is its own mess–I really feel for anyone who wants to be a teacher.

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