Blog Post

End the University As We Know It

Columbia prof Mark Taylor has a piece in this morning's NY Timesadvocating that it is time to end the university as we know it. Couldn't agree more! I don't buy all his points but his message isright that universities demand a drastic overhaul conceptually and bureaucratically.


Tenure? We gotta keep it---but in the present form? Probably not. Here's the url for Taylor's piece. My one regret is that it is a bitRip Van Winklish in not recognizing that HASTAC and many otherorganizations dedicated to changing institutions of learning have been working on this for decades. Change is happeningeverywhere around him--although, sadly, not so much in the elite humanities departments that he is familiar with. He's hardly the first or the most exciting onthis matter of educational change but his essay is worth reading and so are the hundreds of comments, some of them wise and some just plain angry in all directions:


Incidentally, in a very interesting new book, Crowdsourcing: Why the Power of the Crowd is Driving the Future of Business, Jeff Howe makes the fascinating argument that one reason crowdsourcing works is because of the worldwide "overeducation of the middle-class." In the U.S., that means 63% of those who graduate from high school go on to post-secondary degrees. He says this is a GREAT thing for the digital world and that crowdsourcing exists because most undergraduates still receive a general liberal arts education, with 50% of courses still being electives nationally, and that makes for the kind of flexible, intellectual curiosity not only needed for the twenty-first century but that is also the lifeline of crowdsourcing. He argues that most people have abundant interests and passions not fed by their jobs and so they are excited to contribute their intellectual labor to crowdsourcing activities that are more nourishing than their jobs. He's all for it, and is a huge advocate for undergraduate education that emphasizes problem solving in the Big Think theoretical, probing, nurturant way.


On the other hand, he is as cynical about professional training as I am, not just in the humanities and arts but all across the sciences, computational sciences, engineering. He makes the fascinating point that it isn't just MFA's in art who find themselves supporting themselves in other ways than by being artists supported by their galleries. There are more Ph.D.'s in astrophysics doing investment banking than astrophysics. And he, again, would say that is a good thing for investment banking and crowdsourcing . . . although probably exactly the wrong thing for astrophysics in the sense that specialized training there can overspecialize one's way of seeing the world, making one replicate a profession rather than trained to make new discoveries that radically expand that profession.


The professionalization of the post-Humboldtian university led to the professionalization and narrowing of disciplines. Howe talks about the 19th century's passion for "botanism" and how, in 1897, when botany becomes an official field, the professional botanists worked to have "nature studies" eliminatd from the curriculum of undergraduates and the whole amateur passion disappeared. He argues that crowdsourcing brings back loving and involved amateurism again, with the result that crowdsourcing projects such as the ornithological project by Cornell or Galazy Zoo by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey are making huge scientific strides that professional scientists can't even see. Professionalization makes one blind to larger issues, insular, and peer review can make one timid. Crowdsourcing makes anyone and everyone who knows something be a peer, subject to review by other peers.


What if we crowdsourced peer review for tenure? How's that for an interesting idea? Or at least an interesting provocation.


David TheoGoldberg and I have a book coming out this fall from MIT Press, The Future of Thinking: Learning Institutions in a Digital Age... It touches on a number of these ideas, taking much further than Mark Taylor does some of the ideas he proposes in his NY Times op ed:


If you hate this piece, you will really hate the new book David TheoGoldberg and I have coming out this fall from MIT Press, The Future of Thinking: Learning Institutions in a Digital Age.


Here's the url for the research paper (condensed version) of the forthcoming book:



Et tu Mark Taylor? Reblogged from Savage Minds

by ckelty on April 28th, 2009

Some days all I have time for is



This is by Marc Bosquet in the Chronicle of Higher Education


Hi Cathy,

Looking forward to the new book!

The Op-Ed has been making the rounds on facebook too. Below, I've reworked my comments from the FB discussion.

First, I like Taylor's number 2: problem-focused programs rather than departments. Not sure how that would be achieved bureaucratically though.

Taylor calls for eliminating disciplinary boundaries in order to privilege research that addresses 'problems.' Would such a realignment in thinking be kinder to
some disciplines
than others? Would it lead to an increased politicization of academia
and bolster criticism of higher education as the bastion of the left?

I wonder if "interestingness" as a justification for research might
have to be rethought... And here what I'm getting at is not that
problem-focused research would somehow not be "interesting," but rather
that being able to justify research as intellectually titilating rather
than problem-focused may have become a (necessary?) way for academics to elide ideological
responsibility. Does a problem-focused research paradigm require greater transparency?

Or will "problem-solving" become an equally opaque justification? I.e. in the same way that politicians tout pragmatism with phrases like "getting stuff done" as a way of eliding the ideological underpinnings of any policy decision.



Hi, Josh, Great to meet you at UIUC.


I wrote the first version of this in the Admiral's Club amid many announcements of delays and non-delays so then went back and expanded it once I got home. I like your points a lot. I especially think we need to address "problems" but the problems are ones like equity, racism, global divide, intellectual property, etc, the big and persistent human problems, not narrow problem-solving. I'm still big on Toffler's idea that the literacy of the 21st century isn't just reading, writing, and arithmetic but the ability to learn, unlearn, and relearn. That's the problem-solving I want to teach: how you learn how to change, how you learn how to learn. Best, Cathy

48 That's the url for Jack Halberstam's blog, with commentary, on her Bully Blogger site


Hey everyone,

I wrote an essay-style reaction to Taylor's piece, analyzing it from a more political/economic perspective.