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The Grad School Brain Drain

Another problem with academia: It isolates America's most deft thinkers.

The most surprising aspect of Mark C. Taylor's recent New York Times op-ed, "End The University As We Know It," is how few ripples it made outside academic circles. I was chatting with a radio producer last week who said he pitched a story on the op-ed, but others shot it down, deeming it only interesting to those inside universities.This firewall between the academic and non-academic worlds is what Taylor is seeking to breach, and so this ho-hum response lends more credence to his argument (it is true there were hundreds of responses on the Times website and many blog posts, but the commentary was dominated by academics).Taylor's ballsy piece begins by stating that "Graduate education is the Detroit of higher learning." It produces a product-Ph.D.s seeking teaching jobs-for which there is no demand. Increased division of labor in the form of hyper-specialization-the ever narrowing fields of study one must fit into as a graduate student-leads to "research and publication becom[ing] more and more about less and less." One byproduct is an inability to have a conversation between colleagues about their research (as a professor I concur-many of my non-academic friends assume my job entails long leisurely discussions of ideas with colleagues over sherry. Not so much.)Taylor calls for a restructuring of academia for the 21st century. He suggests we abandon traditional departments in favor of web-like networks. (If that shocks you, read Michael Berube's excellent post about departments versus disciplines here). Departments would wither away, replaced by "problem-focused" programs that would last seven years before being replaced by new ones. He suggests some possible new organizing principles for knowledge: "Mind, Body, Law, Information, Networks, Language, Space, Time, Media, Money, Life and Water." He wants to abolish tenure (to which I say hear, hear-though easy for Taylor and me, tenured both, to say), revamp the dissertation, particularly in the humanities, to encourage options other than the tedious monograph read by a few dozen and published at great cost, and encourage new professional options for graduate students.Your eyes may have glazed over reading that last paragraph. But Taylor's argument does matter to those outside the ivory tower.With the economic downturn, applications to graduate schools are rising. I can attest, anecdotally, that I have received more requests for letters of recommendations this year than ever-and many were from students who graduated from college three or four years ago, and have been working in non-profits, teaching in secondary schools, or trying to make it as artists. Money woes make academia more appealing.Those who want to go to graduate school are often the deftest thinkers-not the smartest, but the ones with a certain way of thinking that leads them to hungrily connect dots, seek out connections between, and precedents for, ideas. They enjoy research and pointing out where things intersect. They are young, and they have lots of ideas.A larger percentage of young, inventive, creative folk will enter an almost-bankrupt (to follow Taylor's Detroit metaphor) graduate system. Most will not get teaching jobs. Many will never finish their dissertations. They will go into debt. And they will be trained to think deeply about an increasingly narrow range of ideas intelligible to only a few others. They will become increasingly unable to enter into conversations with colleagues, not to mention those outside the academy.For these reasons, I usually dissuade students from graduate school-which often feels like an act of bad faith. Taylor, chairman of Religion at Columbia, does as well: "For many years, I have told students, ‘Do not do what I do; rather, take whatever I have to offer and do with it what I could never imagine doing and then come back and tell me about it.' " But what weight does that advice hold when there are fewer and fewer jobs? Academia, with its false promise-"come to us for seven to ten years and then you will get a cushy job"-becomes irrationally appealing. (I find it instructive that Obama, editor of the Harvard Law Review, the kind of job that often leads one towards becoming a law professor, dabbled in but did not choose that route.)Because many of our nimblest, "connect-the-dots" types of thinkers enter into the system-more and more with each Dow-plunging day-Taylor's op-ed matters. When they open the door, it seems to close pretty firmly behind them.Academia over-specialized. The faculty lounge is silent, or is repurposed into a computer lab set up with 18 separate work stations. Non-academics deem the goings-on inside the gates uninteresting to those outside it (who wants a radio show on universities? Yawn). The result? No one, inside, outside, or over the ever thickening firewall between the two, is talking to anybody.Taylor has received a healthy share of criticism for his plan, which many deem unfeasible. Many who say this are academics. But Taylor wrote for The New York Times, the closest thing we have to a national platform. He was shouting as loudly to the largest possible audience. Hats off.We need some help in the University, and we have lost some of our youthful vim to connect the dots, I am afraid. Here's hoping those who still get excited about the exchange of ideas will weigh in.Illustration by Will Etling

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