Do We Really Need Universities?

Mark C. Taylor, chairman of Columbia University's Religion department, started some shit. So much we need two posts to flush-it down properly. First up: Kate Perkins and Dan Kois. God can't save you now, Mark!

So Professor Taylor's main thesis:

If American higher education is to thrive in the 21st century, colleges and universities, like Wall Street and Detroit, must be rigorously regulated and completely restructured. The long process to make higher learning more agile, adaptive and imaginative can begin with six major steps

And he outlines his manifesto for reform in six points. All of it raises central questions about the purpose of education in our new information age. I got some peeps to discuss:

Kate Perkins is the managing editor of smarty-pants literary magazine N+1

The ivory tower, traditionally, has stood as a haven for the kind of scholarship that is at least indifferent to the pressures of the socioeconomic order – if not actively subversive to it – whereas today it's essentially a gold-plated monument of industry. Private universities charge tuitions affordable only to those in the same tax brackets as professional athletes, guaranteeing the next generation of American aristocracy. This is why schools like NYU (which do of course have innumerable fluffy ‘interdepartmental' study programs like the ones Taylor recommends) look absurd when their students – among the most powerful and privileged citizens in the country – are staging a protest on their nearly privatized Washington Square Park campus: their tuitions have a direct and transparent role in the erosion of the public good.

Even state and city universities disproportionately fund ‘profitable' departments in the axis of techno-pharma-sci-finance researches that yield the greatest gains in funding and reputation. CUNY's "Look Who's at CUNY!" campaign, e.g., advertises the achievements of graduate students and research fellows in ‘important' fields like ADD research and biotechnology. In this sense, graduate programs already do act as the "problem-focused programs" Taylor endorses. When universities operate in service of profits, though, it becomes difficult to tell what their responsibility is with regard to social problems and who, exactly, their problem-solving serves. It's easy to imagine a "Water program" serving not the public but the corporations monopolizing the means of its distribution, at, say, Black Water University.

If Taylor's right to describe the crisis of education as an industry crisis, it's not because, like automobiles or high finance, universities are inherent pillars of American capitalism. It's because social contribution does not equal surplus value. The genuine social utility and social prestige of universities should be based on their institutional independence from The Powers That Be. Taylor's 6 Steps make for relatively useless suggestions, since none of them relieve scholarship from its burden of profit. He's concerned with changing the internal structure of universities, rather than with restructuring the academy's place in the social order. Until that happens, no matter what bureaucratic rearrangements and curricular changes go on, they'll continue to produce the class divisions that make them institutions for the elite, by the elite.

Next up: Dan Kois, who services both sides of his brain via blogging for NY Mag's Vulture blog, and co-helming his own literary-ish endeavor At Length magazine.

In reading Kate's reply, I thought back to this article in Friday's Times, an follow-up of sorts to Mark Taylor's op-ed, currently hovering a few slots below it on the Most Emailed List. It's about a kid from California, currently somewhere between middle-class and lower-middle-class, having trouble finding a way to pay for college. In some ways it suggests that America's private universities may be doing a better job than we old people might imagine of challenging the traditional class distinctions of university life.

This kid applied to Cal, UC-Davis, UCLA, and Stanford. And now he can't pay for school, even though he got into all three of the public universities — because even in-state tuition to public universities, on top of room and board and hilariously overpriced textbooks written by your handsy professor, is way too high for his parents to afford. (Cal offered him $212 in scholarship money.) Too bad he got rejected by Stanford — that quasi-Ivy would have paid for him to go there. For kids whose parents aren't rich, great private schools — if you can get in — can be a better deal than public schools.

Of course, Brennan did not get in to Stanford. Only a select few underprivileged in America will make it through the rigors of growing up poor or lower-middle-class, the even more difficult rigors of high school, and the arguably even more difficult rigors of applying to private universities, to take advantage of this opportunity. And whether those select few will get out of those private schools without having been completely Ivyfied is a whole nother question entirely — you could make a good argument that giving a kid from a poor neighborhood a Harvard diploma effectively nullifies her poor neighborhood from all future economic consideration.

As Kate says though, Taylor isn't really talking about restructuring the academy's place in the greater social order — he's talking about shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic. Anyone who's ever been taught by a hapless grad student or, like me, has been the hapless grad student teaching unmotivated undergrads knows the system is broke. Anyone who's snoozed through a tenured mummy's umpteenth lecture on Pompeii or finished an arcane thesis only to find that no one cares about it or wants to give him a job knows that university culture needs fixing. Might Taylor's recommendations work? Sure, maybe. Maybe not. Who the hell really knows? I do know if on my first day at UNC they'd told me I could major in Mind, Body, Law, Information, Networks, Language, Space, Time, Media, Money, Life, or Water, I would've been pissed.

Sure, some kids go into college loaded for bear to solve the world's problems (Education majors), or at least with a concrete sense of what they want to do to exacerbate them (Business majors). But what about the rest of us, who trundle off to college without a clue? My major was Dramatic Arts. Then I got an MFA in fiction writing, for God's sakes. Do either of those suggest a kid with a firm grasp on his future? Add to the hopeless ones like me the many, many students who, reasonably, just want to spend their formative years drinking, fucking, and reading great books. They're already majoring in Life, baby.

Hmm, smells like education by RSS Blog-feeds to me? We have two more contributors coming, but what do all of you smart guys and gals think?