Do We Really Need Universities, or Just the University of Phoenix?

Schools suck! And they're expensive! But who will teach us Twitter? Our discussion on education reform continues with fallen academic, but American Book Award winner, Jeff Chang and Macy Halford of The New Yorker's book-blog.

Jeff Chang discusses the "privatization of the imagination" in a piece called "The Creativity Stimulus." He shares his thoughts on Taylor's Stimulus package below:

OK first off, Mr. Taylor, stop dissing Detroit. Auto companies and generations of corrupt politicians have run the city into the ground, not the other way around.

Look. Everyone who has spent time and money pursuing an advanced degree is ambivalent about the experience, likely salty about the investment-to-return ratio, and guilty of writing an impenetrably dumb paper or two. But that shit ain't beans next to the ruination of another great American city. So stop.

Taylor's essay is nostalgic for the days when school leaders felt themselves kings because their elite research universities would drive change in business and government, an era best captured by University of California president Clark Kerr's 1963 ode to the university-industrial complex, The Uses of the University. It was a manifesto of the technocracy that produced the Vietnam War, The Best and The Brightest, and, in reaction, the student revolt.

Behind the breezy futurism, in other words, Taylor's a smelly old throwback. He seems to prefer consolidation-and-"downsizing" in an era of local renewal, the starving of arts and creativity amidst the cultural turn, and the sagacity of a few over the wisdom of crowds. In his world, all profs have to give up is tenure. Students lose method, rigor, and both intellectual breadth and depth. And since we know profs will never give up tenure…

But if we're gonna talk real change, let's consider these steps first:

1) Provide equal access to graduate education. Elite schools created bigger aid packages for poor and middle-class students only under threat of Congressional legislation. Taylor stops just short of saying there should be fewer grad students. Maybe he realizes how pathetic he'd look asking to close the door when students of color are only beginning to get in.

2) Recognize graduate student labor. Taylor notes how underpaid grad students are and how their work is central to the functioning of the research university. He outlines their intellectual and financial serfdom. So why won't universities to allow grad student unions to form? Why shouldn't grad students be granted powers in campus and departmental governance? Why not pay them justly for their intellectual work?

3) Preserve the humanities. Not just for Dan's, Kate's, and my sake. Anyone who believes that creativity doesn't have an impact should review the events of the past year or so.

4) Increase equity. The crisis of the university is not, as Taylor says, a problem of over-specialization. The research university is both symptom and cause of a nation increasingly losing the battle on segregation and the wealth gap. So the solutions ought first and foremost to be about advancing the ideas and structures that are transformative. If not for multiculturalism and affirmative action, Barack Obama would not be president. William Bennett knows.

Point is, the university needs to change first-like Detroit-from the bottom up, not the top down. Taylor is staring at the problem from the wrong end.

Macy Halford has done the Talk of the Town thing and helms The New Yorker's Book Bench. Maybe working within those hallowed halls of pretension will leave her sympathetic to Taylor's plight?

I have to second my interlocutors that Taylor has missed the point on what's wrong with the place of universities in our society-especially around questions of access, labor, and the threat of free-market models of information and profit.

I'll step back from these political questions, though,which you all have amply addressed, and ask a couple of ethical ones (not that these are entirely separate). Thinking about pedagogical ethics, Taylor's public mocking of a colleague's student strikes me as a flagrant misuse of power. But it's only part of his broader disdain toward the culture of his institution and the individuals within it, a loathing that comes through in his suggestions: cutting departments in half and teaching via Internet, streamlining paths of inquiry, forcing grad students to adopt a curriculum "structured like a web" so that they can enter jobs "in businesses or nonprofit organizations." Each of these is no less sinister for being vague and impractical. Each strives, essentially, to rid the system of its most human elements-effectively abolishing the teacher-student relationship, regulating personality and desire. It cuts to the most basic questions of the purpose of the university within society: yes, universities serve the market with ideas, but at the core of their added value is a set of guidelines and procedures (including the footnote) which aims to balance the independence of thought with accountability.

Obviously, this doesn't always work: there is plenty of academic work that is sloppy or misleading. But if we remove the aspiration, and the commitment to the openness of information at its foundation, why would we keep universities around at all? The laziness of Taylor's Op-Ed and his turn from pedagogical ethics provide a good example of the kind of argument we end up with when we don't take that accountability seriously.

I can't help thinking that Taylor's are the rantings of a man who has simply opted out of the rigors his profession demands-who has moved on from pedagogy to pedantry. He no longer offers his students actual instruction-rather than teaching them how to write papers, they produce "treatments" in "video-game format" (and in his vision of the future, thanks to the Internet, no one will even need to show up to class); he tells them to do what he "could never imagine doing." It hardly needs be said, but without tenure, I doubt Taylor would have the luxury of muddling what are serious issues facing universities today from such a visible and prestigious platform.

By the way, those dusty medievals whom Taylor so disdains had a word for this kind of argument: sophistry.

That's right, Professor Taylor! Beware the sophist!

Annnd, that's it folks. Are you exhausted? Maybe you want to take a nap and then come back and read it again? Totally works sometimes! Still, by the end of the weekend I'd like to have all this edumacation reform business taken care of so I can finally get some smarts up in this brizzain. Knahmean? Don't make this into Season Six of The Wire, have me slinging crack out the back of this blog and whatnot.

Oh, almost forgot. Dead Prez would like to weigh in as well: