30 April 2009

hi, i'm majoring in water

Earlier this week a professor who taught at Williams while I was there (I never had him) wrote a provocative takedown of graduate education in the New York Times. I've written before about some of the problems he identifies-- hyper-specialization being the main one.

I mostly agree with Taylor's diagnosis of the problems, though I think they're less relevant to the hard sciences and than they are to the humanities and the social sciences, and they don't really apply to professional schools (medicine, law, etc.). However, most of his solutions strike me as wishful thinking. I would love to see tenure go away, but it seems like one of those institutions, like the Electoral College, that only a major crisis with dislodge. I think he also vastly overestimates the potential of teleconferencing and the internet; there are just too many advantages to flesh-and-blood interaction. Solutions 4 and 5, modernizing the dissertation and preparing grad students for something other than academic self-replication, seem like the most realistic ideas and the ones most likely to make an immediate difference.

It also occurred to me that we still need increasing specialization; it just can't be the be-all and end-all. To some extent, creeping hyper-specialization is an inevitable consequence of the expansion of human knowledge. John Maynard Keynes engaged with a much wider swath of economics than contemporary economists (with a few exceptions) partly because there was a lot less economics to know back then. I think what academia needs are better and more creative ways of managing the necessary tension between interdisciplinarity and specialization. Our stodgy system of rigid departments and neglected interdisciplinary programs goes too far in one direction; I suspect Mark Taylor's "complex adaptive network" with "problem-focused programs" goes too far the other way.

Tomorrow I'm off to my weekend in Copenhagen, or as the Danes call it, København. I've read that the Danes are the happiest people on Earth, according to survey data, so maybe I'll learn a thing or two about what makes them so cheery. I bet it's the pastries. Støked!

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