It's the end of the university as we know it (and I feel fine)…

My inbox filled up faster than a grad student at a reception for the guest speaker with emails from correspondents alerting me to this pronouncement by Mark C. Taylor, calling graduate education “the Detroit of higher learning.”  Readers of this blog will find nothing new in Taylor’s bill of particulars:  we produce graduates for whom there are no jobs; we use grad students like indentured servants;  the students rack up huge debts; they’re trained to publish articles for journals that no one reads; there is over-specialization and undergraduate education suffers for it; disciplinarity is no longer the effective model for research and learning, yet the system poses obstacles to collaboration; colleagues in the same departments cannot pass informed judgment on each other’s work (if they can even understand it); departments operate independently from the university as a whole and tenured professors are a law unto themselves (Taylor twits us academics for screaming about regulation and oversight  in the financial industry while viciously opposing it on our own campuses); etc., etc.

So, in the immortal words of Lenin, what is to be done? Taylor proposes:

  1. Revise graduate curricula to be cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural.
  2. Abolish permanent departments, and center inquiry around various “zones of inquiry,” such as “Mind, Body, Law, Information, Networks, Language, Space, Time, Media, Money, Life and Water. “
  3. Increase collaboration among institutions, using new technologies for educational delivery.
  4. Transform the traditional dissertation (more on this in a moment).
  5. Expand employment options by broadening training.
  6. Implement mandatory retirement and abolish tenure for faculty.

Recommendations #1 and #3 are no-brainers, and, although the humanities lag behind the natural sciences in this respect, progress in these areas is inevitable.  I particularly like #2.  Check out Taylor’s rationale, for instance, for Water as a critical “zone of inquiry.”  There would be specialties, but departments would be ad hoc rather than self-perpetuating.  All in all, the first three recommendations would dovetail nicely with what we’ve been referring to as transdisciplinarity.

Recommendation #4–to transform the traditional dissertation–means, for Taylor, that students should move away from print and learn to produce “theses” in formats such as html, film, even video games.  (I once had a cartoon of a grad student standing in front of the desk of his advisor, proudly presenting his work:  “I’ve been working on a pop-up dissertation!”  I don’t think that’d count as one of the new formats).  Given the way Jacob Weisberg gushes about the Kindle, maybe Taylor is right.  I guess I will have to work on a video game for solving the riddles of non-reductive physicalism….

Recommendation #5 is somewhat less inspired.  Attending grad school, at least in the humanities, means training to be a grad school professor.  Since there are no grad school professorships to be had any more (your advisor will keep her job until they carry her out on a slab), grad students should get training for other types of work in business and nonprofit organizations.  But it does seem like this suggestion admits a certain defeat.  I wonder if Stanley Fish would approve (although, I am sure he would agree with Taylor that things are going the way Taylor describes).  The humanities, says Fish, are of no use whatsoever…but that is their beauty and most valuable feature.  The same would go for basic research, which gets ever-more crowded out by the demand for utility and profit at University, Inc.  I’m not sure I want to throw in the towel just yet, making grad school (and even undergraduate education) solely about job training.

As for recommendation #6, well, good luck with that!  Faculty members:  all in favor, raise your hand!?  This one is like our current economic crisis.  We will patch it, keep the system on the road as much as possible, bury the dead, and try to move on.  But we will not seriously try to change the financial system.  And we will not seriously try to change the educational system in that way.  It’d take a revolution….

You Say You Want a Revolution…

Well, you know, we all want to change the world.  And this brings me to the role, and perhaps the revolutionary value, of the Metanexus Global Network.  This world-wide network of metanexus research and discussion groups has a widely diverse membership reflecting the international, interdisciplinary, interfaith nature of the of transdisciplinarity as a whole.  The variety of institutional types supporting the formation of metanexus groups is indicative of the growing recognition of the importance – indeed, the centrality – of transdisciplinarity for educational reform.  Metanexus groups are can be found on the campuses of major research universities, both national and international; elite liberal arts colleges; for-profit educational institutions; seminaries; state universities; private religious schools; graduate academies; and churches.  The scope of the fundamental or foundational questions considered, the multiplicity of perspectives afforded, and the variety of activities sponsored by metanexus groups is unparalleled.  As this network of locally-acting, internationally connected metanexus groups continues to grow, so do our chances for developing the requisite metaphysical languages for dialogue, and for uncovering new spiritual insights, form making new philosophical, scientific and theological discoveries, and generating new, innovative solutions to our most pressing intellectual, moral, ecological, technological, and social issues.

I like to refer to this metanexus network as a “chaordic system.”  The term “chaordic” is a neologism coined by Dee Hock, formerly a key leader of the Visa (credit card) Corporation.  As the term implies, there is a combination of both chaos and order in the metanexus network.  Each group is independently administered, independently co-funded with institutional support, and independently exploring and investigating questions as they have arisen in each specific context.  We learned quickly that there really is no such thing, for example, as “The Science-and-Religion Dialogue,” as if it were one monolithic field of study.  There are always only sciences (plural) and religions (plural) and philosophies (plural)– pluralities of pluralities.  The questions, the methods, the context, the presuppositions, the terminological and metaphysical commitments employed in the exploration of a question at the intersection of science and religion are not the same in northern Pakistan as in Taiwan or in Banska Bystrica, Slovakia, or in St. Paul, Minnesota.  But there is at least some minimum of a “fusion of horizons” such that the metanexus program is able to tap into a collective understanding of the questions at the center of humanistic learning.  We help bring an “order” of sorts to the undertaking, not so much by standardizing the dialogue but in the sense of securing a place at the tables of discussion for all competent and committed comers.  But the very existence of the variety of the societies and their different approaches helps to generate new and sometimes unexpected higher standards for eliciting the best work from each metanexus group (and it is to be hoped, from each member of each group).  The network is thus transforming itself from being a loose confederation of individually dynamic associations into being a dynamic, chaordic, collaborative system of investigation and insight.

What are the possibilities for such a network, for such an international, inter-religious, inter-disciplinary “entity” (of a sort)? 

Waxing Prophetic

If I may be permitted to wax prophetic, for a moment, I would say that the educational and cultural world is moving towards a new renaissance.  There is a synergistic relationship between institutions and knowledge/wisdom.  The seeds of the Enlightenment were planted in the rise of urban universities in the 13th century in key centers such as Bologna, Paris, Oxford, Salamanca, and Naples.  Before this, learning was sequestered for the most part in the monasteries and consisted to a great extent in the appropriation of “traditional” bodies of knowledge.  The interchange of Jewish, Islamic, and Christian thought, along with the re-discovery of the “radical” Aristotle, went hand-in-hand with the creation of new, innovative institutions – the urban universities.  These were cutting edge associations of knowledge seekers who questioned the status quo of the educational systems of the day.  They undertook their work in physically different venues – and this fact should not be underestimated – in order to be able to wring from the new methodologies and approaches the maximum benefit and insight.

These once cutting-edge institutions in medieval Europe have grown into the respectable ivied halls of academia today.  But something to consider:  A student of the humanities (a field in which one tries to see how it all “hangs together”) from the 13th century, were he (and it was a “he”) transplanted to an average classroom at one of our best institutions in the year 2004, would hardly notice a difference.  But let him walk outside!  Let him engage in commerce, technology, communication, modern transportation, etc.  It would be a wholly alien world. 

Shouldn’t our methods of research and the delivery of education be transformed with our contextual capabilities?  I think it is beginning to happen.  Distance learning and for-profit education are the merest beginnings of this transformation.  (And, as one wit put it, anything past the 10th row in the lecture hall is distance learning anyway.) Mark Taylor is hardly the first to point out that the disciplines are more powerful (ultimately) in the certification and dissemination of knowledge than the universities and colleges in which members of the disciplines conduct their business.  It is possible, if you use your imagination, to see a future in which the ties between disciplines and departments (the toe-hold in educational institutions) begin to weaken.  Instead, picture the top minds – the ones the best brick-and-mortar institutions work so hard to attract – while continuing to professionally reside in physical colleges and universities, can be connected via a “chaordic” network of fellow researchers and explorers that goes far beyond their departments, perhaps even beyond the disciplines themselves, to the richest variety of fellow thinkers that the world has to offer – no matter the physical location of those scholars.  Imagine the creative synergy that can be generated, once that chaordic network has matured and once the technological bandwidth to support it has become a reality, when all the best can collaboratively work without regard to borders—national, disciplinary, or institutional.

Now, imagine the media for the transmission of knowledge to the next generations – i.e., the next generation of education.  A bright graduate student can study with even more specificity, even more specialization than is currently possibly, as she will have full access to this connected network (really, networks of networks, forming ad hoc nodes as the inspiration dictates).  And yet, the hyper-specialization that would then be possible (and we certainly recognize that this specialization is very powerful and valuable) would nevertheless be “tempered,” if you will, by the fact that the possibility of hyper-specialization is made possible only in the trans-disciplinary, integral, holistic, chaordic system in which it occurs.  I am suggesting that if you want the most productive, the most far-reaching, the most advanced education possible, it will have to be distance learning that will deliver it.

But, it won’t be distance learning as we know it now, featuring a few adjunct professors consigned to the furthest outposts of the brick-and-mortar institutions, trying to provide yet another revenue stream for the ever-increasing competition among institutions.  Now, distance education is something “undignified,” something marginal and clandestine and suspect…something like a so-called “university” in 13th century Paris. 

I can imagine, in the long run, there being only one real university—as its name suggests, maybe there can only be one real university.  That university will be global.  It will be a chaordic system of ad hoc nodes of interest and investigation, networks of disciplines and transdisciplines, networks of actual and virtual institutions, all question-driven as opposed to discipline-derived.  And this university will have as its mission a “turning towards the whole,” as its name implies.  But it will not be run by any single school of thought, any single interest (commercial or political).  It will not be imperial or hegemonic.  It will not produce an orthodoxy (not intentionally or consciously, anyway).  It will be the most wide-open and diverse quasi-institution, and yet – not so paradoxically, once you think about it – it will drive a strengthening of academic standards.  It will be idea-competitive, not brick-and-mortar institutionally competitive.  The very best brick-and-mortar institutions will not fade away, however.  Far from it.  They will, in this vision of the future, have the ability to draw from the resources of this same global system.  Physical labs have to be somewhere, after all, and face-to-face collaboration is always good and salutary.  But no one university would be able to corral all the top minds, not even in a very specialized narrow discipline.  The world is too big for that.  Instead, each important university – to remain important – will have to contribute to the global network(s) and to avail itself of the networks’ resources.

The level of access to education – a key driver of freedom and autonomy for any society – will be accessible to all, and the current “caste system” fueled by widely disparate levels of quality in education will eventually whither.  Top quality education will also be much more affordable.

You may say I’m a dreamer, but this “little” initiative to form relatively small groups of trans-disciplinary thinkers on campuses around the world that we’ve been working on, I believe, is a harbinger of vastly transformative things to come.

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