Mark Taylor’s op-ed has not exactly lit a fire under America’s academics. A lot of the criticism I’ve seen has been pretty legitimate. I’m still enamored of the idea of trying to make departments more supple and flexible as administrative units (Michael Berube also highlighted the department/discipline distinction at Crooked Timber).
Let me pick up on one theme that came out in a number of critiques, because I think it’s a valid rebuke of a lot of laments about the academy, including some of my own. Namely: how do you get from here to there, wherever there might be? Can you model or demonstrate some prototype or trial version of the reforms you’re arguing for?
This is one thing that has driven me absolutely wild about a lot of the conservative Mark-Bauerlein-style attacks on academic groupthink: the critics who most incessantly harp on that argument are themselves anything but pluralistic or exploratory in the way they read the work of other scholars, and show little interest in or patience for trying to persuade colleagues in sympathetic terms to change their practices.
If you’ve got a very constrained or particular criticism of academic institutions (say, for example, the role of big-money athletics) it’s plausible that there are policy solutions that could be dictated from outside those institutions, and that the road to those solutions is relatively short and simple (if unlikely to be taken). But if you’ve got a comprehensive antipathy towards the contemporary academy, you either need to talk about building alternative institutions (and how that might be done) or talk concretely about the plausible scenarios for reform. Blue-sky doodling is fine, too, but it calls for a much gentler kind of rhetoric, a more tentative voice.
Getting real about reform should involve:
1) Asking whether any institution has tried some version of what the reformer wants, and an honest assessment of the success or failure of such efforts.
2) At least a modest attempt to talk about the constituencies and interests which might support some version of the reformer’s plans, and under what conditions their ambitions might actually move forward.
3) Some attempt to concretize the new organizational and cultural forms that the reformer prefers. What would life actually be like in the new university? What would the curriculum actually consist of? What would be some of the nitty-gritty operational details?
4) Some commitments about targets, outcomes, and tests of success or failure for the new institutional designs.