By Richard Vedder
You would not expect the chair of the Religion Department of Columbia to be someone who has a clear headed view of the problems ailing the modern university, but Mark Taylor, that chair, has written a superb op-ed in today's New York Times.
Taylor points out that much research and graduate education is wasteful, exploitative, and does little to advance knowledge. Jobs are not available for a large portion of newly minted Ph.D.s --at least not in the field in which they have studied for 6, 8, even 10 years. Dissertations are written on ever more obscure topics --the use of citations by the medieval theologian Duns Scotus, for example. University press publications of dissertations rarely sell 500 copies, and some of those are to libraries where they are seldom read.
We do graduate education the way we do to make life easier for the professors. We get cheap graduate help to teach those annoying undergraduates, we get individuals to do the citations work for our papers that we write that are almost never read, etc. etc. etc. All of it is wasteful, costly, and does little to advance knowledge. That is obviously not true of all research, but is relevant to much of the research that I see turned out these days.
Taylor thinks we should abolish departments and have more interdisciplinary learning. Fine, I suppose, but that does not solve the bigger problem --we are simply overinvested in some forms of higher education, especially in the social sciences and humanities. To be sure, the over specialization that Taylor speaks of is a problem, and professors have little to talk about amongst themselves given their narrow specialization. We should address that, but more importantly we need to rethink all of graduate education, and given the very high cost of educating PhDs, we should start to put doctoral programs on a diet.