Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Another Book I Have Read But Not Myself

A running theme here is my take on stuff that I haven't read.  Well, I spewed recently about tenure and here is a review of a book that castigates this holy institution.  So, now I can say this is a book I have read not a book I myself have read.
Speaking of spew-age, here is a nice rant:
The syndrome has become all too common. A provocative op-ed piece appears in a major newspaper (for preference, The New York Times). Its logic is fragile and its evidence is thin, but the writing is crisp and the examples are pungent, and the assault on sacred cows arouses a storm of discussion (much of it sharply critical, but no matter). It goes viral. And almost immediately, publishers comes calling. “This should be a book,” they coo, and the author, entranced by a bit of sudden fame (not to mention, perhaps, a decent advance), eagerly agrees. He or she sets to work, and soon enough the original 800 words expand to 50,000. But far from reinforcing the original logic and evidence, the new accretions of text only strain them further, while smothering the original provocations under thick layers of padded anecdote, pop sociology and oracular pronouncement. Call the syndrome Friedmanitis, after a prominent early victim, the New York Times columnist Tom Friedman.

On tenure:
He dismisses—in a few sentences—the idea that it might protect academic freedom, noting that he has never personally seen it under threat, and that in forty years of teaching he has never met a professor “who was more willing to express his or her views after tenure than before.”       On the second of these points, I can only conclude that Taylor and I know a very different set of academics. As to the first of them, well, Taylor’s personal experience came at Williams College and Columbia University. Perhaps he should think for a moment of what it might be like to teach at a large public university in a state where Tea Party members increasingly dominate the legislature, denouncing “radical professors” and calling for the further slashing of university budgets. Would he feel entirely free, at such an institution, to start a research project on, say, homoeroticism in American poetry? The evolution of dinosaurs? The history of racial discrimination in American evangelical churches? Corruption in the state senate? Lifetime tenure, for all its problems, still provides a very real safeguard for the advancement of unpopular ideas.   
And finally:
But it is one thing to say that universities have problems. It is another to argue, as Taylor is effectively arguing, that the universities are the problem—that the system that allegedly began with Kant (in fact it began much earlier) has reached the end of its intellectual and social usefulness, and needs to be swept away in favor of something radically new and untested, in accordance with technologies that are still evolving at breakneck speed. That is a reckless, wrong-headed idea, and it has no place in serious discussions of higher education’s future, even if it puts a buzz on an op-ed page.
 Indeed, there is a reason why heaps of innovative businesses tend to emerge around universities, like computer and biotech.  Colleges and universities are far from perfect, but what would be the alternative?  How do we get there from here?  What would be lost?  The love of online stuff misses the fact that much of our knowledge is essentially social--that we learn not just from the profs but from each other.  My students are busy creating online study groups in the first week of the term.  They might be thinking about division of labor, but what they will really gain is from the varying perspectives all combined at one place--this university.

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