20 July 2004

Lamenting the Good Old Days of Academia
David Brooks' New York Times column today concludes with a lament that:
...our universities operate too much like a guild system, throwing plenty of people with dissertations at students, not enough with practical knowledge.
Why aren't there more scholars, like Hill, Gaddis and Kennedy, who teach students to be generalists, to see the great connections? Instead, the academy encourages squirrel-like specialization.
Too many universities have become professionalized information-transmission systems, when teaching should instead be this sort of relationship between the experienced Hill and the young Worthen, on whom little now is lost.

Brooks was writing about the relationship between Yale professors and their students.  While I think I agree with the sentiment here, I'm not sure that Brooks in the end is right about education today.
First, we hardly operate on a guild system anymore.  If we did, graduate trainees would never find themselves without adequate funds to support themselves for the summer (ahem, Harvard).  The guild was the ideal from which we have now strayed.
Why?  Because the PhD degree, like Bachelors and Masters degrees, are no longer about shaping minds to various degrees of specialization, but are more about credentialing.  Having a few letters after your name gets you a better job, not a better, more creative, fulfilled life.
This state of affairs is not the fault of squirrel-like academics, but it is the fault of parents and students who seem to believe that paying $40,000 per year entitles them to very specific, tangible results--a nearly perfect transcript and a guaranteed job afterward.
In spite of that, some professors are still able to connect with students in a more meaningful way.  It just takes more effort on the part of the teacher and a less mercenary attitude on the part of the student.
And by the way,  John Lewis Gaddis, that famed historian of the Cold War, cannot read Russian. Perhaps he is, in a way, a little underspecialized.


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