The “Grad School Takeover”

Even in four-year colleges that emphasize undergraduate education, new appointments are going to top graduates from a mere handful of prestigious doctoral programs that emphasize research and professional advancement over teaching. The academic job market and tenure expectations focus ever more intently on publications, whether in book or journal form, that tend to stress contributions to scholarship over participation in public discussion. Raising funds through grants will never be as prominent in the humanities and some of the social sciences as it is in the natural and physical sciences, but there is more pressure to do it across the board, reinforcing incentives to focus on research advancements and the graduate programs that emphasize them.

What are the consequences of the increasing graduate-school imperatives for the rest of the university, including its undergraduate programs?

So asks Alan Wolfe, professor emeritus of political science at Boston College, in an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education. His answer is that the consequences are homogenizing and ultimately a threat to the “humanistic disciplines.” Among his concerns is that academics are “writing in ways that are increasingly specialized, self-referential, and designed to be read primarily by other specialists,” that they are too concerned with professionalization and that fewer and fewer of them are keeping alive “traditions of scholarship that do not quite fit the way contemporary universities conduct their business.”

(Strangely, he uses Straussians as the hard case with which to persuade readers of his thesis—it’s true even of those scholars who take elitism as methodology!—but we can put that aside.)

Wolfe calls for academic pluralism:

Of all the political philosophers who have taught in the modern university, the one who has had the greatest influence on me was the late Latvian-born and Oxford-bred Isaiah Berlin. One theme ran throughout Berlin’s prodigious efforts to make sense of other thinkers, and thus of the world. We should, he wrote, be wary of all those who say that there is only one goal worth reaching and only one proper method to reach it. “Value pluralism,” as his approach has been called, judges a society as liberal, in the best sense of that term, if it appreciates not only that there are many values, but also that such values can be incommensurate.

Berlin’s model for the best society should also be our model for the best university. It would value scholarship, of course. But it would also value many different kinds of scholarship, some narrow and specialized, others broad and of compelling interest to the public, just as it would give weight to teaching and serving one’s country.

The modern research university has unfortunately become increasingly susceptible to value monism, the belief that there is only one right way to advance, only one correct form of knowledge. The graduate school takeover, I hasten to add, is not the reason for my retirement: I simply felt that I had reached the age when it was proper to pass the responsibilities on to others. I just hope that whatever form the university of tomorrow takes, it leaves a place for those social scientists who resist the trend toward greater disciplinary professionalization. The liberal arts should be liberal enough to make a place for many kinds of teaching and learning.

The call for academic pluralism is hard to disagree with. Wolfe’s focus is on “humanistic social science,” but such pluralism seems desirable for philosophy, too.

Yet I would cast some doubt on whether that pluralism is under threat. There seems to me no less diversity in the kinds of work academic philosophers are engaged in today than before: not just diversity of topics, but of scope, method, and format, too. And no less quantity, either. It may be that fewer scholars have sufficiently “broad public reach” to “write major books on large subjects that attract a substantial number of readers outside academe,” but that is to look at the (possible) decline of one mode of communication in isolation from other media trends (which themselves might be outgrowths of pluralism in other domains). At one point Wolfe says that the humanism in humanistic social science is not anti-empirical and “has nothing to do with the presence or absence of numbers, charts, and tables.” Perhaps some numbers would help us figure out whether we should, like him, be worried.

Bridget Riley, "Parade 1"

Bridget Riley, “Parade 1”

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