Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Fixing academia: a modest proposal

Mark Taylor's recent Op Ed in the NY Times, "End the University as We Know It" makes a number of great points. I was particularly interested by this paragraph:

Unfortunately this mass-production university model has led to separation where there ought to be collaboration and to ever-increasing specialization. In my own religion department, for example, we have 10 faculty members, working in eight subfields, with little overlap. And as departments fragment, research and publication become more and more about less and less. Each academic becomes the trustee not of a branch of the sciences, but of limited knowledge that all too often is irrelevant for genuinely important problems. A colleague recently boasted to me that his best student was doing his dissertation on how the medieval theologian Duns Scotus used citations.

I think in many respects that is the heart of the matter -- hyper-specialization in the social science is making many disciplines completely irrelevant to the wider society. When social sciences try to be physical sciences and try to describe immutable truths -- they may as well just write FAIL in big letters across their foreheads.

Here's my modest proposal:

1. Specialization from the hard sciences (physics, biology, chemistry, neuroscience, etc.) -- is actually pretty helpful. It really does matter what the most finite properties of the atom are and we ultimately benefit when scientists at MIT or Cal Tech figure that stuff out.

2. By contrast it seems to me that what we need from the social sciences is breadth -- wider distribution of existing good ideas. Democracy is a pretty great idea in political science. It would be great if all people on the planet had access to democracy. So it seems clear that the world would benefit more if a graduate student in political science got on a plane and taught democracy to people in Sudan rather than writing a Ph.D. dissertation on how Rawls used commas in his early works. Sociology departments are another glaring example of where breadth (wider distribution of existing ideas) would be more helpful than increased specialization. Equal rights between men and women is a pretty good idea. So is the idea that gay people are okay just as they are. So it would seem evident that what the world needs is not another conference of sociologists all talking to each other using inside-baseball terminology. Rather, suffering in the world would decrease if these same people walked out of the halls of academia and worked on a marriage equality ballot measure or worked to train others to end domestic violence. I would wager that over half of the world's suffering -- from malnutrition to the inefficiencies of an authoritarian state, to violence against women, children, and people who are LGBT -- could be prevented with wider distribution of existing good ideas in the social sciences.

3. We need a 3rd discipline -- that combines 1 and 2. We need need a hybrid discipline of folks who can translate scientific advances (depth) into real world applications that improve the quality of life for everyone (breadth). So if someone at Cal Tech invents a great way to improve water quality -- great -- who is going to make sure that every person in Africa (or Appalachia) has access to the fruits of that innovation? Who is going to influence the political and cultural systems necessary to distribute these gains widely?

I'm happy to have hard scientists in the lab -- but social scientists need to be in the world and of the world -- not just observing things but actually working to transform hearts and minds and political systems and business practices in ways that reduce suffering and increase happiness.

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