Thursday, September 16, 2010

Very Good Review

Over at The New Republic, historian David Bell reviews a new book on reforming the university. Leaving aside the already tired "the Tea Party members are going to eat your children" meme, Bell makes some fantastic points. I especially liked this part:

Most egregiously—and surprisingly, for someone with a considerable background in philosophy—Taylor fails to distinguish adequately between forms of communication and forms of knowledge. Do hypertext, multi-media, and social networking affect the way we know things? Of course. But the ways in which they do depend on the objects of knowledge themselves. On its own, the technology signifies nothing. And while communication can take place in any direction along myriad pathways, the acquisition of real knowledge cannot. It demands sequence, it demands order, it demands logic. The new technologies have supplemented conventional forms of learning and argumentation in fascinating ways, but they cannot replace them.

Taylor, however, is so enraptured by his networks that he loses sight of these important realities. Near the end of his book, he positively swoons: “No longer constrained by words in black-and-white, ordered in straight lines and right angles, you become free to reconfigure words with any color, image or sound in designed texts that can be layered and even set in motion.” Yes, we can do this, but for what purpose? Just for the sake of doing it? It is worth noting that despite the supposed superiority of new media to the boring old written word, Taylor himself has chosen the most traditional of forms—“words in black and white, ordered in straight lines and right angles”—to put across his own ideas.
It's amazing how often it seems to happen that way, isn't it? Stupid, stubborn, awesome words on a page.

So read the whole thing.

1 comment:

dcat said...

I've been waiting to post on that review for a while. Taylor has always been an iconoclast -- he spent most of his career at Williams and was there when I was there, though I never took a class of his. But his recent writings about higher education seem, well, insane.

One of my biggest problems from these Mark Taylor/Richard Vedder types who seem to be proliferating and telling us that the last thousand years of the way academia has worked and worked well is failing us is this: Oh, how convenient, you are toward the end of your careers, both have had long-tenured chaired professorships, both have benefited from the way academia is run and now suddenly you discover that tenure is bad and the whole system needs to be blown up and in many cases starved. How very, very convenient. It's a very "I've got mine" attitude. It also falls into the efficiency trap: Academia is not a business. Some things about it are going to be inefficient. Schools of education bring in lots more money than humanities departments, largely because they have created this self-fulfilling circle. Education programs are not more important than humanities. Business schools bring in ass loads of money. Business degrees are not more important than history degrees. A physicist would not cross the street to pick up the $50,000 that would be a massive grant for an English professor. That does not mean physics is more important than English. Universities are not corporations, students are not mere consumers, and on the whole the system needs tweaking; it's not broken.