Reforming Graduate Education

I am not usually one to feel nostalgic. It is not my nature. But there is something about the idea of an ancient academy or a very old university that makes me long for the past. Perhaps I have been deceived by the romantic image of Demosthenes running on the beach with pebbles in his mouth, speaking beautifully over the roar of the Mediterranean waves. Or maybe the seal of the University of Heidelberg has fooled me into actually believing that a typical seminar in 1386 was conducted by a man wearing academic regalia seated in front of an ornate chancel. Whoever this important man was, he probably spoke with eloquence. At least I hope he did. I have come to imagine the classical university as being a prototypical T.E.D. conference, a place where the power of an idea was carried not only by its intellectual content, but also by the theatricality of its presentation.

Fast forward to the present in Santa Barbara, California, where I am a graduate student. Are people filled with a spirit of learning at the university? The answer is yes only if by the word, “spirit,” one really and cynically means, “weariness.”

Last week, a graduate student of environmental science and management here was so excited by the arrival of a visiting professor that she gave him a warm hug as soon as he walked in the door on the first day of class. Despite her abundant enthusiasm, she admitted to me privately that she is so tired of the subject of carbon dioxide taxes and pricing — a cornerstone of effective climate policy — that she has no desire to talk about it anymore, though she fully understands its importance. Unfortunately, her case is not uncommon: Some of the most capable people in the post-graduate ranks feel uninspired or disempowered. They may enter graduate school full of creativity and find that after about a year, the light within them no longer burns as brightly as it once did.

Knowing exactly why this happens is difficult, but one cannot help but suspect that it has something to do with academic culture. This weird culture is evident every time a respected scholar receives applause for narrating a series of ugly PowerPoint screens for ninety minutes using language that is all but incomprehensible, pausing only once to apologize jokingly for not being feminist enough. The fact that people deliver such terrible presentations is suggestive enough that something is wrong. But the additional fact that those same presentations can help people to earn prestigious honors — which truly, they can and do — suggests a crisis in the academic system.

The crisis I am referring to is about how one communicates and how one motivates like-minded people to appreciate and develop powerful ideas. After a year in graduate school, I have begun to realize that a good idea is rarely carried by a politically correct sentence that the speaker took years to learn how to construct. Some people are good at connecting with others in this way, but most graduate students are terrible at it.

Who on campus is practicing inflection, attitude, and persuasion? Who is willing to offend someone on occasion? I am amazed at how few good communicators I have encountered on the campus where I live and work. Ironically, I believe that universities have become homes to countless people who are too weak to cultivate themselves in meaningful ways. The intellectual life that is actually practiced is a life of pointless word games. Winning the word games can mean winning promotion.

All of this helps me to explain why I so enthusiastically welcomed a recent recommendation from Mark Taylor, the chairman of Columbia University's religion department, to “end the university as we know it.” Professor Taylor is most concerned about graduate students' lack of preparation for careers that will actually be available to them. He writes:

Graduate education is the Detroit of higher learning. Most graduate programs in American universities produce a product for which there is no market (candidates for teaching positions that do not exist) and develop skills for which there is diminishing demand (research in subfields within subfields and publication in journals read by no one other than a few like-minded colleagues), all at a rapidly rising cost (sometimes well over $100,000 in student loans).

The same culture that rewards rhetorical weakness is, by and large, the same culture that fails to train students for skills that really matter. Among those skills are the ability to solve real problems. This is why one of Professor Taylor's most audacious recommendations is also one of his best:

Abolish permanent departments, even for undergraduate education, and create problem-focused programs. These constantly evolving programs would have sunset clauses, and every seven years each one should be evaluated and either abolished, continued or significantly changed. It is possible to imagine a broad range of topics around which such zones of inquiry could be organized: Mind, Body, Law, Information, Networks, Language, Space, Time, Media, Money, Life and Water.

If this recommendation were implemented well, it would produce a system in which students feel a sense of ownership and empowerment about their work. However, the idea will not resolve the deeper crisis of imagination in academia if administrators or policymakers fail to take active steps to create environments in which people are rewarded for inspiring other people. Incentives need to be revamped. Developing a good idea and writing about it should not be enough to gain recognition. Scholars need to spend some of their time as salespersons, pitching their ideas in the hope of gaining support. If they complain that selling is a waste of time, then they ought to be reminded about how much more clearly and effectively they will be able to think about their work as a result of more fully engaging their audiences.

I do not congratulate myself for having avoided the problems about which I am complaining, because I have not avoided them. Perhaps someday I will speak as well as Demosthenes or that imaginary character in the Heidelberg crest. But if I do, then it will be a skill I will not have learned in graduate school.