The Arizona Desert Lamp

In praise of the ivory tower

Posted in Campus by Evan Lisull on 29 April 2009

Ivory TowerMark Taylor’s piece on graduate school was apparently quite the popular column in the Times, but hopefully not for the merit of its ideas. This proposal in particular struck me as wrong-minded:

2. 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.

Consider, for example, a Water program. In the coming decades, water will become a more pressing problem than oil, and the quantity, quality and distribution of water will pose significant scientific, technological and ecological difficulties as well as serious political and economic challenges. These vexing practical problems cannot be adequately addressed without also considering important philosophical, religious and ethical issues. After all, beliefs shape practices as much as practices shape beliefs.

A Water program would bring together people in the humanities, arts, social and natural sciences with representatives from professional schools like medicine, law, business, engineering, social work, theology and architecture. Through the intersection of multiple perspectives and approaches, new theoretical insights will develop and unexpected practical solutions will emerge.

It’s easy to bash the “ivory tower,” but this proposal reminds us why the epithet was originally positive. If you really want to see Horowitz go into a rage, wait until we start having graduate studies on the ethical implications of opposing the stimulus package, or the Lyotardian perspective on the tea party demonstrations of 2009. Do we start reading the Iliad to learn about ancient Greek attitudes towards a single-payer health care system? While the sentiment against parochial departments is nice, the proposed solution – essentially, department formation on the basis of media focus – is even worse. Even today, we see our own university moving towards renaming the architecture college the “College of Sustainable Design.” Had we the same attitudes in the 1950s as we do now, would it be the “The College of Atomic Design”?

This isn’t to say that the university should be completely aloof from the here and now. The ivory tower is a great metaphor here, because it describes exactly what the university, as an institution, should be doing: taking in the bird’s-eye view, looking at things in the long run and considering their place in a broader scheme.

This dovetails nicely with the new public-private education lobby in Arizona, Expect More Arizona, which states in its “Facts” section that:

There is a competitive shift occurring around the globe and in local communities that highlights an increasing need to strengthen education in our state.  Arizona’s students are falling behind their national and international peers in academic achievement, high school graduation rates and postsecondary degree attainment.  And our students who do graduate on time are increasingly unprepared to succeed in college, work or life.

In a world where the best jobs will go to the most knowledgeable and skilled workers regardless of where they live around the world, we cannot afford to let another day go without making education our state’s top priority.  It’s up to all of us to raise the bar, expecting more from ourselves, from our students and from each other.

We shouldn’t be surprised when the private sponsors of education lobbying efforts emphasize the economic aspects, but this has quickly become the only justification for the university. This represents a sort of debased utilitarianism, in which everything is weighted based on the jobs “generated” or the appropriation’s “multiplier effect” (multipliers, animal spirits, and liquidity traps, oh my!). If economic concerns are primary, then the proper legislative action should be to boost support for community colleges, which provide cheaper, professional education, that allows those earning median income ranges and below to acquire the skills necessary to get a new job.

The university at its best, in contrast, is marked by nothing if not its impracticality. Here is the place for reading the Greek philosophers, for pondering theoretical concepts in physics (how would Einstein have managed at a ‘jobs-oriented’ university), for allowing the baroque fantasies of the mind untethered to manifest themselves. This attitude is not inimical to societal contribution – today’s musings on futarchy might be tomorrow’s expositions on legal reform. But it does stand in stark contrast to any form of short-term “stimulus.”

NB: This post is a somewhat haphazard sequel to thoughts in an earlier post.

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  1. […] I’m dumb, Evan already responded to this article at The Desert Lamp. I’ll add my own thoughts to this later today. Possibly […]

  2. […] me what that was about libertarians caring for nothing but big business? Tagged with: Long slow death of the Academy, higher education, […]


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