Escaping from the Academic Iron Cage


Universities play a major role in adding new beliefs and norms to the cultural structure that drives society. They have been largely responsible for maintaining the Cartesian model of reality and the scientific method by which we create knowledge. This centerpiece of modernity has been credited with much of the progress generated over the past 3 to 4 centuries. In more recent times this central belief has come under fire for several reasons. The most critical is that it is not up to the task of understanding the world in all of its complexity. The second is derivative of the first. The failure to appreciate this complexity and act accordingly has created unintended consequences that threaten the very idea of progress. Unsustainability of the human and natural worlds is the outcome that I focus upon in my book.

Universities are notoriously institutions with deeply embedded cultures. As "protector" of the world's knowledge they claim special privileges. Arguments for changing their disciplinary and pedagogical foundations are many, but little change has taken place. The disciplinary structure has gotten even more entrenched as sub-disciplines proliferate. Writing in the NYTimes, Professor Mark Taylor sketches out a set of proposals to "End the University as We Know It." His stance is highly practical, focusing on the growing inadequacy of experts and their highly specialized knowledge to take on the key problems of modern society.

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.

Of the six steps he proposes, the first one, addressing the issue of complexity and interdependence, most closely matches my own sense of what is needed for sustainability.

Restructure the curriculum, beginning with graduate programs and proceeding as quickly as possible to undergraduate programs. The division-of-labor model of separate departments is obsolete and must be replaced with a curriculum structured like a web or complex adaptive network. Responsible teaching and scholarship must become cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural.

Just a few weeks ago, I attended a meeting of political scientists who had gathered to discuss why international relations theory had never considered the role of religion in society. Given the state of the world today, this is a significant oversight. There can be no adequate understanding of the most important issues we face when disciplines are cloistered from one another and operate on their own premises.

It would be far more effective to bring together people working on questions of religion, politics, history, economics, anthropology, sociology, literature, art, religion and philosophy to engage in comparative analysis of common problems. As the curriculum is restructured, fields of inquiry and methods of investigation will be transformed.

Perhaps the market will play its hand in bringing about change as debt-ridden graduates find little or no opportunity to find satisfying jobs that compensate them sufficiently to discharge these debts. Universities, like government and large business enterprises, tend to become more and more bureaucratic over time, as Weber wrote. Pressure from thier clients, students and other knowledge-seekers, may eventually garner enough force to open their iron cages and return them to their rightful and important role.