Mark C. Taylor, Chairman of the religion department at Columbia University, wrote a provocative op-ed piece in the April 27th issue of the New York Times, arguing that graduate education should be dramatically restructured. 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).

Although I take exception to his characterization of “Detroit” as producing a product for which there is no market (This is an over-generalization for effect that Taylor does throughout the editorial.), I do agree that the academy has compartmentalized learning to the point that a college education at many institutions does not prepare people adequately to solve some of society’s most intractable problems. He uses the example of studying international relations without studying religion. I immediately thought of violent conflicts in the Middle East, where religion plays a huge role in the geography, economics, health care, law, and education of people in that region. Taylor goes on to say:

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 The division-of-labor model of separate departments is obsolete and must be replaced with a curriculum structured like a web or complex adaptive network.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.

It strikes me that this “division-of-labor” model starts in K-12 education, especially high schools that separate students into classes that teach narrow disciplines (e.g., American history, algebra, biology) and continues after college in business and industry, where R&D, manufacturing, quality assurance, customer service, marketing, sales, public relations, distribution, logistics, and administration are all separated from each other by walls (literally and figuratively) and, sometimes, buildings and even countries. These are divisions that make sense from a control standpoint, but make little sense from a learning and high performance standpoint. The traditional compartmentalization of work is a barrier to sharing information, finding solutions to organizational problems, and producing great products and outstanding services. Everybody complains about “silos” in our organizations but it is very difficult to change a way of thinking that was learned in grade school and reinforced in college.

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