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Wednesday, March 01, 2006

More on Stuntz and the Academy

Thanks to Rick for posting about Bill Stuntz's typically great piece on Summers and higher education.  A couple more comments, if I may.  The first is that Stuntz's piece extends and expands the arguments we seem to be regularly having, not only about the role of the university, but about the role of the scholar and his or her scholarship, as in the discussion about the relationship between scholarship and blogging, or the earlier back-and-forth involving Rosa Brooks's discussion of the future of the law review article on LawCulture, which we commented on extensively over here. 

Parenthetically, I don't know why this seeming identity crisis seems so hot right now, and welcome comments on that -- although I don't think stock arguments about academics being useless or politically biased and so forth really fully answer the question.  One must also accept that a certain amount of self-analysis and publicly displayed agonizing are just part of the process for academics, who think and write, and therefore are likely to pick at the topic of their role in the universe just as they pick at everything else, and in public.  It may be, moreover, that some of the most self-questioning folks are also the most likely to write on blogs or for publications like TNR, so that there is a statistical over-representation of these discussions in public; or that the market of readers for such discussions has grown, for whatever reason.  So nothing about the seeming volume of head-scratching about the academy necessarily suggests that the growing volume of discussions of crisis actually corresponds to the degree of crisis in the academy or among scholars.

Nevertheless, Stuntz's passing effort to draw the discussion of the role of scholarship into the standard discussion of the Harvard situation is worth noting.  Here's what he says:

Overspecialization breeds self-indulgent scholasticism. Too many scholars write for an audience of dozens (if that--a good friend of mine says he writes for six people), and far too few write for thousands, fewer still for millions. In a bygone era, the best intellectuals wrote for educated people generally, not for a handful of specialists. American universities are chock full of brilliant minds that keep their brilliance locked up in a closet, talking only to people in their small corner of the intellectual world. Graduate education and academic promotion standards push scholars to fine-tune their disciplines' methodologies.

So, in a nutshell, he's raising something like the Rosa Brooks thesis.  Now, a couple of things strike me as interesting about his observation, which does not seem unduly controversial on its face.  (These points are largely addressed, by the way, in Posner's very readable book on public intellectuals.)  The first is simply to note that public intellectuals are subject to the same supply-and-demand problems as everyone else, and if fewer public intellectuals are writing for millions, and more of them are relying on the steady income supplied by universities (which means they must meet university standards for their writing and in any event have less time for generalist work), that may be because there are no millions out there clamoring for public intellectuals' output (or their print output, at least).  [more after the jump] 

Second, his last claim -- that graduate education and departmentalization have led to an emphasis on disciplinarity -- is an interesting one, because it is also, perhaps perversely, an outgrowth of the very concept -- academic freedom -- that allows us to write general works on questions of public moment, if we so choose, without fear of penalty.  The bargain struck by the development of academic freedom is that we academics will not be judged by university administrators, lay trustees, or the public, all of whom may punish us for freely stating our views; rather, we will be judged by our peers, and not according to politics but according to whether we meet the professional standards of our discipline.  So the very thing that liberates us to write generalist works that might occasion controversy is also the very thing that bends us toward narrow, specialist-oriented work. 

This might be a case of unintended consequences -- if the purpose of academic freedom was to guard us from punishment for voicing views for broader audiences that fall outside the narrow work of our specialties.  But it's not entirely clear to me that that's so.  Part of the justification for academic freedom is that no one else is qualified to judge us for work within our specialties, and that has been an increasingly fair argument -- academic fields have become enormously specialized, just as the scope of available knowledge has become enormously expanded.  There are good reasons why academic departments, and subfields within those departments, have become increasingly specialized; and while I may share Stuntz's lament for what we have lost as a result, we must appreciate that we have gained a great deal by it, although we may need, more than ever, individuals who can reach across specialties and synthesize some of this work.

I also want to focus on the middle claim in the paragraph indented above: that we have lost the useful public intellectual because "universities are chock full of brilliant minds that keep their brilliance locked up in a closet, talking only to people in their small corner of the intellectual world."  I think this may rely on two mistaken assumptions.  The first is that we have lost very much if we lose the contributions of the public intellectual.  Stuntz loads the deck by referring to the work of "the best intellectuals," whose work we are more likely to remember.  But we must acknowledge that the entire corpus of "public intellectual" writing surely contained far more dross than gold.  We may still have lost something if "the best intellectuals" no longer can survive outside the university, although this is a debatable claim; but that may again simply be a function of the failing market for readers of this sort of stuff. 

The second assumption is, I think, even more contestable, and that is that the "brilliant minds " locked in the closet of the specialty academic field are missing their chance to write great public intellectual works.  It's possible.  But intelligence in one area doesn't necessarily translate into intelligence in another; a genius at some narrow corner of philosophy or law is hardly guaranteed to have any worthwhile thoughts about public policy, as Posner's book skillfully shows.  (Some would also argue that Posner's work itself proves this point!) 

So let us not assume that the narrow specialist locked in his narrow discussion is necessarily depriving us of useful public intellectual work.  There are some exceptions, of course, some specialists who also are brilliant public intellectuals; I might point to myself as an example, in the hope that no one will notice this far into my post, or that any remaining readers at this point are either fans or family.  But many narrow specialists are not public intellectuals manque; they are doing what they do best, and there is no reason to think they would contribute very much if they engaged in broader discussions.

Before they turn out the lights, let me make one other observation about Stuntz's piece, and that is that ultimately, he frustrates us by failing to suggest any model of the university that he thinks will rise from the ashes of the present system, or exploit the failures of the current system to introduce a competitive model.  That's reasonable enough; sufficient unto the day and all that.  But it is striking that Stuntz talks about "a new university" and "a new style of education."  Ironically, given the subject of his piece, I think that's the Harvard in him talking.  Why assume that what we need to replace one single (and unsuccessful) model of the university is another single model of the university?  Why talk about preserving or trashing tenure, or preserving or trashing the law review article, as bloggers regularly do, as if this binary opposition is all there is?  Why not look for a future in which there are a variety of models of how to be a university, how to be a scholar, and how to be a scholarly writer?  If we look at academe through these lenses, and thus look at more than just the model presented by institutions such as Harvard, is it possible we will notice that that future is, to some degree and increasingly so, already here?          

Posted by Paul Horwitz on March 1, 2006 at 04:04 PM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink


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I hate to be dismissive, but Stuntz's article is worthless. He lets out the academic equivalent of a few loud sobs. There's no argument, just emotion. Really a disappointment from such an intelligent man.

Posted by: snowball | Mar 3, 2006 3:08:49 AM

Mark Fenster has a good comment under Rick's post. I think he's right that the crisis rhetoric in Stuntz's piece is overblown. Actually, I think even that is an understatement. Stuntz doesn't give much of an argument for thinking that Harvard, or any of the top American universities, are failing in their mission--or are seriously threatened by competition. Looking back over the TNR piece, Stuntz seems to have three claims:

(1) universities don't care about undergrad teaching
(2) phd students can't get jobs
(3) academic work is overspecialized

Although these criticisms might have some validity, none of them is strong enough to justify the dire prediction that Harvard will collapse into bankruptcy (fiscal or otherwise) within the next generation (as it squanders its $25 billion endowment?), followed by all the other Ivies and major American research universities. As to (1): where is the overwhelming evidence that undergrads are getting poorer educations than students twenty or thirty (or more?) years ago? If anything, students at top schools (Stuntz's target here) are more competitive, stronger academically, and, arguably, more accomplished when they enter job markets (which is why you often hear faculty say that they couldn't get jobs if they were going on the market today) On (2): the claim that the pool of graduate students will dry up hardly amounts to speculation, let alone an argument. There is tremendous competition for jobs, but what's the argument for thinking that talented people won't take the risk (especially since it's so heavily subsidized)? Given the obvious lifestyle benefits, it's hard to see it. As for (3): Stuntz doesn't say anything about the great benefits of specialization, especially in the hard sciences, where incredible advances have been made. Nor does he comment on the enormous turnout of public intellectuals who do write across disciplines and for public consumption.

Maybe this is all too much to ask from an op-ed in TNR. And that would be fair enough, except that Stuntz's claims seen so unsupported that one gets the feeling there is something else motivating the underlying criticism (and doom-saying). I suppose you can get worked up over the fact that phd students don't get jobs and political scientists are overspecialized, but it feels like the disaffection goes deeper. One could be forgiven for thinking that it's political.

Posted by: m | Mar 1, 2006 10:10:12 PM

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