Late in life, Charlemagne famously lamented the crudity of his early schooling. “I think of all the education that I missed,” he mused to Alcuin in a letter about a particularly baffling astrological problem, “but then, my homework was never quite like this.” Even 1,200 years ago, the Frankish king understood the need to rethink the ways of teachers and scholars—which is why Monday’s call for university reform by Mark Taylor, chair of the religion department at Columbia, is really nothing new.
Taylor’s New York Times mini-manifesto makes several points, a few of them good, many of them silly, most of them kicked around by academic bloggers for years. People who are more deeply invested in academia can debate the op-ed’s merits; I’m interested in the example Taylor uses to illustrate the pitfalls of hyper-specialization:
In my own religion department, for example, we have 10 faculty members, working in eight subfields, with little overlap. 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. A colleague recently boasted to me that his best student was doing his dissertation on how the medieval theologian Duns Scotus used citations.
Hardly innovative, Taylor’s use of “medieval” is lazy shorthand: “OMG midevil is teh irrelevent.” If I were grading this op-ed, I’d ask him to explain this example rather than drop it, freshman-like, at the end of a paragraph as if its risible obscurity speaks for itself. Later, when Taylor claims “there is no longer a market for books modeled on the medieval dissertation, with more footnotes than text,” he uses “medieval” to suggest both obscurity and obsolescence. No other field or period rates a colorful pejorative in this generally bland piece; when political scientists fail to consider the role of religion, Taylor merely finds them guilty of a “significant oversight.”
A grad student working on Duns Scotus will need to know paleography, historiography, philosophy, theology, and possibly other fields. If, as Taylor claims, “[r]esponsible teaching and scholarship must become cross-disciplinary,” then the budding medievalist at Columbia is already more likely than his colleagues to embody that ideal. Of course, if Taylor is right to predict that “[t]hrough the intersection of multiple perspectives and approaches, new theoretical insights will develop and unexpected practical solutions will emerge,” then the medievalist enjoys another advantage, one that’s almost unfair: access to a deeper, richer vocabulary to characterize the unsubtle doctor who thinks it’s fine to use the New York Times to ridicule a student.