TNR review of Mark C Taylor’s “unbelievably misguided book”


TNR review of Mark C Taylor’s latest book about higher education :

The syndrome has become all too common. A provocative op-ed piece appears in a major newspaper (for preference, The New York Times). Its logic is fragile and its evidence is thin, but the writing is crisp and the examples are pungent, and the assault on sacred cows arouses a storm of discussion (much of it sharply critical, but no matter). It goes viral. And almost immediately, publishers comes calling. “This should be a book,” they coo, and the author, entranced by a bit of sudden fame (not to mention, perhaps, a decent advance), eagerly agrees. He or she sets to work, and soon enough the original 800 words expand to 50,000. But far from reinforcing the original logic and evidence, the new accretions of text only strain them further, while smothering the original provocations under thick layers of padded anecdote, pop sociology and oracular pronouncement. Call the syndrome Friedmanitis, after a prominent early victim, the New York Times columnist Tom Friedman.

The reviewer, David Bell, continues:

Mark C. Taylor’s unbelievably misguided book provides an almost textbook example. In April, 2009, he published an incendiary New York Times op-ed entitled “End the University as We Know It,” which denounced graduate education as the “Detroit of higher learning,” demanded the abolition of tenure, and called for the replacement of traditional academic departments by flexible, short-lived “problem-focused programs.” Widely criticized (by me, too, in this magazine), the piece stayed at the top of the Times’s “most e-mailed” list for a cyber-eternity of four days. Enter Alfred A. Knopf.

Just sixteen months later, the book is here, and the signs of the syndrome are all too evident. Taylor, the chair of the Department of Religion at Columbia, has enveloped his original argument in an overblown, cliché-ridden theoretical framework about the on-going shift from a “world of walls and grids” to a “world of networks.” The globe, Taylor declares, with a certain lack of originality, has become “more interconnected.” “Global financial capitalism” is replacing “industrial and consumer capitalism.” And “as cross-cultural communication grows, it transforms old assumptions and ideas.” Recounting a lengthy anecdote about a course he taught partly via video conferencing, Taylor remarks, “That was the Aha! moment in which I knew the world had changed.” (The world is flat!) Abandoning his earlier facile comparison of higher education to the auto industry, Taylor now likens it with equal facility to the financial sector, and speaks in doom-laden tones of the “education bubble.”

In their elaborate new packaging the arguments remain incendiary, but they are no more convincing than when Taylor first presented them in the Times. Incendiary does not mean true. And, ironically, there is no better demonstration that this is so than the book itself. Taylor is the great avatar of interdisciplinarity, of drawing eclectically on half a dozen different fields to illuminate a single problem such as global water supplies or diabetes. In Crisis on Campus he certainly practices what he preaches, invoking history, sociology, computer science, philosophy, economics, and much else besides to discuss the state of higher education.

Taylor has tried to draw on so much, however, that he has ended up mastering very little of it.

Read the rest here, but what’s the verdict?  Bell concludes by suggesting Taylor’s book is  “a reckless, wrong-headed idea, and it has no place in serious discussions of higher education’s future.”  Indeed.  Zing…

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16 thoughts on “TNR review of Mark C Taylor’s “unbelievably misguided book”

  1. ‘And “as cross-cultural communication grows, it transforms old assumptions and ideas.” Recounting a lengthy anecdote about a course he taught partly via video conferencing, Taylor remarks, “That was the Aha! moment in which I knew the world had changed.” (The world is flat!)’
    Apparently Mark C. Taylor is academia’s Thomas Friedman.

    It strikes me that if your mind is blown by teleconferencing (which is neato-mosquito, don’t get me wrong) its about time to shut up and retire.

  2. Taylor and Harman are twins – each sees his own thoughts as the best thing that ever happened to humanity – notice the subtlety: I once had a thought and I realized that that thought was so brilliant that it must change the world, so change the world it did. How fucking arrogant is that?

    At least Taylor is not going around making shit up like Harman’s most recent history of “speculative realism” – did you know, for example, that since 2007 ground-breaking conference on SR, it’s already been a DECADE of this new and exciting movement?

    http://doctorzamalek2.wordpress.com/2010/09/16/grants-idealist-turn/

    Hey, moron, a question: how can you talk about Speculative Realism “splinter-groups” when there’s no one left in the “main group”? If you had four “founding” members of the movement and three of them “splintered out” – there’s no fucking movement anymore!

    P.S. And where the fuck is Levi Bryant? Is he dead? He hasn’t blogged for over a week, A WEEK! Where is all that energy for sharing your every single thought with the public is going? He better be back soon or I will begin to worry.

    • Levi at 2010-18-09:

      I’ve been behind the curve this week because I’ve been fighting a brutal cold and have barely been able to get out of bed.

      So, yes, almost dead. Of course we wish him fast recovery and some time to study logics, physics and mathematics more thoroughly.

      • How many colds can a man get? I’m sure it’s scientifically impossible to be fighting colds as many times as Bryant claims he has. There’s no shame in taking a pause, even if for some depressive “down time”…

  3. He brings up this issue of branding and how it scoffed at. As far as I can tell, its not the term “brand” that is scoff worthy, it is explicitly putting forward and bunch of jargon and a “movement” as a brand.
    In commercial life, brands are built over time by producing quality products, helping customers and clients, and acting as trustworthy among other commercial concerns. When a company announces a “branding” it is really announcing a RE-BRANDING that is parasitic on the value of the existing brand.
    But it is nonsensical and, really,quite bizarre to start a brand, sui-generis. I think Harman is confusing the idea of naming something with giving it a brand. He’s not alone in the world with that one, so there’s that.
    (I’m a continentially friendly analytic who just recently discovered the facinating world of OOOPS. It be taught 100 years from now, but more likely in sociology departments and business schools.)

    • I hope that by “100 years from now” you mean next Wednesday, right?

      Harman’s clearly delusional in most of his statements about the “movement” – aside from several blogs and probably 20 people, no one has ever heard of this new and successful movement, but it’s clearly a big movement in his head (probably because having no one to run these ideas by but equally delusional Bryant, he’s stuck with a choir of fans writing in to congratulate him on his success – I mean a guy in Germany mocking his philosophy is transformed into “they are talking about us in Germany already” etc etc).

      Which brings me to Taylor, Harman’s twin. His problem is the same, i.e. a confusion of things in his head with the situation in the real world which the review neatly points out. “Things are horrible in my view of the situation” is simply countered with “They are not so bad in my situation, so what’s your point?” I especially loved the spot-on observation that having consumed a great number of books about everything, Taylor, the big enemy of specialization and experts, learned very little and thus only got a superficial knowledge of everything. If he is the intellectual of the future (without expertise, departmental affiliation, or tenure), I don’t want to be in that future. The same applies to Harman – if this is what the future of philosophy’s “brand” looks like, fuck the future…

  4. I mean, if anything, sociologists on the University of Mars will look back at the weird phenomenon in the early 21st century as indicative of whatever theories they might have about how fucked up the early philosophy internet could be.

    I really don’t think his stuff is going to catch on even among the SPEPers. Quentin Meillasoux’s work seems to me at least to be intelligible, but I haven’t really looked to closely. Is he the reputable one of this bunch (though I know he’s “distanced” himself)?

    • I don’t know if he’s “reputable” – his book is good, but it’s a book, as in “one small book” and Harman’s already writing a book about Meillassoux’s philosophy based on that book and Meillassoux’s dissertation: I mean what next, some schmuck will be writing a dissertation on the blogposts of Levi Bryant? Oh wait, some schmuck is already doing it!

      • I just wrote a bleugpost on Harman’s bleugposts. I think some of them are very good, to my great surprise. I don’t doubt what you say about the content of what he’s selling, but he’s now coming out with the ‘pure sales’ aspect more, isn’t he? As long as I’ve been spared having to read the real Harman texts, courtesy of traxus’s review of Latour and Harman and somebody else semi-famous you’d know, I just wanted him to improve the way his bleug read, and it’s gotten better. Not that that amounts to anything, but his Reader’s Digest advice to a ‘budding young scholar’ is hilarious, as is his correction of a paragraph on the Urbanomic site. I much prefer Martha Stewart Living for the no-nonsense approach this ‘non-monk’ yet ‘builder of the world’s greatest subway system’ has to offer, but some of the worst offenses are now in very much smaller posts. Maybe he learned something from the Emily Post ‘Etiquette’ he read in the dark recently…

      • I don’t mind most of it, but then you have a kind that explodes your bullshit detector like the shit about “oh well, about to go teach Meillassoux for the first time in Egyptian history!” Is that true? Probably, but it just comes across as a combination of complete lack of self-awareness and arrogance.

        I don’t read it, but I can’t resist following an occasional link in an email.

  5. Well, at least Taylor made it into the NYT and this highlights, to some extent at least, the way media work. They are seeking for people who hold extreme views which are disputable i.e. it is not known in advance whether they are wrong or absurd and the most grateful area for this are sociological hypotheses regarding the near future. When you believe that the CIA is behind 9/11 you are considered a kook, but when you say that conspiracy theories become the mainstream epistemology of the near future, people want to know your arguments and when you elaborate them on > 300 book pages, you’ll sit in every talk show of your country.

    On a much smaller scale this might be also true for the speculative enterprise in philosophy, simply because philosophy has many schools and directions rather than an apparatus that supervises a few elementary rules e.g. logical consistency and factual correctness.

      • If there was a demand for “new trends in philosophy” he surely would have been made it there. I do think it’s just a matter of time journalism discovers him and maybe he would do very well there and doesn’t care much about post Heideggerianism and OOO at all.

    • “When you believe that the CIA is behind 9/11 you are considered a kook, but when you say that conspiracy theories become the mainstream epistemology of the near future, people want to know your arguments and when you elaborate them on > 300 book pages, you’ll sit in every talk show of your country. ”

      So, since you choose this example as a criterion that isn’t perfect, does that mean it is? No. Nor does it matter that it’s perhaps crude and imperfect for the NYTimes to think that way. It’s certainly good that they’re not total assholes. Except that they sometimes are: In Frank Rich’s Aug. 22 op-ed, in order to be ashamed of those who don’t want the mosque 2 blocks from Ground Zero, he either falsified or was ignorant of information about Ground Zero that is simply impossible to allow in the NYTimes. I can’t believe it was allowed.

      He wrote: “These patriots have never attacked the routine Muslim worship services at another site of the 9/11 attacks, the Pentagon. Their sudden concern for ground zero is suspect to those of us who actually live in New York. All but 12 Republicans in the House voted against health benefits for 9/11 responders just last month. Though many of these ground-zero watchdogs partied at the 2004 G.O.P. convention in New York exploiting 9/11, none of them protested that a fellow Republican, the former New York governor George Pataki, so bollixed up the management of the World Trade Center site that nine years on it still lacks any finished buildings, let alone a permanent memorial. ”

      That’s an absolute disgrace, even if you support the mosque (I don’t care that much one way or the other, and fail to find the subject very important, except for the disagreement.) But the ‘permanent memorial’ is well along in its construction, as was written about less than 3 weeks after this esteemed pundit wrote this misleading shit. The main skyscraper, stuck in internecine wars of Bloomberg, Silverstein, hired and fired architects, Port Authority, etc. is extremely visible at 1/3 its projected height (by now 38 storeys), and it’s well-known that 7 World Trade was completed in 2006, and has been in use. The Ground Zero reconstruction is something so strange that it is hard to sustain an interest in it: It’s not nearly as gripping or sexy as 9/11 itself. UNTIL you do see the buildings are really there and moving fast.

      But the point being is that your example doesn’t seem to me to be great, but this proves slop on the center-left, by the same paper that let Judith Miller, courtesy of Scooter and Karl, run a line of bull to help Bush do Iraq. Frankly, of course Harman wants to do NYTimes and I don’t see why not. He’s as convincing as Zizek, and drops Zizek’s name as being ‘like him’ in getting invitations all the time. To a certain degree, it’s not just a matter of ‘being in love with the truth’, but ‘not being in love with failure as a matter of principle’. That doesn’t mean that Mark Taylor or Harman are ‘men of truth’, you would surely know better than I do, but I also know that a lot of detractors of many of these people really are in love with failure–because not nearly everybody at the New York Times is full of shit; and ANYBODY who thinks the CIA is behind 9/11 is full of shit (including some people I like, although I don’t believe they really believe it, are just embarassed that their armchair Marxists, and the usual bullshit.)

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