Hyper-Individualism in the University



If you want to discover the values of an institution, ask what it rewards. In the university, tenure is the reward, and it’s earned by publication of research. The order of names on a piece is of vital importance. Individual accomplishment, therefore, is prized over teaching, administrative service or any other community activity. Over the years as fields become more and more complex, specialization has become narrower and narrower; fields have split and split again, often competing with each other. Universities have often become specialists, not in the field, but in a single school of thought. While this may be the necessary process of science, I think in many fields it has reduced the productive interaction that stimulates growth.

I can only judge from my own experience in two large universities, but those have been startling. In the University of Michigan English Department of my day, rhetoric had been all but eliminated by literature; now, it seems to concern mainly the rhetoric of minority groups. A Creative Writing Masters Program was added some ten years later, while I was teaching at the University, but was, in fact, largely composed of literature and poetry courses. Composition had no graduate program and was taught by the research group I was a part of or by teaching assistants in literature. The common opinion was that it was the business of high schools and shouldn’t have to be taught at all. The relationship between these divisions was largely one of mutual disdain or was non-existent.

Soon after I began teaching at the University of California, Santa Barbara, the writing program split from the English Department, freeing it to hire its own lecturers and to create courses in writing in other disciplines. We still depended heavily on literature teaching assistants to cover freshman writing, however. One day after I became Acting Director of the program, I went to the Chairman of English to complain about the open disdain of one of those teaching assistants. He was embarrassed and confessed that he was afraid they were recruiting such students by accepting only students who envisioned being PhDs in literature—tenured scholars each pursuing their own obscure literary source. George Will, in an opinion piece on falling college enrollments (Washington Post, 4/19/23 https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2023/04/19/declining-college-enrollment-value/), notes that only 27% of the nation’s PhDs are holding tenure track jobs today, which suggests this practice has been widespread across fields for quite a while.

Psychology, my husband’s field, was already divided into clinical, social, and experimental approaches before he entered graduate school.. The three approaches had very little communication with each other, and soon split s into schools of thought and then into different universities. Competition between schools on such questions as nature versus nurture seemed the rule. Mental health itself was largely the province of medical schools, isolated from both psychology and anthropology. How these social, cultural, and physical parts are integrated into a functioning human received little attention.

That point was brought home to me one day, as I met with a geologist and a marine scientist who were interested in linking writing sections to their students’ courses. We met in a UC Santa Barbara conference room on an eroding cliff above the Pacific Ocean, and in the course of the conversation, they commented to each other that earth sciences should learn how to talk to marine sciences. I agreed that this was a good idea, and restrained myself from pointing out that earth and water had been interacting for quite a while.

I was more shocked by the state of the same university’s Political Science Department when the Berlin Wall came down. The dissolution of the Soviet Union became the dissolution of careers. The world order they had assumed was a permanent division of power was, like the Wall, no more than rubble. During the period of chaos that followed, a Bulgarian exchange student complained to me, “The theories are all about economics! Where’s the religion? They never talk about the power of religion!”

How could they get it so wrong? By becoming a collection of individual researchers operating in increasingly narrow fields of study, talking  to, teaching, and recruiting, only others of the same persuasion. There was a move to counter this when I retired, and I hope it has gathered steam. Interdisciplinary collaboration, when it happens, has been an important component of progress My father, an endocrinologist, was a member of the team that, with biochemists, produced adrenal cortisone. We know the value of that research not from its authors but from its results.


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2 Responses to Hyper-Individualism in the University

  1. Joe Vitovec April 27, 2023 at 12:39 am #

    Great observation, Judy. Thanks. Seems to me that we are so obsessed with ‘progress’ that we ignore the value of basic knowledge, the tools that make intellect possible. We see the curricula changing and not always for the better. I fear that one day we will pay the price.

  2. Judy Kirscht April 27, 2023 at 9:24 am #

    Thank you, Joe. I fear we are now paying the price. Good to hear from you.

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