University of Waste

28 May

By Eng-Beng Lim

Eng-Beng LimTellingly, the “graduate education” in dire need of restructuring and regulation is unmarked in Mark Taylor’s op-ed, except through his complaints about its “narrow scholarship,” “subfields within subfields,” and his institutional location in a particular kind of religion department. But what is this cryptic form, “a product for which there is no market” if not the intellectual pursuits of the humanistic arts and social sciences? Taylor cites Kant as his progenitor for thinking about the modern university’s crisis, and his best case scenario is “for every branch of the sciences there would be a public teacher or professor appointed as its trustee.” Of course, the sciences rule again but rather than picking at the scabs of this unproductive bait (which pits the arts against the sciences), we might consider the other Taylor, yes the engineer and industrialist Frederick Winslow Taylor, as his more fitting antecedent or alter-ego. This Taylor-on-Taylor dyad might be a way to locate the unconscious market logics or “Industrial Complex” driving Mark Taylor’s problem-solving efficiencies, a critical blindspot that renders the larger charge against epistemic recidivism in disciplinary formations somewhat untenable. In The Principles of Scientific Management (1911), Frederick Winslow Taylor writes:

But our larger wastes of human effort, which go on every day through such of our acts as are blundering, ill-directed, or inefficient, and which Mr Roosevelt refers to as a lack of “national efficiency,” are less visible, less tangible, and are but vaguely appreciated… We can see and feel the waste of material things. Awkward, inefficient, or ill-directed movements of men, however, leave nothing visible or tangible behind them. Their appreciation calls for an act of memory, an effort of the imagination.[1]

Taylor is talking about the waste of human resources in structural inefficiencies, and issuing a call for a systematic cooperation to train the “competent man” whose demand (by the voracious, inevitably expanding market) will be “in excess of the supply.”[2] But the future is not about the competent man. It is all about the system at the forefront, one that will then produce, and facilitate the rise of the most competent man. Equipped with “defined laws, rules, and principles as a foundation,” this form of scientific management would also be deployed in service of national efficiency.

Mark Taylor’s critiques of the U.S. university are very much invested on the same question of efficiency, including national efficiency, and is tinged with a Taylorist penchant for uber-systematicity: “let one school have a strong department in French, for example, the other a strong department in German; through teleconferencing and the Internet both subjects can be taught at both places with half the staff.” His choice metaphor is “Detroit,” which simplistically equates the automobile industry with the university in a national context, and provides the occasion for “complete restructuring,” “rigorous regulation,” and a more “agile, adaptive, imaginative” environment. Unsurprisingly, he focuses mainly on structural overhauls such as the tenure system to reduce waste in all forms. The power of autoefficiency is also suggested in his methodical six-step program for a well-managed university system. To his credit, a number of interesting ideas are proposed, including the use of alternative, multi-format theses and the establishment of “zones of inquiry” in place of permanent departments.

While the charge against institutional complacency is well taken, much of his intervention is also in service of an ever-efficient knowledge and labor system that already favors professionalization. For instance, abolishing the tenure system would only intensify the adjunctification of the professoriate, which he correctly points out as the “dirty secret of higher education.” But rather than critiquing the way in which the academic is made to be a “trustee of the Market” (the same way he regrets how “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”), he merely describes it as an inefficient demand vs supply problem: “too many candidates for too few openings.” The already corporatized U.S university simply cannot afford to succumb to this century-old market logic: be trained for employable skills, be the most competent man, be vocationalized for the system.

If we accept, as many critics have argued, that the golden years of the Western university are a thing of the past, we might begin to put the competitive ethos of the corporate university that is driving such calls for and implementations of Taylorist-style reconfigurations in some other perspective. Using the rhetoric of crisis to shore up support for overhauling programs should not obfuscate the very high stakes of a critical education in humanistic understanding. In recent years, U.S universities and its European counterparts are setting up satellite campuses all over the world, especially the Middle East and Asia. This global trend of establishing what the New York Times calls academic “outposts”[3] has monumental implications about the future of U.S. higher education. As these educative empires are established in the name of intellectual exchange, outreach and collaboration, the dissemination of a Western knowledge system within circuits of transnational capital is also happening rapidly. Tellingly, these “outposts” are invariably business, communication, engineering, media and other professional training centers that cater to the needs of the vast transnational market. This gives training the “competent man” argument yet another valence.

While the provocation for epistemic overhaul is a much needed vector for conceiving future directions in higher education, one has to ask as a humanist, trained or otherwise, what common good and intellectual pursuits can be generated in thinking communities that are not configured merely for the expediencies (problem solving) or exigencies (recession, boom time) of the market. Is the measure of success of a university graduate calibrated by executive income or social consciousness? What are knowledge and the work of scholarship in service of? For all his talk on system control, Taylor reminds us that while the “ill-directed” labor of men may produce “nothing visible or tangible,” (hence appreciating their work “calls for an act of memory, an effort of the imagination”), our “daily loss from this source is greater than from our waste of materials, the one has stirred us deeply, while the other has moved us but little.”[4]

If Taylor can resignify labor “waste” by using memory and imagination to give it a different kind of value, and be deeply “stirred” by its loss over materiality, the university must also shift its terms of recognition around what is considered of use and value, particularly around knowledges that do not produce income, global stature or instant efficiencies. A university of waste should be ending the university as we know it.


[1] Frederick Winslow Taylor, The Principles of Scientific Management, (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1911): pg 5.

[2] Ibid, pg 6

[3] http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/10/education/10global.html

[4] Taylor, 6

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