A subject that seems dead is just waiting for the right person to bring it to life. Or the right curricular design: more than a few departments in academia hurt themselves by clinging to a forbidding or hostile structure for a program of study. If it were practical, with every single vacancy at a liberal arts college, I’d write an ad that says “Interesting intellectual wanted, must be able to teach, must have an area of specialized competency but also be interested in other subjects and disciplines.” And then we’d sit down and sift through fifty thousand applications–which is why no one could really do it that way. (Hey, St. John’s, how do you handle your hiring?) But for the same reason, you could just as easily say that what you have is just fine, if you have enough intellectual diversity, if what you have is being approached in the right spirit and the problem of traffic management is considered as appropriate.
I’m very open in the way I think about these choices. There are more constrained ways to approach making these decisions. But the worst of all worlds is to be manipulated into throwing stones at some flavor-of-the-month discipline that the news cycle has thrown up as a self-evidently luxurious and pointless activity. What that usually involves is a kind of back-door vocationalism, a not-brand-X utilitarianism that really amounts to nothing more than whatever intellectual prejudices come to hand. Every discipline has its Henry Ford who will declare it bunk. Every discipline has its snake-oil salesman that can insidiously afflict it upon millions as an unwanted hurdle in their daily lives. And every discipline has its messiah who can show countless students how they were waiting all along to think about life in a new way.
Go Big Or Don’t Go | Easily Distracted. This is part of Tim’s answer to Matt Yglesias’s dumbass question on Twitter, “Is there really a sound case for taxpayer-funded German language instruction?” Why not ask whether there’s a sound case for taxpayer-funded business departments? (Peter Thiel thinks they’re a waste of time and money.) Why not ask whether there’s a sound case for the very existence of universities? — at least, publicly funded ones.
What Tim is trying to do is to get people to back away from the questions that make journalists scratch their heads — Why teach German? Why teach Classics? — and actually think about why universities exist and what their purposes are. (“Purposes,”plural, because they don’t all have the same mission.) Take a step back and think, people. That’s all we’re asking. And the first thing you need to think about is: What are the first terms in your calculus of value?