Reform Education: Bottom Up, Not Top Down

In his recent opinion piece in Nature, Professor Mark Taylor discusses (Nature. Vol 472. 261. 21 April 2011) the idea that academic institutions currently produce too many PhD-level investigators in multiple fields leading, in his words, “to a cruel fantasy of future employment”. This observation, along with his title (“Reform the PhD system or shut it down”), and the contention that “most doctoral programs conform to a model defined in European Universities in the middle ages, in which education is a process of cloning that trains students to do what their mentors do”, Taylor displays a sense of hyperbole, but nevertheless hits on a critical challenge for academic mentors as well as administrators of doctoral programs across disciplines.

Toward the end of his otherwise honed prescription for reforming doctoral education, Taylor attempts to expand the scope of his thesis with the following statement: “Although significant change is necessary at every level of higher education, it must start at the top, with total reform of PhD programs in almost every field” (emphasis added). By expanding the mandate of PhD program reformation to addressing problems with higher education in general, Taylor mistakenly places the onus on more advanced degrees to improve the quality of the less advanced ones. This is counter-productive for a demand-based, product-driven educational system. The goal of reforming doctoral programs should be to improve doctoral education. To improve undergraduate education, the focus should shift to the undergraduate student as a product in itself, emphasizing the importance of liberal arts exposure and teaching the individual how to think, perform critical analysis and hypothesize (as poignantly articulated by Professor James Economou at a recent UCLA post-doctoral event, see here). Now the focus of undergraduate education has shifted, in many cases, to producing fodder for graduate school and/or bringing students up to speed on what they missed from high school; especially in the sciences, few undergraduates come out of school adept at actually doing what they have a degree in. For this to be effective, high school education must again be made to mean something, such that undergraduate institutions can teach liberal arts, humanities, philosophy and science, rather than basic math, grammar, composition and rudimentary social sciences. The reform of the larger educational system, then, must come from the bottom up.

Tom Vondriska -- May 22, 2011