David E. Bell has a terrific review of Taylor’s book on tenure and the university over at The New Republic. It seems to me that Taylor is a victim of a certain ideology commonly found in popular science books devoted to complexity theory, chaos theory, and network theory. Pick up nearly any of these books and you’ll straight away be treated to a distinction between hierarchialized systems under centralized control and distributed networks with no centralized control. What begins as a descriptive distinction very quickly becomes a value laden distinction where networks are equated with all that is good, whereas centralized systems are all that is bad. Very quickly the narrative (which is very theological in character) becomes that if we were to just let systems unfold according to their own immanent processes everything would be well as distributed systems without centralized control are wisely self-regulating and internally harmonious. By contrast, the story goes, bad system effects arise from attempted centralized control that interfere with the natural functioning of non-linear, distributed networks. Somehow the phenomenon of positive feedback gets ignored in all of this, despite the great debt much of network theory owes to cybernetics.
It seems that this is precisely the narrative that Taylor has fallen for in his analysis of the modern university. How anyone could, with a straight face, make such an argument after the global financial collapse of the last few years is beyond me. After all, the financial system has all the marks of an unregulated, non-linear distributed network that Taylor is defending but certainly did not behave in a wise, self-regulating fashion or yield the harmonious, creative results that Taylor seems to think arise spontaneously from such systems. At any rate, read the review. Of course, the damage is already done here. Bell will be portrayed as a parasite of the university system out to save his privileged place in that system (i.e., we’ll be treated to another round of “blame the professors and teachers”) and Taylor’s piece in the NYT and his book will be trumpeted far and wide by free market reactionaries interested in dismantling the universities and turning them into profit making machines. In this connection, isn’t it curious that Taylor doesn’t target the bloated salaries of many administrators. I suspect that he is currently the toast of the town and has a lot of opportunities coming his way as a result of all this.