Louis Menand makes a powerful argument in this book that the bright line separating the education and research within the academic disciplines from the world outside the ivory tower is very much blurrier than most academics believe. He offers a fascinating history of the modern university as a series of compromises and maneuvers that from their very start were negotiated across that line while trying to patrol and enforce its boundary. The four long chapters of this slim volume trace this topic and its implications through arguments over general education (ch. 1), the (r)evolution in the humanities (ch. 2), the fetishizing of interdisciplinarity (ch. 3), and the socialization of the professoriate (ch. 4). Some readers may recognize parts of ch. 2, which appeared in an earlier version in "The New York Review of Books."
While Menand refrains from making many specific recommendations (his goal is to describe the paradoxes and anxieties of the liberal arts academy rather than to advocate for a particular response), one gets the strong sense that he thinks academics should make their peace with the university's inevitable role in the world and stop trying so hard to tilt against it. Such a conclusion is implicit in pithy statements like the following: "To the extent that this system [American higher education, with its roots in the 19th century] still determines the possibilities for producing and disseminating knowledge, trying to reform the contemporary university is like trying to get on the Internet with a typewriter, or like riding a horse to the mall" (17). These are the words of a reformer; though exactly what reforms Menand wants remain unclear, it seems obvious that they will involve higher education embracing its role in the world more self-consciously and vigorously.
In that sense, he forms a kind of mirror image to another prolific writer on the higher education scene, Stanley Fish, who also focuses on the fragility of the wall that divides the independent and disinterested quest for knowledge from the yearning many in the contemporary world feel to tear down that wall. Fish, though, is for shoring up the divide (hence, his book "Save the World on Your Own Time"), while Menand accepts that the wall must come down.
Menand is a brisk and persuasive writer, and one wants to agree with him. He seems to be on the side of history (and though an English professor, he is also truly interdisciplinary in being a Pulitzer prize-winning historian too). One thing, ironically, that he leaves out of his argument for change, however, is the long historical view. Although the modern American university began in the 19th century, universities existed far earlier than that (going back to the 12th century), and their consituencies are not just present-day students, faculty, politicians, etc. They also serve to link the distant past with the unforeseen future. Universities are thus conservative in the root meaning of that word. Too much attention to the contemporary marketplace of ideas, to which Menand is so sensitive, could be very destructive to the mission of preserving and transmitting cultural traditions like those that belong to the classical past or the Middle Ages. Though Menand acknowledges that his analysis could be considered "presentist," he doesn't really address the full challenge that this accusation represents.
In 1903, the philosopher William James wrote an essay, "The PhD Octopus", available in the linked Library of America volume, William James : Writings 1902-1910 : The Varieties of Religious Experience / Pragmatism / A Pluralistic Universe / The Meaning of Truth / Some Problems of Philosophy / Essays (Library of America) in which he expressed concern about over-specialization in the academic world and about the increased and not entirely beneficial effect on students and teachers alike resulting from efforts to pursue the PhD. Lois Menand wrote about James and his pragmatist colleagues in his Pulitzer-prize winning study "The Metaphysical Club" which broadly examines changes in American intellectual life during the period of roughly 1870- -- 1920. The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America Menand's most recent book, "The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University" (2010) makes no mention of James or his essay. But Menand uses the history of the reform of the American university system during the late 1800s to suggest how and why the structure of American higher education established over 100 years ago may not be entirely conducive to the educational role of the university in the late 20th and early 21st Centuries. The book is succinctly and engagingly written but also difficult and challenging. Menand is the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of English at Harvard University.
Menand addresses four questions about contemporary higher education in the United States: "Why is is so hard to institute a general education cirriculum? Why did the humanities disciplines undergo a crisis of legitimation? Why has 'interdisciplinary' become a magic work? And why do professors all tend to have the same politics?" (p. 16) Each question is discussed in a detailed chapter drawing on both history and on contemporary studies of the state of the American university. As he did in "The Metaphysical Club" Menand pays much attention to the educational reforms in post-Civil War Harvard under its president, Charles Elliott. Elliott drew a sharp distinction between professional and liberal education. Under his administration, a baccalaureate degree became a prerequisite for education in law, medical and other professional schools. Undergraduate education was not intended to be career-oriented. Rather, during this phase of their lives, students were encouraged to pursue knowledge and learning for their own sakes. Liberal arts faculty, the humanities, social sciences, and the sciences to a degree, were not expected to be career oriented but to encourage the pursuit of disinterested knowledge. The partial exception to this would be in the training of other scholars in graduate PhD programs who would carry on the research and teaching of their disciplines. The lines of the various disciplines themeselves, such as English, philosophy, history, social sciences, were themselves established in the universities during the late 1900s. Through a process Menand develops, they assumed a degree of fixity which was became both useful and problematic.
Menand applies his historical approach to the questions he addresses. The demands on the university have stretched beyond the reforms of Charles Elliott and others. Thus, from the earliest years of the 20th Centuries, some universities tried to counter trends towards academic specialization by establishing either distribution requirements in courses students were required to take or a core curriculum separate from a departmental major in which all students were to be exposed to seminal books and ideas in literature, history, or science. These programs, particularly the latter, are difficult to establish and maintain because they cut across entrenched lines of academic disciplines and specializations. But the purpose of these programs is to show students how education and ideas matter in life and to socialize students, to a degree, by exposing them to a range of books and methodologies deemed valuable. Disciplinary lines and disinterested research in part are in tension with this idea.
So as well, Menand shows how each ostensibly separate academic discipline, again mostly in the humanities and social sciences, is in part predicated upon assumptions and upon human experiences arising from outside the boundaries of the discipline. He finds that this point has been made sharply in recent years by deconstruction and less notorious forms of critical theories. While each field of academic study has tended to become more intensive and ingrown, it faces challenges from other forms of thought. Menand takes this difficult tendency and uses it to explore what he calls the "crisis of legitimation" in the humanities and the difficulties of "interdisciplinary" programs, in which specialists from different academic fields try to team-teach or to create an academic program crossing narrow lines. These programs, Menand believes, usually have unsatisfactory results as specialists in different programs find themselves talking past each other.
In the final chapter of the book, Menand presents statistical evidence that shows that most American professors are remarkably similar in sharing a highly liberal political outlook which varies substantially from the overall political outlook of other Americans. He asks why this might be the case and tends to find the answer in the long process of education in the liberal arts leading the the PhD. Professional education, including PhD education includes socialization as well as intellectual functions. Many humanities students require twice the length of time to earn the PhD in their chosen field than do law or medical students. They compete for academic positions that are becoming increasingly scarce with the deemphasis on the liberal arts. The training, paradoxically, inspires both a great deal of personal independence in thought and a great deal of conformity. The situation does not admit of a ready answer. On the one hand, there is a need for a degree of independence in the academy from the community at large as the role of the university is not to be a "mere echo of public culture." (p.158) On the other, hand, the self-selection and self-replication character of the various PhD programs, Menand argues, creates its own biases and prejudgments among the university community. Menand suggests either shortening the PhD program or restructuring it to make it more accessible and less specialized to a specific discipline.
I was a liberal arts (philosophy) major many years ago but did not pursue an academic career. But I have continued to read and, I trust, to reflect, through my life. My education may have contributed to what I became. From outside the university, I remain interested in the life of the mind and its relationship to human life and needs. Menand has written a difficult book, but one that will be of interest to those concerned with, both in and out of academia, education and its purpose.
on February 14, 2010
I suspect that Louis Menand's reading audience for The Marketplace of Ideas will be narrower than that for The Metaphysical Club (2001), his Pulitzer Prize-winning history of American pragmatism conveyed via mini-biographies. The current volume deals strictly with higher education, and thus its chief appeal may be mostly to academics directly engaged in the subject. The four principal chapters address differing conceptions of "general education," transformations in the humanities, interdisciplinary initiatives, and faculty political inclinations.
Menand's focus is primarily elite institutions, four-year liberal arts colleges and the top universities that stress liberal arts and sciences for their undergraduates. He provides an instructive history of selected innovations at these schools, stretching back to the late nineteenth century. He does a good job, too, of bringing to the surface certain fundamental tensions inherent in the motivating ideas. Menand has a broad vision for how higher education could do better, although in this volume he does not offer any programmatic detail.
The strongest chapter, in my opinion, is the first. Menand points out how on the one hand liberal education has been promoted as "preparation for life," but on the other as the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, unencumbered by worldly objectives. Liberal education is sometimes thought of as a body of knowledge that all educated persons should know, but also as a way of thinking, applicable to all specialized areas of inquiry. As Menand observes, these various notions of what liberal education is and what it is supposed to achieve are often incompatible with one another.
Menand himself subscribes to the views that a general undergraduate education should transmit a way of thinking, a kind of "intellectual DNA," and that the curriculum should be relevant to real-world goals. "[T]hat the practical is the enemy of the true" is a "superstition," he asserts.
He is particularly harsh on graduate education, especially in the humanities where the median time to complete a doctorate is nine years. "There is a huge social inefficiency in taking people of high intelligence and devoting resources to training them in programs that half will never complete and for jobs that most will not get," he says. He claims that that the system seems designed chiefly to keep grad students around long enough for them to be useful as instructors to carry a substantial part of the undergraduate teaching load.
Menand also looks at the recent evidence regarding the political views of faculty. A large plurality are center left (not extreme). He reviews several possible explanations for the distribution, independent of any possible hiring or promotion biases. He proposes that the greater concern is not that the faculty is to the left, but that the population of professors is relatively homogenous politically.
The Marketplace of Ideas leaves the overall impression that there has been a good deal of fuzzy-mindedness involved in the shaping of American higher education. Compound this with the inevitable conflicts among diverse stakeholders and it is no surprise that "reforms" in this arena are seldom swift, smooth, or harmonious. Yet America's universities remain generally the finest in the world. So, go figure.
Without providing yet another synopsis of *The Marketplace of Ideas* -- several of which have already appeared on Amazon -- I want to posit a couple of points about Louis Menand's book that might be of interest to readers.
1. Given Menand's admirable summation of the rise of higher education in America, it seems to me one of the primary aims of the book is to explain why reform is so difficult to achieve in colleges and universities. Menand makes the point that the development of the "liberal arts" curriculum since the late nineteenth century has led to the disciplines' entrenchment in the academy as discrete departments of study (i.e., institutionalized bodies of knowledge). That is, disciplines-as-departments are always concerned with their institutional survival vis-a-vis the reproduction of scholars in the field. For this reason, any efforts to reform higher education are bound to run up against the intractability of disciplines' self-organization. Menand doesn't necessarily view this as a "good" or "bad" thing -- it just is, given the way the liberal arts have developed in American colleges and universities.
2. Following the thesis about disciplines' resistance to reform, Menand offers a few clarifying insights: that interdisciplinary is less a genuine form of interdisciplinary knowledge-sharing and more an administrative handle on disciplinary anxieties; that professors' suspicion of "general education" requirements reflects a (dated) suspicion of the liberal arts' relation to the "real world"; and so on. While it is true that Menand's book is weak on addressing the massive corporatization of the American university since the 1960s, *The Marketplace of Ideas* is worth reading for how it sheds light on the consequences (such as those mentioned above) of resisting reform in American higher education.
on March 26, 2011
This week, faculty and staff at my institution will be getting together to discuss Louis Menand's The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University.
Thought I'd share with you some of the questions I came up with to help guide our discussion. Any suggestions that you have for discussion questions (or answers to the questions below) would be appreciated.
1. "The university literature department is not especially well suited to the business of producing either interesting literary criticism or interesting literary critics". (page 110) Menand argues that what the Ph.D. program is good at is "cloning" the next generation of (humanities) professors. Do you agree with Menand's statement? Do you see an effort in your department to recruit young academics that break the mold, or challenge the status quo, of your discipline and department?
2. Menand writes, "The academic profession in some areas is not not reproducing itself so much as cloning itself" (page 153). What does Menand mean by this statement? What issues does he see with how new professors are produced, and does he offer any solutions that you find either compelling or problematic?
3. According to Menand, "It is the academic's job in a free society to serve the public culture by asking questions the public doesn't want to ask, investigating subjects it cannot or will not investigate, and accommodating voices it fails or refuses to accommodate." (page 158). How are we doing at this job? Can you point to specific instances where we, as academics, are paying back the academic freedom that we enjoy by challenging the larger (or campus) culture?
4. Today, approximately 22% of undergraduates major in business, while only 4% are English majors and 2% in history. As educators we tend to share the value that all students should have a broad, humanities based education (do we actually share this assumption?). How do these trends in undergraduate majors square with both our values and the realities of the new PhD generating graduate school structure?
5. Menand writes, "The world of knowledge production is a marketplace, but it is a very special marketplace, with its own practices, its own values, and its own rules" (page 158). Does this separateness of the academy that the author recognizes continue to serve the larger needs of students, payers and society? Or is the divide between the "knowledge production marketplace" and the larger market breaking down, particularly as funding (and endowments) erode and the demand to educate and prepare more students for the knowledge economy increases?
6. In the humanities the median time to receive a Ph.D. is 9 years. Menand argues that this process seems designed to create cheap teaching labor (ABDs) as opposed to qualified teachers (as grad students without a Masters degree will routinely teach across the U.S.). Should we follow Menand's suggestion to make the Ph.D. program easier to start and faster to finish, with new Ph.D.'s taking different jobs than the traditional tenure track route? Or will this only add to the problem?
7. The practice of requiring an undergraduate degree prior to a professional degree (in law, medicine, business etc.) is traced back to the 19th century and Harvard's President Eliot. The practice of "liberalization first, then specialization" defines our thinking about the modern liberal arts university. What do you see as the benefits and costs of this system that we have inherited? Are you involved in any initiatives (either in your own classes or in a larger sense) where theory and practice are combined in undergraduate education?
8. Menand writes that "The instinctive response of liberal educators is to pull up the drawbridge, to preserve college's separateness at any price. But maybe purity is the disease". (page 55) What do you think Menand is getting at in this sentence? How do Menand's views about the autonomy of academic work relate to efforts to challenge the status quo and evolve our institutions?
9. Menand notes that from 1945 to 1975 the number of undergraduates increased by 500% and graduate students by 900% (page 144), leading to a situation where we have more Ph.D.'s than the current demand for professors can accommodate. Is the solution to cut the number of graduate programs, and Ph.D.'s that are being created, or to do what Menand suggests and push Ph.D.'s into jobs outside of the academy?
10. Menand successfully straddles the worlds of academic success (English professor at Harvard) and a public intellectual (staff writer at the New Yorker). Should academics be trained, encouraged and rewarded to publish for nonspecialists and for a general audience?
Feel free to use any of these questions in your campus discussions of the Marketplace of Ideas.
on March 16, 2013
Louis Menand, Harvard English professor and writer on American literature and culture, serves up here an intelligent but not completely cohesive set of musings on higher education in America, focusing particularly on general education, the humanities, and the production of academics. Each chapter takes up a different aspect of the history, predispositions, current status, and challenges of higher education, from the role of general education to the homogenizing role played by the Ph.D.-granting process on the thinking of the American professoriate. Each essay is interesting, but what is missing is the coherence that comes from a sustained argument. Chapter 3, for example ("Interdisciplinarity and Anxiety"), seems slightly out of place, narrower and more professionally introspective than the other chapters, with many good points but with less of general interest to the reader broadly curious about the contemporary university in America. The book reads more like a collection of loosely-connected essays than a discussion with a point to make. Reading the Acknowledgments at the end of the book, I learned that three of the four chapters were in fact from the Page-Barbour lecture series Menand delivered at the University of Virginia in 2008. That, I think, explains the sense I had that Menand was writing a series of cogent illuminations about higher education rather than a tight analysis, a spirited defense, or a jeremiad. It is probably unfair to judge the book negatively for being what the author, in the end, says that it is. My sense of dissatisfaction stemmed from the simple fact that I thought I was reading something else. I enjoyed the book chapter by chapter. Menand's thoughts on the importance of the humanities, the liberating role of general education, the ways in which professional academics are trained and socialized, and many other topics were cogent, interesting, historically informed, and usually convincingly presented. I couldn't help feeling that I should have enjoyed the sum of the parts more than I did; nevertheless, reading this short book would be worthwhile for anyone who wants to know (or be reminded) how higher education in America developed, why it is so difficult to reform, and why it matters. If you want to change higher education, Menand concludes, change the way in which "the producers of knowledge are produced" (p. 157). Although that conclusion overlooks many factors like the decline in state funding for higher education and what many see as the corporatization of the American university, it makes a lot of sense.
on January 3, 2015
Menand is a good writer and the American educational history here-- especially from the period of 1870-1970-- is often well-detailed and informative. I would give this four stars as a book about the history of the U.S. academy; it has many interesting riffs on the origins of the disciplines and graduate schools. But as a whole, _Marketplace of Ideas_ reminds me of a comic book whose cover depicts a dramatic scene that never takes place within. Thus, three stars. The term "marketplace" seems loaded with polemical possibilities, but Menand never really says much about economics, let alone the commodification of educational experience or the treatment of students (by universities) as consumers whose satisfaction is more important than their educations. He describes the governmental incentives and financial support of education during the Cold War but he says almost nothing about the technocratic, profit-based, student-loan culture that has recently arisen as states defund public education and compensatorily jack up tuition costs (the word "debt" does not appear in the text). Menand's book says little about how education has become a customer-service industry, or about the relationship of corporations or their management styles to American universities, esp. in the last 20 years. The words "reform and resistance" imply that some kind of argument is in store. But while Menand's intro promises the book will analyze problems and suggest reforms, 95% of his book is a kind of benignly-toned natural history, as if the American university were mainly worthy of description, not analysis, let alone reform. I get the feeling he didn't want to sound like a ranting prescriptionist (or that he was too wary of offending anyone?), but the book thus feels like broth without enough spice and substance because he is so shy about *arguing* about anything. Even his analyses of post-structural critical trends in English departments have an odd "it's all good" tone given the quality and precision of Menand's own literary criticism. Early on he confesses that the Ivies are his test cases; his accounts of their growth are at times fascinating, but are often, as in his history of English departments, about as argumentative as a description of the Great Barrier Reef. He should have asked some people who teach at state universities beyond New England what is going on. Harvard is not the prototype of the rest of the realm.
P.S. As I read Menand's earlier (very good) history of 19th century intellectual life (with an emphasis on pragmatism) called _The Metaphysical Club_, the more I think that he set out to write a history in R&R and let people draw their own conclusions without a lot of soap-box statements intervening. But parts of the book--not just its title and cover--coyly imply it is about to step into the arena of animated, even fierce diagnostics about higher education in America. Menand though, has a voice like a modernist novelist; he tends to be understated and to let anecdotes speak for themselves. This is thus a strange book. I do recommend _The Metaphysical Club_ as a related (and even better) historical analysis.
This is an interesting think piece on contemporary higher education. Three of the chapters originated as lectures at the University of Virginia, but the book does not feel disjointed or thrown-together. The issues addressed include the problem of general education, legitimation within the humanities, the homogeneity of professorial political orientations, interdisciplinarity and the university's resistance to change, particularly with regard to seemingly intractable problems.
Menand's approach to the issues is historical and the history which he charts is carefully delineated. The writing is lucid, his positions clear. You may disagree with him on a number of points but you always have a clear argument/narrative with which to disagree. When he faces difficult issues he does not hesitate to offer answers and possible explanations.
The chapter on general education is, in my judgment, the best and it could well serve as the starting point for further discussions of the subject or further explorations of the issue by college curriculum committees.
If there is an overall flaw it is one common to nearly all of the studies of the history of higher education in America. Historians must give significant attention to elite institutions, particularly institutions whose decisions have been watched and replicated by other institutions. And it is fair to ask `what did Harvard decide?' or `what did Yale do in this case?' since American higher education is very imitative.
Therein, however, lies the problem. Institutions may have imitated Harvard, but Harvard is such a special case, such an outlier among the 4,000+ institutions of higher education, that the imitation has proven to be extremely wrongheaded. If, for example, Harvard largely abandons general education it is much less of a problem for Harvard than for its imitators, for Harvard has such deep applicant pools that its prep-school and one-of-a-kind-genius public school matriculants will have come to Harvard with a great deal of foundational knowledge/cultural literacy in hand. Students at less-selective institutions will not enjoy these advantages and may be in significant need of general education coursework. The fact that "we" have decided to do something in a particular way may have proven catastrophic for our students, but not for Harvard's, whose ways "we" have been imitating.
Louis Menand notes at the outset of this rather brief volume (Page 15): "There is always a tension between the state of knowledge and the system in which learning and teaching actually take place. The state of knowledge changes much more readily than the system." We see institutions of higher education with cutting edge research housed within institutional structures that are a century or more old.
The book's central chapters address, in order, one of four general questions: (1) Why is a sound general education curriculum so difficult to craft? (2) Why have the humanities undergone "a crisis of legitimation" (page 16)? (3) Why has `interdisciplinarity" become something of a mantra? (4) Why do professors tend to be so similar ideologically? His contention? These are the result of systemic issues coming from a system that has reproduced itself for over a hundred years. In the first chapter, he concludes that academics have to step back and look at their enterprise and "shake things up," not break things up.
General education is a key issue. What approach to take? Menu? Take two courses in Area A, two in area B, etc.? One ends up with a smorgasbord and little of a center. Or a "great books" approach? But why this book rather than that one? And the process is often politicized when reexamining general education requirements. There is a nice case study of Charles William Eliot's efforts at Harvard in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Part of his legacy was separating education aimed at becoming a professional from a liberal arts education.
Humanities? The disruptive conflicts coming from continental theory, the lengthy process by which one receives a Ph. D. Yet he is positive at the close of this chapter, noting that (Page 92): "Skepticism about the forms of knowledge is itself a form of knowledge."
And so on, chapter by chapter, exploring the four questions.
The last chapter is one where I expected some provocative and searching questions to advance discourse on some of the issues characterizing higher education today. But the close was surprisingly subdued and comes down to a contention that we need to rethink doctoral education. He states (Page 157): ". . .professional reproduction remains almost exactly as it was a hundred years ago." But how to address that? The answer is that academics need to rethink--but not become subject to the world's demands that higher education serve the ends of the market and society. Interesting questions are raised, but the end result of the book is a not very penetrating analysis of the tensions between free inquiry by academics and the demands of the world on the university.
A well written book that raises provocative questions. But, in the end, not as satisfying as I had hoped. As an academic, I am concerned that sometimes those of us in higher education isolate ourselves from real concerns. On the other hand, becoming a tool to fuel economic needs of society is also counterproductive. The need to ask questions, to think critically, to challenge accepted wisdom is a valuable enterprise from higher education. Menand does a good job, though, in noting that sometimes academics don't pursue those issues in analyzing their own domain.
on May 26, 2014
Having spent my life in higher education, I was so busy with my discipline I forget to review the philosophical underpinnings of what I was a part of and why it was structured in a particular way. This short book followed the ideas and forces which produced the "publish or perish" mentality and the departmental/college structure I had participated in. The combination of cultural and philosophical forces are interwoven in a way to clearly describe the path to our current situation. I actually loved reading this book! I recommend it to anyone interested in higher education - behind the scenes.