Louis Menand, The Marketplace of Ideas

The Marketplace of Ideas is not as interesting as I thought it would be. One reason may be that it is part of a series intended, as series editor Henry Louis Gates Jr. explains, to “invite the reader to reexamine hand-me-down assumptions and to grapple with powerful trends”–that is, the books are not rigorous analyses aimed at specialists but accessible and deliberately provocative commentaries meant to bring a wider public quickly up to speed on debates about (Gates again) “ideas that matter in the new millenium.” At just over 150 small-scale, large-type pages, The Marketplace of Ideas is not anything like a comprehensive examination of the many issues it addresses, whether the rise of the modern university, the vexed history of the “liberal arts” curriculum, the changing aspect of humanities research, or the causes and consequences of the current appalling academic job market. Rather, it offers a briskly coherent account of some historical contexts of particular relevance to certain elite universities (he shows this narrowness of focus throughout, which, as other reviewers have pointed out, eventually undermines a number of his more general claims and complaints). Then he transitions quite abruptly to consider political homogeneity as a feature of the academy, and then, with another awkward transition, to offer some interesting but often idiosyncratic or, worse, facile suggestions about what ails graduate education in the humanities today and how to fix it.

Of the contextual section of Menand’s book, Anthony Grafton at The New Republic writes, fairly, I think,

Menand’s account is consistently even-tempered, and he resists all temptations to succumb to nostalgia or to launch jeremiads, even when both might be appropriate. He does not portray the university in the age of New Criticism as a paradise of Serious Reading, or denounce the new forms of scholarship that have grown up more recently as one great betrayal of truth and high standards. Instead he sings a song of sclerosis. Through all these changes, he writes, the basic system of disciplines and departments remained intact–a hard and confining carapace that proved impossible to break, however humanists squirmed and pushed.

I appreciated his discussion of the mixed blessing that is professionalism, something addressed from a more discipline-specific angle in Brian McRae’s Addison and Steele are Dead (a book I discussed here at some length). I also found his comments on the unsatisfactory realities of “interdisciplinarity” very interesting: “interdisciplinarity” is a buzzword often invoked as if it represents a panacea to whatever ails our individual, disciplinary, or institutional limitations, but Menand suggests, persuasively, that our obsession with it is a symptom of anxiety about “the formalism and methodological fetishism of the disciplines and about the danger of sliding into an aimless subjectivism or eclecticism.”

Overall, though, this “structural explanation,” as Grafton calls it, wasn’t really what I went to the book for; rather, I was hoping for an elaboration on the provocative excerpt published last fall in the Harvard Magazine, focusing on “the PhD problem.” There, he talked about the dramatic rise in the number of doctoral students even as the number of available tenure track positions (relative to the number of candidates) fell off drastically, the long time to degree for doctoral students in the humanities, and some ideas for unclogging the system by, for instance, making an article the standard for the Ph.D. rather than the book-length thesis. It turns out he gave most of the milk away for free here, and my thoughts on reading that material over in the book version were the same as what I said at the time (if he can make his writing do double-duty, I figure I can do the same with mine):

. . . I was struck by Menand’s passing suggestion that “If every graduate student were required to publish a single peer-reviewed article instead of writing a thesis, the net result would probably be a plus for scholarship,” but this seems to me another of those ideas about changing “the system” (not unlike the MLA’s call to “decenter the monograph” as the gold standard for evaluating tenure and promotion files) that can never be addressed on a local level and so may never be addressed at all. Which department wants to be the first to say that they will award a Ph.D. without requiring a thesis? For that matter, which department could make such a change in policy without losing their accreditation or funding? Which department could independently assert its ability to evaluate the work of its members without the sacred stamp of “peer reviewed publications,” or at least giving equal weight to less conventional modes of knowledge dissemination? . . .

I was also struck by Menand’s remark that “Inquiry in the humanities has become quite eclectic without becoming contentious. This makes it a challenge for entering scholars to know where to make their mark.” This certainly echoes my strong feeling for the last several years that English, for one, has become a field so inchoate that it is unable to declare and defend itself in any compelling way that all of its members can agree on–at least, not without resorting to unbelievably bland formulations (all the world’s a text!). How can we sustain a sense of ourselves as a functioning discipline under these circumstances? Though I don’t want to fall into conservative lamentation about the good old days when everybody knew what books were valuable and why (when were those days, exactly, and how long did they last?), anyone who has worked on curriculum reform (and probably everyone working in an English department anywhere has done so at least once) knows that the lack of an identifiable core is a practical as well as an intellectual problem. It’s a problem for us, as we try to define priorities in hiring as well as teaching, and it’s a problem for students, whose programs include so much variety it is possible to meet a 4th-year honours student and be more struck, somehow, by what they don’t know or haven’t read than by what they do and have, and certainly impossible to predict what experience or knowledge they bring to your class . . . . But what, if anything, to do about that? Too often, I think, we resort to a rhetoric of skills (critical thinking!) that (as Menand points out with his remark about the dubious efficiency of studying Joyce to achieve more general ends) rather strips away the point of working through literature to achieve such general, marketable ends.

That last point about skills is something I have returned to recently, as I feel as if the pressure is mounting for humanities graduate programs to retool themselves as all-purpose training grounds for a (rarely specified) set of non-academic jobs. Here’s what Menand actually says on that issue:

The effort to reinvent the PhD as a degree qualifying people for non-academic as well as academic employment, to make the degree more practical, was an initiative of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation when it was headed by Robert Weisbuch. These efforts are a worthy form of humanitarianism; but there is no obvious efficiency in requiring people to devote ten or more years to the mastery of a specialized area of scholarship on the theory that they are developing skills in research, or critical thinking, or communication. . . . The ability to analyze Finnegan’s Wake does not translate into an ability to analyze a stock offering. If a person wanted to analyze stock offerings, he should not waste his time with Joyce. He should go to business school. Or get a job analyzing stock offerings.

As I’ve recently argued in response to just that kind of administrative “humanitarianism” (some might call it “pragmatism,” as well), I think there is indeed something fundamentally misguided about this trend to play up the skills set acquired during Ph.D. training, as if the content of the degree (and its specific constituent requirements, such as specialized comprehensive exams and a thesis) are somehow tangential. This “solution” to “the Ph.D. problem” sounds exactly like something an outside (non-specialist) administrator who doesn’t in fact care much about the content of individual disciplinary programs would propose, and our rapidity to embrace it, well-meaning though we certainly are (we really like our graduate students, in my experience, and want to help them), is in itself a kind of capitulation on the larger issue of the value of the work we specifically do (about which collapse of principle, see more here).

And here’s where Menand really turns out to disappoint, because with his throw-away line about the prospective stock analyst who should not “waste his time with Joyce” he (perhaps strategically) distances himself from one of his key audiences–not the skeptics or outsiders who already think that reading Finnegan’s Wake is at best a harmless (if bizarrely difficult) form of self-indulgence and at worst, yes, just a waste of time (and certainly not something that should be supported by public funding), but his fellow scholars and academics, the ones making decisions about curriculum and program requirement and advising undergraduate students to go on (or not) to Ph.D. programs, or Ph.D. students to complete (or not) their dissertations. How can they look for leadership to someone who doesn’t sound as if he thinks their work is important, whose suggestions for reform effectively trivialize it? He may well be right about Joyce as a means to that particular end, but why does he so blithly pass up the opportunity to explain why that work on Joyce might be vitally important to some other end not currently lauded or rewarded in the public culture he claims, in his closing peroration, must in fact be questioned and resisted by “the culture of the university”? He does spend a little time acknowledging what we have all gained: “the humanities,” he says

helped to make the rest of the academic world alive to issues surrounding objectivity and interpretation, and to the significance of racial and gender difference. Scholars in the humanities were complicating social science models of human motivation and behavior for years before social scientists began doing the same thing via research in cognitive science. That political and economic behavior is often non-rational is not news to literature professors. And humanists can hope that someday more social scientists and psychologists will consider the mediating role of culture in their accounts of belief and behavior. . . [Scholarship in the humanities] is pursuing an ongoing inquiry into the limits of inquiry. And it is not just asking questions about knowledge; it is creating knowledge by asking the questions. Skepticism about the forms of knowledge is itself a form of knowledge.

That’s something, though that’s about all I could find, and it strikes me as pretty tepid and unconvincing, all very abstract and general and vague about how exactly those literary scholars achieved the insight (?) that “political and economic behavior is often non-rational,” and promising nothing more than that humanities scholars will keep on keepin’ on, being skeptical and questioning about, well, everything. What’s Joyce to them, then, exactly, anyway? But I wouldn’t be so annoyed at these moments if it weren’t for this one:

It takes three years to become a lawyer. It takes four years to become a doctor. But it takes from six to nine years, and sometimes longer, to be eligible to teach poetry to college students for a living. . . . students who spend eight or nine years in graduate schools are being seriously overtrained for the jobs that are available.

I won’t get into the problem of his math (see the discussion at Historiann for some trenchant critiques). And I’ll concede that he means (I think) to be descriptive: it’s just true that the majority of jobs that are available for Ph.D.s in English right now are not at research-intensive universities or elite liberal arts colleges, or teaching specialized classes to majors and honours students in their fields. In a painfully literal way, then, he’s just telling the truth (though every time he talked about supply and demand I wondered why he wasn’t acknowledging the work of Marc Bousquet). But he makes it sound as if “teach[ing] poetry to college students for a living” is a pretty trivial occupation, one that really doesn’t depend on a base of specialized knowledge. What he doesn’t say, in this astonishingly dismissive remark, is that the eight or nine years people spend in graduate school are preparing, not just to teach Introduction to Poetry, but to rethink, and perhaps transform, how we teach poetry to undergraduates–not to mention what poetry we teach. I have only to compare the undergraduate training I received with what is standard in the curriculum today to realize what a seismic shift has gone on, in expectations, in contexts, in critical approaches. I had occasion to remark just this week, for instance, that when I studied “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in my own first-year English class, the term “Modernism” never came up. Never. We read Joyce but no Woolf, just as in my Victorian novel class we read Trollope but not Gaskell or Braddon, and the term “imperialism” never came up. Now, I suppose you could argue that a small cadre of specially privileged researchers could be off doing the kind of work the effects of which would trickle down to the peons in the classroom, but as Menand himself argues, the fewer people engaged in an activity, the less likely it is that its norms and paradigms will be challenged. And as Grafton argues eloquently in his own response to Menand, “all this takes time,” and “the vocation of scholarship is difficult.” I think there are some difficulties with Grafton’s emphasis on the academic life as a “quest,” but I really wish that, having grabbed people’s attention, Menand would have seized the opportunity, not to lob another petty grenade at his struggling colleagues but to insist that we not concede too much to either the rhetoric or the pressures of the marketplace. Surely an English professor who is also a public intellectual is uniquely positioned to make the case for, not against, the rest of us. I’m not sure that someone who wants to be a stockbroker should finish a PhD either, but I’d rather have a stockbroker who reads Joyce (or Trollope or George Eliot) than one who doesn’t see the point of that stuff.

(cross-posted)

2 Comments to Louis Menand, The Marketplace of Ideas

  1. Sam's Gravatar Sam
    March 12, 2010 at 9:28 pm | Permalink

    Fascinating stuff! And let's keep in mind that "the good old days when everybody knew what books were valuable" weren't all that long ago -the idiotic idea so widespread today, that, as you put it, all the world's a text and all texts are equally VALID (a word I could stand never to see again in my life), is of comparatively recent vintage. And its entrenchment has led to a whole GENERATION of young readers who are most striking – again, as you say – for what they DON'T know, what they've never been required to read, for the entire vast, sprawling literary traditions they've either never heard of or have been taught to disdain.

    It really gets my goat. I routinely meet English majors in their junior and senior years who've not only never read Trollope or Darwin or Castiglione but who are ignorantly, arrogantly they don't 'need' to as long as they've got a copy of "The Handmaid's Tale" on their Kindle.

    Whenever I meet one of these poor benighted souls, I always want to ask, "You're intending to go on in your studies, aren't you? Your goal is to TEACH, isn't it? What the Hell kind of teacher of literature do you think you'll ever be, if a bookish self-taught 13-year-old knows more about literature than you do, even though she knows nothing about the posturing and bullshitting you do so well?"

    But I don't ask that, because I'm renowned for being mild-mannered …

  2. Jeanne's Gravatar Jeanne
    March 15, 2010 at 9:50 am | Permalink

    Ironically, of course, it's canon-wideners like Gates arguing against "great books" types like James Atlas who created this brave new world and the attitudes of all the people in it.

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