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Soothing the Elites

The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University

By Louis Menand
W.W. Norton, 2010

Like the novel or the morals of teenagers, higher education is always in crisis. A quick overview of recent titles from across the political spectrum includes Our Underachieving Colleges: A Candid Look at How Much Students Learn and Why They Should Be Learning More, University, Inc: The Corporate Corruption of Higher Education, The Quiet Crises: How Higher Education is Failing America, Declining by Degrees: Higher Education at Risk, not to mention the more overwrought titles like David Horowitz’s The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America.

By comparison, the biggest surprise of Louis Menand’s short volume, The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University, is its measuredness. Adapted from a series of lectures delivered at the University of Virginia in 2008, the book isn’t the polemic or set of proscriptions we might expect from the title. Instead, each chapter traces the background and history of various issues, outlining their evolution rather than railing against their deficiencies. Three chapters address the content and boundaries of disciplines – what kind of general education universities should provide, the role of the humanities, and the question of interdisciplinary curricula. Menand offers a lucid and readable account of these issues, along with a range of intriguing historical facts. He also unpacks a number of lazy clichés, ranging from how an undergraduate degree became a prerequisite to law and medical school to the crucial point that so-called “looser” standards in various disciplines have actually led to higher demands for the completion of the PhD. Along the way are a few tantalizing ideas and implied proposals, as in his outline of how academic and professional curricula might enrich one another:

Almost any liberal arts field can be made non-liberal by turning it in the direction of some practical skill with which it is already associated…. But conversely, and more importantly, any practical field can be made liberal simply by teaching it historically or theoretically.

Despite this measuredness, however, the more contentious background to Menand’s arguments frequently seeps through. While other hot-buttoned cultural issues have replaced the debates over the canon that flooded universities and the popular media in the eighties and nineties, Menand seems on the defensive about the changes that took place during those eras. He makes a point of emphasizing that theory and post-structuralism had undone the assumptions of the humanities before the “politically consequential critiques” of feminist, post-colonial, and queer theorists. His larger point – that the academic models of the post-war so-called “Golden Age” of higher education during which universities expanded at unprecedented rates were anomalous – is well taken. But in making it, he leaves out part of the story. In fact, conservatives in the eighties and nineties weren’t wrong to talk about the connections between these transformations and the political upheavals of the sixties and seventies. The creation of Black Studies programs came about largely due to the activism and sit-ins of students at institutions ranging from Cornell University to San Francisco State, and the founding generation of Women’s Studies was, in fact, organically linked to the evolution of second-wave feminism. Menand rightly points out that curricula during the “Golden Age” was neither inevitable nor unshaped by politics, but his account of more recent developments suggests the extent to which conservative charges of a politicized curriculum have succeeded in placing even mainstream progressive arguments on the defensive.

Louis Menand lecturing at the Gutman Conference Center at Harvard University; photo from Justin Ide/Harvard News Office

The title of the fourth chapter, “Why Do Professors All Think Alike?,” suggests that here Menand will more directly confront the politicized questions that shape so many discussions of academia. Instead, something potentially more interesting but also stranger takes place. He begins with an overview of a 2007 study of the views of over 600,000 academics. Unsurprisingly, the numbers reveal that academics are, by and large, not the wild-eyed radicals David Horowitz has made a career of “exposing” but mainstream liberals. Then, instead of considering whether or not this is a problem and, if so, what should be done about it, Menand shifts to a discussion of the issues surrounding graduate education. The basic facts will likely be familiar to current or recent graduate students: graduate school takes longer to complete than ever before, especially in the humanities, nearly half in some fields like English drop out before completion, and many of those who do finish will not find tenure-track positions. To his immense credit, and unlike many critics, Menand recognizes that making graduate school more demanding or raising barriers of entry will only exacerbate the problem. Instead he suggests a shorter time to degree, with the completion of an academic article taking the place of the dissertation. He argues this on humanitarian grounds, but then notes the institutional pressures that demand a large pool of graduate students and underemployed PhDs as cheap labor. As if acknowledging the intractability of this situation, he shifts the argument again, suggesting that the long time to degree should be a concern because of the barriers to entry this creates to the profession. This is an essential point; however, rather than suggest that this would help academia attract more scholars from poor or working class backgrounds, more scholars of color, or more women (and men) turned off by the sacrifices to family and personal life represented by a ten year stay in graduate school, Menand returns to his starting point and argues that a more flexible model would diversify the political views of academics.

At first I was perplexed by the chapter’s two-step, starting with the “problem” of liberalism that may or not be a problem, then presenting the real problem of graduate education as a way of solving it. Then I started to wonder about Menand’s audience – not so much readers of his book but the faculty – and, perhaps, administrators – to whom he originally delivered these talks. Did he think they were likely to be indifferent to appeals to humanitarian treatment of young scholars or to calls for greater equality in access (old news) but sensitive to charges of liberal bias (also old news, but tapping into academics’ seemingly bottomless capacity for self-flagellation)?

Like most recent graduate students, I can imagine this scenario, as I’ve sat in on many variations of this discussion, and read more than a few of the legion of articles devoted to these questions. Recently, however, I’ve found myself more and more impatient with their arguments. It’s easy for me to understand why: I’ve spent the past four and half years teaching at community colleges. From the perspective of my daily life in the classroom, Menand’s framing of the issues seem more than a bit tangential, centered as it is around a hypothetical student who is less and less typical – a recent high school graduate secure enough in a middle-class future to brave four years of being asked just what it is she plans to do with that art history degree and likely to return to graduate or professional school in order to secure that future. By contrast, more and more college students are not eighteen to twenty-one. They are first generation immigrants or laid-off workers. They hold down jobs and go to school at night. More and more are taught by graduate students or part-time faculty who shuttle between campuses. Even those who are recent middle-class high school students are less likely to pursue a liberal arts path – understandably so, considering the pressures aligned against them: the stagnant wages of the past three decades, the need for a health-insurance-bearing jobs, the increasing cost of college and the resulting debt burdens carried by most graduates.

Menand knows all this, of course, but he quickly sets it aside:

Like most people who write about American higher education, I focus on what is in reality a very thin slice of the whole – undergraduate and graduate education in the liberal arts and sciences…. Most of what I have to say concerns higher education as it is experienced by the history major, rather than the business major, and most of my examples are taken from elite liberal arts institutions. This is because, historically, the elites have had the resources to innovate and the visibility to set standards for the system as a whole, but there are many institutions for which the problems I discuss are either irrelevant or non-problems.

Unstated here are other likely reasons for this focus. Most academics (and many journalists who cover higher education) attended elite liberal arts colleges or research universities. For academics, undergraduate and graduate school most often amounts to over a decade of acculturation into the ways and concerns of these institutions, much of it spent working towards the goal of being accepted to another elite institution as a faculty member. Many will end up teaching at large public universities, at non-elite private schools, and at community colleges. Many will seek out this work, find much of value in it, and discover different ways of thinking about colleges. Most will, however, be too busy teaching to write books about the state of higher education.

At the end of his introduction, Menand notes, “The modern American higher education system was and remains a great social accomplishment. It can handle a few questions.” But, like the great accomplishment of our health care system, its availability to anything more than an elite is far from guaranteed. The University of Virginia, where Menand delivered his lectures, is public largely in name only, receiving only eight percent of its revenue from the state. The crisis at the University of California, which, as The New Yorker recently reported, has laid off two thousand staff since Governor Schwarzenegger cut its budget by $637 million, is only the most striking case of the threat to public higher education. Menand’s acknowledged focus on elite research universities masks this wider context. Community colleges – which enroll nearly half of today’s undergraduates and where many of Menand’s PhDs will go on to teach – go largely unmentioned, as they do in so many discussions of higher education. (Whether the Obama administration’s stated interest in and commitment to community colleges will change this remains to be seen.) After the overheated debates of the eighties and the nineties, it’s easy to understand Menand’s desire for a measured, understated history of these issues. Today, however, with public universities – and, by extension, the possibility of higher education for any but the privileged few – on the chopping block, finding smart dispassionate critiques like Menand’s may be less helpful than what has been harder for the university to produce: advocates and defenders.

Laura Tanenbaum is an Assistant Professor of English at LaGuardia Community College, CUNY, in New York. Her fiction has recently appeared in failbetter and Steel City Review, and she is a founding editor of the on-line literary journal Vibrant Gray.