Tenured Moderates

Its axiomatic among many conservatives that universities are, outside of Cuba, the last refuge of unreconstructed Marxism, hippie havens where ideals of eternal truth have been discarded in favor of mindless relativism and the multiculturalist agenda, moral dead zones where students do little more than indulge their basest instincts, all on the taxpayers dime.

Louis Menand doesnt engage these arguments directly in his new book The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American Universityhes too smart and serious a writer for that. But he does address many of the legitimate and vexing questions behind them. Part history of higher education, part sympathetic but insistent argument for change, Menands book is a worthy and admirably succinct exploration of why colleges are so difficult to improve.

Each of the books main chapters is devoted to one of four issues. The first is general education (a standard conservative bugaboo), the reluctance of most colleges to insist that there are some things every undergraduate should learn. The problem, says Menand, is that while standard curricula are often framed in terms of canonical books and enduring ideas, they have historically been implemented for present-day reasons. Columbia Universitys famous Great Booksfocused Contemporary Civilization course, still required of all sophomores today, was originally called “War Aims” and was created at the behest of the U.S. military for students enrolled in the World War I equivalent of the ROTC. General Education in Free Society, the influential 1945 report spearheaded by Harvard President James Conant, was a “Cold War document.” To resist the temptations of fascism and communism (or, as Conant put it, the “Russian hordes”), Americans needed to be connected by shared beliefs. General education has always been defined as what students need in order to contend with the particular world in which they live.

This cuts against the liberal arts identity as distinct from the vocational and mundane. “In a system that associates college with the ideals of the love of learning and knowledge for its own sake,” says Menand, “a curriculum designed with real-world goals in mind seems utilitarian, instrumentalist, vocational, presentist, anti-intellectual, and illiberal.” Nonetheless, Menand (who teaches English at Harvard and labored on that universitys latest attempt to define a common core) is ultimately unsympathetic to the liberal educators instinct to “pull up the drawbridge, to preserve colleges separateness at any price.” It rests on a “superstition,” he says: “that the practical is the enemy of the true.”

The second chapter focuses on the embattled humanities and the “legitimacy crisis” they have undergone in recent decades, with disciplines coming to resemble snakes ingesting their own tails in a never-ending process of challenge and deconstruction whose principles have become, themselves, a new framework for inquiry. Menand deftly grounds this issue in the postWorld War II history of higher education, particularly as reaction to the “Golden Age” of 194675, which saw a massive expansion in enrollment and capacity along with a huge influx of funding to support Cold War research and a resulting emphasis on a scientific (some would say scientistic) approach to scholarship. Menand warns against pinning the subsequent backlash, which begat gender, cultural, gay and lesbian, and postcolonial studies, among others, on the more-or-less simultaneous arrival of female and minority students to higher education in large numbers. Nearly all of the scholars who touched off the humanities revolution, he notesRichard Rorty in philosophy, Stanley Fish in English, Clifford Geertz in anthropology, and so onwere white men. In the end, Menand sees much value in the humanities intellectual struggle. “It is not just asking questions about knowledge; it is creating knowledge by asking the questions.”

He has considerably less enthusiasm for interdisciplinarity, the subject of chapter three. While acknowledging that the current academic disciplines “do not carve knowledge at the joints, and they did not drop down out of Gods blue sky,” he chafes at faddish enthusiasm for an argument that is actually anti-disciplinary: that breaching traditional scholarly divisions can “refresh old paradigms and, almost by itself, generate radically new perspectives and ideas.” Menand again turns back the clock, this time to the years 1870 to 1915, the “big bang of American higher education” when the discipline-based model of the American research university was born.

The keys to disciplinarity were autonomy and professionalizationthe creation of communities of scholars who determined the process for both transmitting and certifying expertise. This specialization allowed for the deep inquiry necessary for knowledge creation in an increasingly complex world, while also checking elitism by limiting the authority of scholars to their chosen field. As currently practiced, with professors of, say, literature and anthropology teaching a single class, interdisciplinarity doesnt just ratify the divisions; it fetishizes them, says Menand, creating a situation where scholars “just shout at each other from the mountaintops” of their respective fields. He sees the whole issue as “displaced anxiety about the position of privilege that academic professionalism confers on its initiates and about the peculiar position of social disempowerment created by the barrier between academic workers and the larger culture.”

The final chapter addresses the liberal bias of the professoriate, another perpetual conservative complaint. While acknowledging the obvious62.2 percent of professors self-identify as liberal, compared to 19.7 as conservativeMenand is more alarmed by homogeneity. Only 9.4 percent of faculty members say theyre “extremely liberal,” he notes, and professorial self-assessment is actually much more accurate than that of the general public when verified against questions about discrete issues. Most are garden-variety Democrats, the kind of people who voted for John Kerry, not Ralph Nader. Assuming that the now-retiring tenured radicals of the 1960s and 70s are disproportionately on the extreme left, this lack of diversity is likely to get worse. Menand proceeds to the right question: Does higher education make people liberal or does it select for liberals? His answer: Some of both. Menand puts most of the blame on a system of graduate education where supply and demand are hugely out of whack. One study of English PhDs ten years after graduation found that only 5 percent had tenure at a research university. Success in such a ruthless tournament depends heavily on intellectual conformity to the existing scholars whose opinions determine whether you live or die.

Themes of history and systems run throughout The Marketplace of Ideas. American higher education is “still a nineteenth century system, put in place for late nineteenth century reasons.” Its been around so long that people cant see it anymore. “It gets internalized. It becomes a mind-set. It is just the way thing are.” This is an immensely valuable insight, and the volume covers a great deal of ground in less than 200 pages. So it seems unappreciativeor to risk the cardinal reviewers sin of criticizing a book for not being another bookto ask for more.

But Menand makes some crucial assumptions that unnecessarily limit the scope of his analysis. He begins by defining the university mission as “the production and dissemination of knowledgethat is, research and teaching.” This is the preferred formulation, and not by accident, because it flatters the standard university model by suggesting that research and teaching missions work in harmony.

They dont. Most college courses are only tangentially connected to the academic subspecialties of those who teach them, and the learned habits of research often translate into lousy classroom instruction. Moreover, students come to college seeking not just knowledge but skills, the abilities on which careers and professions are founded. Indeed, Menand himself shows this well. His opus, The Metaphysical Club, won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for more than just keen insight into the intellectual history of the nineteenth century. It also features, in the words of reviewers, “graceful, witty prose” that contains “clarity and energy” and is “amazingly readable.” Its not a coincidence that, unlike most of his peers in the academy, Menand is also a staff writer for the New Yorker. Those crucial skills are given short shrift, both in academia and in this book.

I focus on what is in reality a very thin slice of the wholeundergraduate and graduate education in the liberal arts and sciences. Most of the 4,000 institutions of higher education in the United States are not liberal arts schools: that is, they award less than half their degrees in the liberal arts fields. Twenty-two percent of college graduates major in business; only 2 percent major in history. Most of what I have to say concerns higher education as experienced by the history major, rather than the business major, and most of my examples are taken from elite liberal arts institutions there are many institutions for which the problems I discuss are either irrelevant or non-problems.

But business majors need a general education too, if anyone does. Most college courses are taken outside of majors, not within them. The humanities matter everywhere and for everyone. MIT, for example, isnt exactly a liberal arts school, but Menands father still taught political science there, with distinction. The professoriate may prefer to live in rarefied enclaves of “knowledge creation,” but that doesnt mean its a good idea. The practical and true go hand in hand.

Indeed, if higher education is ever going to break out of the nineteenth-century arrangements that increasingly prevent it from keeping pace with our accelerating present day, it needs to start by recognizing that it doesnt serve nineteenth-century students anymore. The work now is much harder. There are many more students, of many different kinds, who need a fantastic variety of knowledge and skills to thrive in the modern world. Yet the colleges and universities weve built to teach them are still chained to an older time. Menands critique bears the mark of someone who is, rarely, in academia but not of it. Its a crucial vantage point, one that could be used to benefit not just Harvard and its ilk but the wide world of everyone else.

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Kevin Carey

Kevin Carey directs the Education Policy Program at New America.