Jan 12 2010

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

Jessica Loudis

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Louis Menand's The Marketplace of Ideas should be required reading for anybody considering a PhD in the humanities, especially now that the recession is driving more and more people into the supposedly safe haven of graduate school. In less than 200 pages, Menand, an English professor at Harvard and a staff writer at The New Yorker, examines the history and evolution of American higher education, and makes the case that the American university is suffering from a deep-seated institutional crisis that has grown rapidly more dire since the 1970s.

"It takes three years to become a lawyer," Menand writes. "It takes four years to become a doctor. But it takes six to nine years, and sometimes longer, to be eligible to teach poetry to college students for a living." For PhDs in English, the statistics are dismal at best: only half of students actually make it through their programs, and roughly half of those graduates actually find tenure-track work in their field. Rather than focus on the production of new academics, departments rely on ABDs (students who are "all but dissertation") to teach undergrads and keep universities humming. As a result, academic gestation periods now regularly cross the ten-year mark, and a system designed to cultivate innovation has become a treadmill that values professional pandering over the pursuit of broader social missions.

While there's nothing groundbreaking about pointing out that the system is in crisis—academics have been accused of insularity for as long as universities have existed—Menand does a good job of tracing the genealogy of our current educational slump. At the turn of the century, the country's educational leaders developed the model that's still standing today, designating undergraduate study as the realm of general education, and graduate school as the space for professionalization. This worked well for a while as economic growth, Cold War neurosis and the baby boom fueled the so-called Golden Age of the university. But in the Vietnam era, the system hit puberty hard: students rejected the rigid disciplines of previous generations, and universities found that while grad students continued enroll, fewer jobs were waiting for them when they graduated.

In response, humanities departments suffered identity crises. English departments took in theorists and historians; anthropology fluctuated based on where it was taught; and 'interdiciplinarity' became a buzzword among academics nervous that their training would leave them hyperspecialized and culturally marginal. Although Menand never outrights opposes interdisciplinarity, his argument against too much of it is one of the book's most salient. He contends that by cherry-picking information from outside disciplines and treating them as facts (rather than claims), academics, particularly those in the humanities, short-circuit debate and foster a dangerous environment of insularity.

Menand makes a compelling case that measures need to be taken, and soon. While tightening the standards of entry isn't likely to help, the disciplines could benefit from a more porous relationship between academics and the non-ivory tower world. The prospects of this actually happening are dubious—a recurring theme in Marketplace is academia's long history of institutional conservatism—but what's at stake is whether American higher education can salvage a place for critical inquiry, or if it's fated to become just a necessary step on the way to professionalism.

Jessica Loudis is a Brooklyn-based writer who works at Slate.

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