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

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

3.59285 votes • 58 reviews
Published 18 Jan 2010
The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University.pdf
Format Hardcover
Publisher W. W. Norton & Company
ISBN 0393062759

Has American higher education become a dinosaur?
Why do professors all tend to think alike? What makes it so hard for colleges to decide which subjects should be required? Why do teachers and scholars find it so difficult to transcend the limits of their disciplines? Why, in short, are problems that should be easy for universities to solve so intractable? The answer, Louis Menand argues, is that the institutional structure and the educational philosophy of higher education have remained the same for one hundred years, while faculties and student bodies have radically changed and technology has drastically transformed the way people produce and disseminate knowledge. At a time when competition to get into and succeed in college has never been more intense, universities are providing a less-useful education. Sparking a long-overdue debate about the future of American education, The Marketplace of Ideas examines what professors and students—and all the rest of us—might be better off without, while assessing what it is worth saving in our traditional university institutions.

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

- The United States
Sat, 08 Sep 2018

This is a really narrow book having to do with changes in university structure, specifically in the humanities education at 4 year universities. But within that narrow range, it is super insightful about the reasons for changes (which have a lot to do with a diminished market demand and with institutional insecurity). I loved the end where he talks about inter-disciplinarity and how that's actually a doubling down on disciplines. Menand is such an excellent writer and thinker and I want to read everything he's written.

Tue, 26 Jul 2011

Back in the dark ages when dinosaurs ruled the earth and I was in college my father wondered aloud about the value of a BA. He argued that the literature and philosophy classes did not contribute one iota to his career as a research chemist, and that he had not any reason to refer back to a single class that did not have to do with his major in chemistry. As a philosophy of religion major, this hurt. I muttered something about a liberal arts education being valuable because it inculcates a love of learning and trains people to think, and so the lessons learned apply across all disciplines. His reply amounted to “and studying chemistry doesn't?” Either the study of humanities rubbed off on my father without his knowing it, or studying chemistry seems to work just fine for teaching people to think. Menand sets out to answer this question. Does a liberal arts education, as it is currently constructed, produce the general thinkers whose come love learning for its own sake and whose skills can readily transferred to new areas, or is a university best at reproducing university professors?
Menand investigates this question with four essays. Although these essays could stand independently, each has a way of drawing a circle around the question and tightening that circle with each turn. As on essay follows the next, the critique becomes more pointed.
The first essay in Marketplace of Ideas, involves the entire process of curriculum development and the philosophy behind general education requirements. Those involved in the past curriculum development here at Wingate might find the essay, entitled “The Problem of General Education,” at least provocative. Menand's thesis in this essay is that there are two distinct idea of what a general education is suppose to do. At one end is the view that a general education should provide a common canon for the exchange of ideas, that intellectual content precedes intellectual activity—in order to think about something, one must have something to think about. Under this model, all sections of a general education course (say World Literature) would select from the same small pool of texts and all students would take the same series of general education courses. Because everyone is examining the same topics, the synergy involved encourages thinking. At the other end is the conviction that in order to think about something, one must first learn how to think critically. In this case it does not matter so much what the subject is, but that one development the intellectual tools to evaluate and develop ideas. So then general education classes may be more al a carte and sections within those courses may be widely varied. In some cases, under this rubric, there are no general education requirements to be had.
Menand finds the root of this difference not in some deep philosophical difference (he maintains that discussions at that level are rare, even in the midst of a curriculum review), but instead stem from the tensions that exist in the historical development of undergraduate higher education. The narrative Menand presents goes something like this: prior to middle of the nineteenth century in America a liberal arts education was one of a number routes towards coming into a learned profession. For instance, doctors and lawyers could (and did) bypass college altogether and went straight to their professional schools. This changed when Harvard required that students entering its law and medical programs first earn a bachelor's degree. In doing so, the undergraduate program not only because a gateway toward professional obtainment generally, but also took the mantle of being universally applicable. At the same time learned societies started to spring up which sought to professionalize all academic disciplines. This required a strict demarcation between disciplines such that knowledge from one discipline is not transferable to another. This dynamic between the liberal being seen universally applicable and undergraduate education being the gateway to professions where knowledge is anything but universal led to creation of the general education requirement. The general education requirement itself, however, rests uneasily between these. If too practicable the general education component is seen as too bound to one's present situation, too much like simple training, and leaves the student without the tools to adapt as situations change. If the component is too general, it is seen as inapplicable to the discipline one is really interested in.
In his second essay, Menand's examines the development of the humanities follows a similar path. As noted, disciplines can be distinguished from one another by a given set of knowledge that is not readily transferred. The skills one learns as a surgeon do not help one in astrophysics. The question is, whether the humanities should be considered disciplines in this sense. Medand's answer would seem to be, not for want of trying. One could argue that by examining their professional literature, disciplines such as English Literature (Menand's discipline) or Philosophy (my undergraduate major) have become more esorteric over the past seventy-five or one-hundred years. Taking a cue from the previous essays, one could also say that drive for professionalizing the disciplines combined with an attempt to follow the successful model of the sciences, that areas of learning that might seem to be available to everyone would become highly specialized. Menand argues that sort of disciplinary isolation started breaking down in the nineteen-seventies when (a) the rationale for the humanities to model themselves after the science started breaking down and (b) the discipline-based model for the humanities became inadequate as the pool of undergraduates (and then practitioners in the humanities) diversified. Menand attributes the first part to the rise of the sciences following World War Two and the onset of the Cold War. The second part is a bit more difficult to justify. Menand's argument here is that prior the civil rights movement, feminism, and the subsequent reactions to each, the pool of college was fairly uniform. As such students (some of whom would be professors in their own right) already bought into the prevailing view. As disciplines diversified, the came to include those who had formally been outside the disciplinary structure had less of a reason to accept it and so it started not so much to break down but to transform itself into interdisciplinary studies. Menand wryly notes that the move toward interdisciplinary studies reinforces disciplines even while they are being critiqued (one cannot have an interdisciplinary dialog without there being disciplines). The problem with interdisciplinary courses is that it involves two groups with non-transferable knowledge bases attempting to interact by transferring knowledge.
Menand extends this inquiry with his third essay, “Interdiciplinarity and Anxiety.” In many ways this essay repackages the other two and points to the forth. It is also Menand's most introspective but in some ways the least satisfactory. After about twenty-nine pages of detached analysis, which again bring up the role of professionalization, the drive for the university to be scientific, the rise and challenge to academic disciplines, we take a sharp turn for a page and a half of academic angst that seems to come from nowhere. What is new, and what points to the final essay, is the overall structure of the university which both protects instructors but also serves to make them less relevant to the larger community.
Menand ends by asking the question, “why do all professors think alike?” He might have better titled it “grad school is professors and administrators, not students.” The question one might have expected would have been why is it that professors tend to be so liberal. Menand tackles this one by noting a number of surveys to show that while university professors have tended to track just left of center (his term is “moderately liberal,”) that except for a brief period in the nineteen-sixties and seventies, radicals are no more prevalent in academia than in the population as a whole. Menard goes on to assert that as the radicals are retiring, they are being replaced by far more moderate instructors. In short while still being just left of center, academics are becoming more homogenous. Menand seems to have solid evidence that this is the case. Undergraduate students are just as politically diverse as the population as a whole. Students going into graduate programs are also just as diverse. Those who get through PhD programs and themselves continue within academia are not as diverse. Possible explanations at this juncture would include that those interested in academia are naturally left-of-center, that those who make it through the process become acculturated, or that those that don't conform are pushed out by the system. Menand gives no clear answer, though he had already discounted the first possibility. He could have strengthened is position if he had noted that prior to the late 19th century, academia was exceptionally conservative in its general outlook. He also sites anecdotal evidence where notable neoconservatives left academia before finishing their degrees. This is a suggestive, but fragile, hook to lay any theory and Menand seems to recognize it as such.
What Menand notes as peculiar is that it takes far longer to earn a PhD in one of the humanities than the social or physical sciences. It is this phenomena that he explores. Unlike the physical or social science, the skills learned by humanities scholars as humanities scholars does not translate well outside of academia. The bar for completing a program is raised, and expectations for what a doctoral dissertation are raised in the very fields where success is the most difficult to determine. On the other hand, all undergraduates have to courses in the humanities (particularly within the general education requirements). From an administrative point of view, there is every reason to keep graduate students on as graduate assistants for as long as possible and very little relax standards were success is doubtful. Menand notes that a PhD in the humanities surely cannot be required in order to teach undergraduates because graduate assistants teach undergraduates as part of their curriculum. He also argues that rigor of a doctoral dissertation (which is now seen less as an academic exercise than as the first draft of a scholarly tome) would be better served by requiring students to publish in a peer-reviewed journal. Whatever the merit of this line of reasoning, its connection to the question of why professors all think alike is tentative at best.
This forth essay to an extent summarizes what is best and most maddening about Marketplace of Ideas. The writing is engaging, the analysis clear. What seems to be missing are conclusions or at least conclusions placed firmly on the analysis proffered. Even without those conclusions, Menand offers a provocative and timely addition to academia's continual self-examination.
This forth essay to an extent summarizes what is best and most maddening about Marketplace of Ideas. The writing is engaging, the analysis clear. What seems to be missing are conclusions or at least conclusions placed firmly on the analysis proffered. Even without those conclusions, Menand offers a provocative and timely addition to academia's continual self-examination.

- Cambridge, MA
Mon, 01 Feb 2010

I took two classes with Menand, so I had to pick this up. I wasn't disappointed.
He draws a couple of strands into one appraisal of the American university system. The debate on the General Education curriculum at Harvard, which dragged on for years; the "Humanities Revolution" in the 70s and 80s (a revolt against the disciplines and a proliferation of fields, emphasis on diversity and the contingency of representations); the current anxiety over getting professors to do things interdisciplinarily; and the plight of graduate students (especially in English). The issues are not tied together overly tightly--that would do them injustice--but if I had to sum up the connection, it's that these supposed problems are really just products of our system of higher education (and thereby, maybe won't go away until we rethink it). To whit: Gen Ed reform has dragged on for so long because it hits a paradox in undergrad education at a liberals arts school, that it is supposed to be unconcerned with preparing students for the "real world," while preparing them for the real world; the "Humanities Revolution" was really a reversion back to a natural state of many disciplines, which was made unnatural by the money flowing into universities in the 40s and 50s and Cold War ideology; professors are professionals, their disciplines are their professions, and so discplinary walls will tend to go up; and the hurdles of graduate education perhaps need a rethinking, considering that so many graduate students do not become academics.
Lots of interesting history about universities (e.g., in 1869, half of Harvard Law studentss and 3/4 of Harvard Med students had not attended college previously; that changed drastically over the next half century). Above all, though, what I got out of this book was an examination of the university as a social creation that has its faults. I think that previously I had held up universities as semi-sacred repositories of knowledge, and the whole system of university education as made to support and extend that knowledge, but now I am thinking a little more critically on why certain things are the way they are, what incentives and historical trends have led to them, and ultimately how I view my own goals in relation to that.
Finally, a stylistic observation. As a teacher, Menand is so good at crystallizing big ideas; making them seem so self-evident, giving you the "aha" moment. You can see that, too, in his writing:
"Since it is the system that ratifies the product--ipso facto, no one outside the community of experts is qualified to rate the value of the work produced within it--the most important function of the system is not the production of knowledge. It is the reproduction of the system."
"So there is nothing transgressive about interdisciplinarity on this description. There is nothing even new about it. Disciplinarity has not only been ratified; it has been fetishized. The disciplines are treated as the sum of all possible perspectives."

- Hershey, PA
Thu, 18 Feb 2010

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.

- The United States
Thu, 31 Aug 2017

Louis Menand On The Marketplace Of Ideas
In 1903, the philosopher William James wrote an essay, "The PhD Octopus" 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. Louis 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. 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 curriculum? 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 themselves, 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 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 de-emphasis 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.
Robin Friedman

J. Alfred
- Bloomsburg, PA
Wed, 22 Jun 2016

A tight, lively little book on some of the problems in professional academia today, including, Why does it take so long to get a Ph.D in humanities, and Why do all professors seem to think alike? It's well done and thought provoking. Menand's idea on how to solve the problem that there are too many Ph.Ds running around without enough jobs seems to be to make it easier for people to attain Ph.Ds, which seems paradoxical, but I think I follow him. A quick and enjoyable argument for people interested in the subject.

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