Book Review: The Marketplace of Ideas

The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University
By Louis Menand.
174 pp. W.W. Norton. $14.95 (paperback)

I missed The Marketplace of Ideas when it was first released early last year, but its message has not faded in relevance in the intervening months–even as new books that seek to define what, exactly, is wrong with the American educational system are released weekly. Menand writes as a simultaneous outsider and insider, as he is both a professor of English at Harvard University and a well-loved staff writer over at The New Yorker. This dual position allows him to see and feel what’s wrong and right about the current state of the American university without getting too radical about his suggested changes. Indeed, Menand is no radical reformer. “There are things that academics should probably not be afraid to do differently,” he tells us, “but there are also things that are worth preserving, even at a cost, because the system cannot operate without them” (17-18). This measured reform is appreciated in a world–even an academic world–that would often prefer to deal in extremes.

Even so, Menand demands change on a systemic level. He is apt to pin the failures of the modern university on its birth in the late nineteenth century: “To the extent that this system still determines the possibilities for producing and disseminating knowledge, trying to reform the contemporary university is like trying to get on the Internet with a typewriter, or like riding a horse to the mall” (17). Many academics are likely inclined to agree with him; the problem is getting us to agree on how specifically the system should change. We’ve suggested on both the blog and the podcast, for example, that a return to Great Books-style education would be a vast improvement over the German Research model currently in place in most major American schools, but in his chapter on general-education curriculum, Menand does not work up any particular passion for core-curriculum programs. In the end, his conclusions are surprising, maybe even baffling–but more on that in a moment.

Menand, as he announces in his introduction, sets up the book as providing historical context (and occasional answers) to four questions: “Why is it so hard to institute a general education curriculum? Why did the humanities undergo a crisis of legitimation? Why has ‘interdisciplinarity’ become a magic word? And why do professors all tend to have the same politics?” (16). These questions will be familiar to anyone who hangs around an English department for any extended length of time, but Menand investigates them with great clarity. He approaches each topic as a historian rather than as an ideologue–so when, for example, he discusses general-education curriculum, the reader gets a delineation of several types of curricula, as well as a grounded history of Columbia University’s Lit Hum program (who knew it began as a course called War Aims?) and of Harvard’s famous “Redbook,” General Education in a Free Society. He also ties most of this history back into his central thesis, that the “modern” university system is a byproduct of the late nineteenth century and rather unsuitable for the demands of the contemporary world–which means we also receive a biography-in-miniature of Harvard presidents Charles William Eliot. (If you have problems with the modern university, feel free to blame Eliot, who, as Menand puts it, can be “identified with almost everything that distinguishes the modern research university from the antebellum college,” from “the abandonment of the role of in loco parentis” to “the introduction of the elective system for undergraduates” [44]).

Menand also has the appealing habit of refusing both conventional wisdom and factional assertions in academic battles. He does not even suggest that general-education curriculum is essential–let alone take sides on the electives vs. core curriculum battle that’s still raging in humanities departments. When discussing the legitimacy crisis, he refuses to pit Critical Theory in its many forms against Great Books programs (as lesser minds have done), instead noting that “Poststructuralism and cultural studies were not alien invasions in literary studies. They grew out o the normal practices of literature professors” (82). He praises certain advantages of interdisciplinarity but asserts that “It is not an escape from disciplinarity; it is the scholarly and pedagogical ratification of disciplinarity” (96-97). Menand, in his moderation, thus comes off like a voice of reason; you can disagree with him–and I do in several places–but you can’t accuse him of ideology, not with a straight face anyway.

Still, I find The Marketplace of Ideas lacking in a few areas. Menand does not discuss Christian colleges in even the most cursory of ways. This is, perhaps, not his job, but it’s interesting to me that at least two of his four questions don’t apply to most of the Christian schools I’m familiar with: With the centrality of the Bible and theology at these institutions, interdisciplinarity has always been a fact of life, and the battle over offering general-education curriculum typically never happens at Christian colleges–even if there’s a battle over whether it should be elective or core-based. It falls to some future scholar to demonstrate why Christian colleges can save education from the problems Menand delineates.

Even disregarding this omission, I find Menand’s final advice rather baffling. The solution to the group-think of college professors–Menand is open-eyed enough not to deny that it exists, although he notes that Roger Kimball probably should have called his book Tenured Moderate Liberals–could also, he implies, be the solution to the crisis of legitimacy and the problems of interdisciplinarity and general-education curriculum:

The moral of the story that the numbers tell once seemed straightforward: if there are fewer jobs for people with PhDs, then universities should stop giving so many PhDs–by making it harder to get into a PhD program (reducing the number of entrants) or harder to get through (reducing the number of graduates). But this has not worked. Possibly the story has a different moral, which is that there should be a lot more PhDs, and they should be much easier to get. The non-academic world would be enriched if more people in it had exposure to academic modes of thought, and had thereby acquired a little understanding of the issues that scare terms like “deconstruction” and “postmodernism” are attempts to deal with. And the academic world would be livelier if it conceived of its purpose as something larger and more various than professional reproduction–and also if it had to deal with students who were not so neurotically invested in the academic intellectual status quo. (154)

Well, yes, those things would be great. The problem is that the world has already nearly completely devalued a high-school education and is well on the way to devaluing the bachelor’s degree. A BA or BS is already standard for nearly every decent job in the world–even most receptionist positions, as I can tell you from personal experience, require an AA and prefer a BA–and many or most of them require a master’s. If we make the threshold even higher for decent work, Menand’s very democratic and reasonable educational system will undo itself. The solution, it seems to me, is to stop telling every high schooler to go to college and for employers to stop requiring college degrees for jobs that don’t really need them.

The solution can’t be as easy as all that, of course–I and many of my colleagues would likely be out of a job–but it would at least begin the process of purifying the college experience. Those students who wanted to go into careers that realistically required advanced degrees–or those who wanted to develop themselves in the language and thoughts of Western culture–could attend college. Others could go to trade or business school and learn skills that might actually be useful for their careers. I’m not 100 percent behind the plan I’ve outlined here, but I like it more than I like Menand’s, which is so democratic that I fear it will end up undoing the educational system altogether.

Even so, The Marketplace of Ideas is well worth a read for anyone who’s interested in the successes, failures, and future of American education. Menand asks the right questions and gives the reader enough background to decide on his or her own solutions.

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