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The Marketplace of Ideas

October 25th, 2010 by jimm wetherbee in Reading EKScursions

Marketplace of Ideas, by Louis Menand

The Marketplace of Ideas, by Louis Menand (W. W. Norton 2010).

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.