“The Marketplace of Ideas” by Louis Menand

Posted in Academia, American, Culture, Reading, Stories by Alex L. on June 8, 2010

Parents, friends, university professors, family members, esteemed colleagues, and new acquaintances: we are gathered here today to answer a very important question. Why did a young man who has been passionate about the study of history his whole life, who has majored in history in college, excelled in its study, and wanted nothing more than to teach and learn about the past for the rest of his life, decide not to go to graduate school?

Let me leave that question hanging in the air of the (empty) auditorium, shrug off the narcissism (it was me speaking about myself, in case anyone had hoped otherwise), and step down from the podium.

The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University by Louis Menand tries to answer the question of how American universities (more specifically, the liberal arts departments of those schools) have become the weird places that they are. For those who pursued a liberal arts education at a large university and don’t agree that they are strange beasts, I present the following observation of Prof. Menand’s:

It takes three years to become a lawyer. It takes four years to become a doctor. But it takes from six to nine years, and sometimes longer, to be eligible to teach poetry to college students for a living. (157)

Why? Menand, in his insightful book, answers the How? by tracing the history of the modern American university from its roots in the late-nineteenth century orientation toward research, through its gargantuan growth during the Cold War with the help of government funding, through the turbulent decades of the late-twentieth century and their epistemological crises (what are we doing this for? why are we here? and what right do we have?), to the current university that we see today.

But . . . Why? Why must a student devote nine years of his life to learn to think and talk in narrow ways, and then spend the rest of his life educating the public whose instincts (for better or worse, but usually for the better) cringe at the sound and sight of this narrowness?

As you can probably tell, this is a touchy issue for me. Reading Louis Menand’s book (I am a great fan of his earlier Pulitzer-prize winning work, The Metaphysical Club, which is my favorite example of contemporary history writing) I felt such strong emotions surfacing at times that I had to put it away for a while. Whaaa. . . ? you ask, from a book about the history of academia?

Yes. It’s hard to convey the experience of entering university at the peak of one’s enthusiasm for knowledge, for talking to others about all aspects of the world, for feeling one has come to a place they belong, and then to have that yearning slowly churned in upon itself, almost unnoticeably, and over the course of four years crushed into disenchantment.

It looks and sounds like air escaping from a balloon: first it rises, then turns, spins wildly, flies in one direction then another, spirals everywhere through seemingly random paths, and finally ends up empty and withered on the ground. It feels like hope evaporating, tangibly, when one reflects upon it in retrospect.

But, I seem to have broken my promise of keeping my narcissistic thoughts to myself.

Louis Menand, back to the book, describes the history of how the liberal arts college in a major American university came to be such a peculiar institution. “The key to reform of almost any kind in higher education”, he concludes, “lies not in the way that knowledge is produced. It lies in the way that the producers of knowledge are produced” (157). This is telling. After 1870, the American university heightened its focus on research above all other purposes. “Between 1920 and 1950, undergraduate enrollment increased by a factor of ten, but graduate enrollment increased by a factor of fifty.” But even after the tremendous increase in university attendance after 1960, the number of faculty positions remained relatively small (121).

Today, half of the students who enter a PhD program in the humanities do not complete it. Half of those that do go on to receive their PhD can not find a tenure-track position at a university. Those that do, like beggars who can’t be choosers, usually have to take anything that they can get, moving to any corner of the country (or world) that will accept them. The modern universities have been, since their inception, institutions immune from the shocks of the outside world, which makes them slow to change. They resemble a command economy more than a free market, and the strain on graduate students going through its system is evidenced by, among other things, staggeringly high divorce rates for married grad students.

So, why doesn’t the system, somehow, change, Menand asks? First, there is a good reason for it to remain isolated from the world. We don’t want the academy to merely reflect the current state of society, we need it to challenge and improve it. Hence tenure for university professors, whose jobs are hypothetically safe no matter what opinions they espouse. But there is another reason why the universities are reluctant to change: they have created an inexpensive labor force for themselves in the form of graduate students. These students, many of whom will never finish their degrees, teach the vast majority of discussion sections to undergraduates and even some lecture courses. They are smart and get paid relatively little for their labor, which works favorably for university administrators (152).

Nevertheless, Menand offers two possible solutions for changing the way “producers of knowledge are produced”:

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 [meaning, replicating established ways of thinking] – and also if it had to deal with students who were not neurotically invested in the academic intellectual status quo. If PhD programs were determinate in length – if getting a PhD were like getting a law degree – then graduate education might acquire additional focus and efficiency. It might also attract more of the many students who, after completing college, yearn for deeper immersion in academic inquiry, but who cannot envision spending six years or more struggling through a graduate program and then finding themselves virtually disqualified for anything but a teaching career that they cannot count on having. (154)

When I read Menand’s second solution, about having more PhDs with three or four years of schooling instead of six or nine, I almost shouted for joy at the thought (yes, yes, from a book about the history of academia). Then, perhaps, I wouldn’t have to be constantly responding to people’s inquiries by saying, “I’m not in a history graduate program now. . . but I see myself teaching history at some point in the future, maybe at a high school or at a university. But I don’t want to go to graduate school now. What? You don’t understand this? How can I explain this. . . hrmmf. . . yes, hrmmf. . . well, right now I’m just drifting.” Three more, four more, perhaps even five more years I can do.

But heck, I could do six or nine years too, maybe even fifteen. I could spend a lifetime learning in an academic institution, if it was required. I would do it, I’m not faint of heart, I don’t lack faith, if at the end of the road, after all that schooling and learning to think like others, there was something beautiful to show for it. A mind that thinks well, speaks well, and inspires others. Narrowness learned, yes, but for the sake of expanding one’s mind, for the sake of seeing the entire tapestry of history that emerges after studying all of its threads (a metaphor borrowed from one of the best teachers of history I know, I must admit). Where does one find this kind of learning? In what kind of school? This kind of education would be worth it. This kind of education wouldn’t strain a marriage. It would put history on the map again; I am confident that more than the current 2% of undergraduates would want to major in it.

I have failed again to restrain myself from making this review of a book about the state of the modern American university personal. But, as I must admit and you have probably guessed, I never intended it to be anything but that. Because if you love anybody or anything, it’s always personal. So, if you are interested in the state of higher education, I recommend you read Louis Menand’s new book, The Marketplace of Ideas. And if you do, you’ll realize that there’s no use in railing against a system that has persisted for a hundred years and that you can not change if you have no power to do so (I am speaking of myself, again, but perhaps you have shared in my struggle in your own way).

What, then, is left to say or do? Maybe this. The quality of hope is that it looks for things unseen and yet unreal. Must one, like Tennyson’s Ulysses, trudge on, reality be damned, just for the sake of it, “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”? But. . . what romanticism, what sentimentalism, how disconnected from the real world, what tripe I have just said! Perhaps all of those things are true, the feeling may evaporate uselessly. But. . . how else is the world (or, at least, in my more humble example, history departments) reborn again with every generation of people, I ask? And if the depth of feeling that one feels is truly what I have called it, how can one do anything else?

2 Responses

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  1. Saad said, on June 14, 2010 at 8:42 pm

    damned if you do, damned if you don’t! Grads school may suck out your soul, as it seemed like it in my program , but without it you won’t get any recognition. I think over-specialization in any field kills that yearning for knowledge. Does Menard make any specific recommendation for restructuring? or is he only advocating change?

  2. Alex L. said, on July 21, 2010 at 3:42 pm

    Menand makes a few general recommendations (like the one I described in the post) but nothing very specific.

    Well, at least you’ve graduated, Saad, though we missed you at the ceremony. Congrats again!

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