Our greatest fear as academics might be the fear of being proven futile. We know we’re probably in some respect self-serving and that perhaps we magnify our own importance in the face of what we consider a hostile, indifferent, or Philistine public. But we like to maintain the fiction that we are free from parochialism to pursue the search for truth or something like it (maybe call it “free inquiry”) in a value-free arena. Or at least that’s the ideal, though I don’t think anyone would go so far as to say this is ever actualized or even completely possible. These are ideals, and Louis Menand’s slim volume offers insightful and sometimes piercing examinations of at least three aspects of these ideals: ideas about general education, interdisciplinarity, and the self-selecting nature of how we train PhDs and what we get as results.
This is not a comprehensive critique or “state of the academy” study, though as a recognized scholar Menand has done his homework. Rather, it’s a collection of thoughts from someone who has made a career in the academy and who has passion and respect for what it can be. As he states near the work’s conclusion:
It is the academic’s job in a free society to serve the public culture by asking questions the public doesn’t want to ask, investigating subjects it cannot or will not investigate, and accommodating voices it fails or refuses to accommodate.
Amen. So what’s the problem? As valuable as academic endeavors are, Menand feels certain claims about higher education are not true or have been taken out of their correct context, and he’s biting in his critique when he feels we need to be disabused of such claims. Because some of the chapters in this work were originally speeches, they are for the most part easy reading, even when what he is saying is difficult.
Menand begins with what has become something of a cause in higher education over the past few decades: the idea of general education. Like all of us, he’s sat through seemingly endless meetings of faculty trying to decide what general education actually is and how to provide it to students, whether in shared common core courses or in a system of electives. “General education, he explains, “is where colleges connect what professors do with who their students are and what they will become after they graduate—where colleges actually think about the outcome of the experience they provide. General education is, historically, the public face of liberal education.” Despite a clear importance though, Menand feels that what these conversations at universities across the country lack is a historical context of where this idea came from and why it’s a distinctly American ideal. From its origins at the nation’s oldest and most prestigious colleges and its evolution in response to broader societal changes, Menand argues against a perceived antiquity or changelessness in general education. Rather, he seems to be saying, general education is historically contingent– not unimportant, but neither as uniform, enduring, or timeless as some might argue.
Another topic Menand examines involves another contemporary buzzword (or, depending on your perspective, bugbear): the idea of interdisciplinarity or teaching across the disciplines. Menand argues here, by providing another historical analysis– this time of professionalization of the academic disciplines– that the concept of interdisciplinarity in actuality serves to magnify and cement disciplinary distinctions and divides that are already problematic and largely artificial. The whole discussion of teaching across disciplines, he argues, masks an anxiety of scholars who realize on some level that their disciplinary divisions and structures are at least partially vacuous. “Is my relationship to the living culture,” Menand asks us, “that of a creator or that of a packager?”
All of which brings us back to the fear of futility and Menand’s final and most damning critique. “It takes three years to become a lawyer,” Menand points out. “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.” Why is our method of creating PhDs so time-consuming and inefficient? More importantly though, what does this cost the field? Institutions gain cheap graduate student labor, but students labor for years gaining knowledge and expertise that quite possibly will never land them a job or even a completed degree. It’s hard to argue with his views here that in at least some respects the academy has become another professionalized bureaucracy that exists to propagate itself and churn out clones already committed to its ideals and modes of thought.
“Possibly,” Menand argues, “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.” What begins as an inquiry into why most college professors tend to lean the same direction politically becomes a critique of the system that produces them and that may actually be counterproductive to fostering the very free-thinking the system enshrines.
At just over one hundred fifty pages, there is a lot to chew on here. Whether or not you agree with all Menand’s claims or buy his arguments, if you’re part of the academic machine this is a book to consider seriously.