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The state of the American university, frozen in time

In The Marketplace of Ideas, Louis Menand, the eminent Harvard professor and New Yorker writer, explores the state of the American university by comparing its present to its past.

Reform and Resistance
in the American University

By Louis Menand

W.W. Norton. 176 pp. $24.95

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Reviewed by

Paula Marantz Cohen

In The Marketplace of Ideas, Louis Menand, the eminent Harvard professor and New Yorker writer, explores the state of the American university by comparing its present to its past.

His book is short and some of its arguments are familiar, but anyone who has read Menand's major work The Metaphysical Club knows he has the rare ability to tackle complex subjects and make them comprehensible and readable.

Menand explains that the American university as we know it was initiated by Charles William Eliot, who became president of Harvard in 1869. Eliot was the first to require undergraduate degrees as a prerequisite for professional schools and to usher in the sort of specialization and rigorous credentialing we now take for granted. These innovations, writes Menand, became permanent, so that the university today is not very different from what it was at the end of the 19th century.

Such structural inertness was fine during what he calls the "Golden Age" of higher education - 1945-1975, when, as the result of economic prosperity, the baby boom, and the competitive pressures of the Cold War, universities increased in size and influence. But since 1975, university growth has slowed and many disciplines, particularly in the liberal arts, have suffered a crisis of legitimacy. Inertness has become a bigger and bigger problem.

Menand focuses primarily on the liberal arts, where, he observes, professors are a paradoxical species. They are indebted to the institutions that employ them, yet they pride themselves on their independence and originality. They are driven both to reproduce the system and to critique and even oppose it. That paradox ensures that the same institutional questions get asked again and again, leading to the same sorts of solutions.

One of these questions, which dates back to Eliot's day at Harvard, is what a general education should include. According to Menand, the question tends to inspire turf wars, as professors demand that their disciplines be included. Most schools have taken one of two approaches: Either they require students to sample course offerings from a variety of disciplines, or they institute a special set of "core" courses that end up reinforcing disciplinary interests and prejudices. (Menand notes that the idea of a general education is itself a paradox, suggesting at once a preparation for the nonacademic world and a basis in academic learning.)

The book tries to explain other paradoxes of the university system: that it takes, on average, more than twice as long to earn a doctorate in English as a medical degree; that a liberal arts education (said to be a form of nonprofessional training) does train for one profession - university professor; and that the uncompleted Ph.D., known popularly as the ABD ("all but dissertation"), predominates among adjunct faculty, who often staff a large number of a university's undergraduate courses.

As someone who has taught for almost 30 years in university settings, I can vouch for many of Menand's points. At the same time, as he acknowledges, his views are limited by his particular experiences inside elite universities. He fails to address such trends as e-learning and cooperative education, which have transformed less traditional institutions and that may be the real harbingers of the future. Nor does he address other developments: Many schools are making courses available free online, and many scholars are seeking a larger audience with the sort of writing that Menand is doing in this book.

But Menand is right to note that the Ph.D. is now, more than ever, an indispensable credential if one wants to speak authoritatively on a given subject. The media and the public automatically look to professors from elite institutions for sound bites. Again, Menand himself is a case in point. Would this slim volume ever have been published if he did not have an affiliation with Harvard? Even in creative writing, a serious writer or poet is unlikely to be read unless associated with a top-notch university.

Perhaps one could argue that the elite university has become a more democratic place, so that, no matter their backgrounds or views, supremely talented individuals can find a place, if they try. Whether or not this is true, one still has to wonder: How would Walt Whitman have fared as a member of a university English department, elite or otherwise? My sense is he would be going to too many committee meetings to have the time to sing the body electric.