Friday, April 23, 2010

Academic destitution

In The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University, Louis Menand diagnoses the sources of chronic fatigue syndrome in the liberal arts

The following review was published earlier this week on the Books page of the History News Network.

Perhaps a more accurate title for this book would be The Monastery of Ideas. Or The Bureaucracy of Ideas. As Louis Menand and many other observers of university life understand, academe is a marketplace. Actually, some of those who understand this truth are among the most determined to channel, limit, and even deny it. They're not entirely wrong to do so; whatever the late Allan Bloom might have had wrong in his 1987 bestseller The Closing of the American Mind, he made an arresting assertion that in its relationship to society, the academy should be someplace else. The problem, as Menand sees it, is not so much the mind, but rather the bodies: How they're trained, deployed -- and, to the partial regret of administrators who exploit them, underemployed.

The Marketplace of Ideas, a volume in the collection of svelte "Issues of Our Time" series published by Norton under the editorship of Henry Louis Gates, is less a cohesive book than a collection of overlapping essays that read like New Yorker articles -- which, given Menand's position as a staff writer for the magazine, is hardly surprising. (Menand is also a former contributor to the New York Review of Books, and one can see the intellectual provenance of the book in this respect as well.) He explores defining four issues of liberal arts institutions: the difficulty in arriving at consensus about what an undergraduate should know; the so-called legitimacy crisis in the humanities; the recent enthusiasm -- Menand doesn't quite label it a fad -- for interdisciplinary study; and the apparent homogeneity of (liberal) political opinion among academics. Though he is taxonomically a professor of English, Menand writes with the same slightly fragmented, philosophically-inflected, historical sensibility that marked his Pulitzer Prize winning study of pragmatism, The Metaphysical Club (2001) and his essay collection American Studies (2002).  This means, in effect, that you get lots of little mini-narratives of things like how English departments evolved or general education requirements were formulated. They're not quite cohesive, but they go down easy; this is a book you can read in a sitting.

Most of the attention this book has received has centered on Menand's discussion of the appallingly long time it takes to get a doctoral degree -- in the neighborhood of a decade -- and of his posing the very good question of how much sense this makes given the fact that a doctor or lawyer can be produced in a fraction of that time. (Menand uses the memorable phrase "the doctoral motel," with its humorous evocations for old TV commercials for the roach motel, in which residents enter but never come out.)  It is in this way perhaps more than any other that the denial of marketplace logic has created a system that serves no one as well as those who benefit from the cheap labor of ABDs teaching freshman composition and similar courses even as they profess anti-capitalist values.

But Menand makes a number of other important points as well. One is his distinction between "transmissible" and "transferable" knowledge. The academy as he describes it is a licensing operation designed to limit claims to general authority by channeling scholars toward specializing. Their job is to reproduce knowledge from one generation to the next (that's the transmission part), and prevent outsiders from poaching on scholarly turf (that's the non-transferable part). This culture of professionalism both confers a sense of prestige as well as uses "smart people productively without giving them too much social power." It also tends to engender a politically conformist point of view.

One recurring theme is the changing social structure of the academy. Yet Menand argues that such changes, significant as they are, don't quite explain what's actually happened to the intellectual life of the university in the last forty years. Epistemological challenges to disciplinary authority like poststructuralist theory coalesced with, but were finally independent of, demographic changes in student bodies that made them decisively less white and male after 1970.  This change in composition may have engendered social protest on the Right -- Menand notes that a number of conservative critics of the academy, such as Roger Kimball, Dinesh D'Souza, and David Lehman, were all grad school dropouts -- but most of the major intellectual innovations in the academy in recent decades came from white men: Hayden White in history; Clifford Geertz in anthropology; Richard Rorty in philosophy; and Paul De Man in English, among others.

Menand further argues that far from a genuine challenge to the traditional organization of American education, the enthusiasm for interdisciplinary study is a creature of it: you can't cross a boundary without a definition. Moreover, interdisciplinary programs lack the institutional frameworks they need to reproduce themselves the way traditional departments do. Not that he seems to care much about the ebbing of Women's, Ethnic, or other kinds of programs; Menand essentially deconstructs the impulse toward interdsciplinarity as a form of bad faith on the part of a generation of academics who crave the security of academic professionalism but covet the cachet of relevance that some knowledge workers outside the academy enjoy. There's no doubt some truth to this, even as it seems a bit reductive.

In the end, he says, it all comes down to jobs: "The key to reform of almost any kind in higher education lies not in the way knowledge is produced. it lies in the way that producers of knowledge are produced." But while Menand is relatively long on persuasive diagnosis, he's relatively short on solutions. He doesn't seem willing to really grapple with the ocean of ABDs and part-time employment that have severely distorted an academic marketplace (no doubt in part because Menand, tenured at Harvard, is an obvious beneficiary of the status quo). One obvious possibility is to think harder about the distinction between the production and transmission of knowledge, and recognizing the lopsided imbalance in favor of the former. It would be very helpful for someone to consider what an overhauled master's degree might actually look like, and how it might interface with the kind of work, and people, produced at schools of education -- which are undergoing an even more severe crisis of legitimacy. According to a recent story in the New York Times, such fitful efforts may finally be underway. In all kinds of ways, we can no longer afford the liberal arts regime that emerged in the early twentieth century and flowered in mid-century. It's time to come up with a profession we can believe in.