In Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University (Norton, 2010) Louis Menand traces the development of the American university over the past 150 years. He argues that the development of American universities has been governed by the same market forces as other institutions. The rise of the research university at the end of the 19th century established the mold for the systems of higher education we have today. The formation of academic disciplines, of standards for admission to study and teaching in those disciplines, was the result of the professionalization of faculty in higher education, which in turn was the result of the rise of the research university.
General studies curricula were the direct result of the development of research universities, which saw their mission as one of preparing undergraduates to become graduate students and then professors in the disciplines in which they studied. The professionalization of faculty led to increased emphasis on how students who would one day become faculty members would be educated. One result was a movement to establish a general studies curriculum, based on the notion that there is a common body of knowledge that college students ought to have.
Menand observes that for more than a century scholars have argued over whether there is a specific body of knowledge students need to learn and, if so, what it might be. While he recognizes the value of a liberal education, he notes that the concept of educating students liberally has developed in such a way that practical knowledge and academic or theoretical knowledge have come to stand in opposition to one another: “The divorce between liberalism and professionalism rests on a superstition: that the practical is the enemy of the true. This is utter nonsense.” An adjustment in the nature of general education may therefore be needed.
The number of students graduating with liberal arts degrees has, in proportion to the whole, declined over the past century. Enrollments in humanities programs specifically have declined since the 1970s. One reason may be that students increasingly seek degrees identified with career goals rather than with the general pursuit of knowledge. Another reason (one that Menand advances) is that the humanities in general since the 1960s have become so fragmented and diverse that it is not always possible to know what “the humanities” actually are. Uncertainty as to what constitutes legitimate subjects and methods of study presents another challenge. Increasing diversity among the professoriate, students, and subject matter do as well. A crisis of self-doubt among humanists has resulted from their lack of confidence in being able to convince the public of the value of what they do (and even, I would add, from their inability to agree on just what it is they do).
The current unhealthy situation in the job market for humanities PhD graduates resulted from a number of factors, Menand argues. American institutions of higher education grew rapidly throughout the first half of the twentieth century. So too did the corps of faculty teaching in them. The number of students enrolled in colleges and universities reached a highpoint during the Vietnamese War because college attendance meant a draft deferment. The end of deferments and of the war saw the beginning of a decline in the number of students enrolled in higher education and an associated decline in the need for faculty. This decline has been going on, Menand says, for 25 years. (The correct number is more like 35 years—jobs were not plentiful when I was on the market in 1977).
As more Americans began attending institutions of higher learning, respect for these institutions began to decline. Menand marks the beginning of this decline as around 1960. It was accelerated by the Vietnam War, when many college professors were accused of radicalism.
Menand suggests that interest in interdisciplinarity has been a result of the desire of the 1960s generation of PhDs to change the system, to modify and even discard existing paradigms. But he contends that interdisciplinarity—the practice of teaching and conducting research outside and across established disciplinary boundaries—is really only another form of disciplinarity. He calls interdisciplinary “a ratification of existing arrangements.” The word itself—“interdisciplinarity”—acknowledges the legitimacy of established disciplines (which themselves are at most only about 150 years old). As soon as one’s teaching outside the usual disciplinary boundaries is accepted, then those boundaries stretch to include that which was once excluded. Or a new discipline develops. Interdisciplinarity runs the risk of dismantling the disciplines of those teachers and scholars who profess it. How truly interdisciplinary, therefore, do faculty really want to be? Interdisciplinarity enables scholars to cross established boundaries without seriously questioning their existence.
Menand observes, citing various data sources, that American professors tend to be on the liberal side. But only a small percentage identify themselves as radical, and most see themselves as mainstream and only moderately liberal. The concept of academic freedom developed from the deeply held conviction that academic inquiry needed to be objective and independent of political currents outside the university. Even so, Menand argues, surveys show that professors do not see a problem in letting their political or religious inclinations influence their research, and this raises the possibility that such inclinations also influence hiring and promotion decisions. This political homogeneity among the American professoriate tends to be self-replicating—one generation of PhD students is educated in the image of the previous generation, faculty tenure and promote the junior faculty most like themselves, and so on.
Menand offers an unpleasant and candid account of the current state of affairs in English departments, which are producing more PhDs than there are positions available. (He suggests that English departments are representative of the situation in many disciplines). Of all PhD students who enroll in English doctoral programs, only 50% complete their degrees, and of that number only 5% find positions in institutions like the one that awarded their degrees (that is, tenure-track institutions). Although many institutions are abolishing required courses, he notes that the one requirement that remains in place across the nation is first-year composition. These are the bread and butter of English departments, but for the most part composition courses are not taught by tenure-track or tenured faculty but by graduate students. Departments rely on and need graduate students to teach these courses (hence, logic suggests, it is not in the best interests of these departments to hasten graduate student progress towards degrees). Menand suggests that English departments are not organized to be doing what they are really doing, producing ABDs, not PhDs. He questions the notion that PhDs in the humanities should be encouraged to consider positions outside their chosen disciplines—if they want to go into business, for example, why didn’t they enroll in business school, where they could earn their degrees in a shorter time? (The average time to degree for a PhD student in the humanities is more than 9 years).
The most important point in this book is Menand’s contention that higher education institutions in America evolved in response to forces in the economic, historical, and cultural environment. Then these institutions tended to become self-justifying, conservative, and resistant to change. To remain vital, American institutions of higher education need to become more pliant, more willing to evolve, more intellectually diverse, more responsive to the society that supports and depends on them. In particular, they need to be trained to perform tasks for which current generations of graduate students are unprepared: “to teach their fields to non-specialists, to connect what they teach to issues that students are likely to confront in the world outside the university, to be interdisciplinary, to write for a general audience, to justify their work to people outside their discipline and outside the academy. If we want professors to be better at these things, then we need to train them differently.”