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Are We All Really Alike? The Strange Marketplace of Louis Menand

July 17, 2010, 5:42 pm

Louis Menand, The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University (New York: Norton, 2010). 174 pp., index, 24.95 hardcover.

I realize that I am a little late to the party here. But let me just say – whether you like Louis Menand or not, whether you think that folks who spend most of their lives in a very comfy chair at Harvard are better qualified to talk about education or not – people like Louis Menand matter and it is best to keep up with them. I guarantee you that you will be at a meeting with your president, provost or dean, and something is going to come out if his or her mouth at some point, and you are going to think: “Where the frack did that come from?” Your confusion will not be resolved either — unless you read this book.

Don’t worry. It’s short. In fewer than two hundred pages, Menand discusses what he considers to be the four central questions for higher education in the United States that we were left with at end of the twentieth century: general education curricula and the difficulties of implementing them; the crisis of legitimacy in the humanities; the meaning of conversations about interdisciplinarity; and the question of why “professors all have the same politics.” (16)

Menand is one of those people who knows a lot about some things and not so much about others, and speaks about both in the same authoritative tone. This can be annoying, but you have to separate out your annoyance about the things he is bloviating about from the ideas that are truly thought provoking. I liked the first section of the book best, in which Menand discusses the origins of liberal education and why general education curriculums were devised in the first place as a reform and a response to the rise of professional education. The answer to this question is worth knowing, since it explains a lot about why discussions about great books and curricular requirements come up in the first place, why they are so often perceived as a corrective to cultural decline, and why they are so contentious. Gen eds emerged at moments where intellectuals were most concerned about the relationship of elite institutions to citizenship (Columbia devised its program in 1919; Harvard produced its in 1945.) “A college’s general education curriculum, what the faculty chooses to require of everyone,” Menand argues, “Is a reflection of its overall educational philosophy, even when the faculty chooses to require nothing.” Columbia’s not-so-hidden agenda, Menand claims, appears to have been anxiety over the integration of the large numbers of Jews and other first-generation Americans matriculating at the university: the Great Books curriculum, they hoped, could serve as a mini-melting pot. (23,35)

Since I teach at a college that has no requirements (we have “expectations” that students will take six courses across the three “divisions,” humanities, social sciences and hard science.) I’ll come back to this in my next post, but Menand’s statement that the choice to require nothing is a choice impressed me enormously. I think he is right about this, I think it is intellectually lazy not to have a core curriculum of some kind, and I think it has consequences for how our students perceive the work of attaining a B.A..

One of the curious features of the book is that Menand’s investment in the university as an engine of progress badly skews his view of the recent history of higher education and the enormous changes that resulted from putting an end to gender and race segregation in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In Menand’s view, bringing women and people of color into elite institutions – as students and as faculty was a natural outcome of a late Cold War market imperative to broaden the talent pool. Not only does this sever the diversification of the university from post-war social movements almost entirely, it attributes the entrance of women and people of color into the university as a direct consequence of the National Defense Education Act, a position for which he offers absolutely no evidence. We have women in formerly male elite institutions because some men fought other men about it quite bitterly; we have women’s studies programs because of feminism, not because university presidents thought they were a buttress to democracy; and we have equal access because laws were passed and lawsuits were filed. “If the nation seeks to maximize its talent pool in the name of greater national security or greater economic productivity or both,” Menand argues, “It will not wish to limit entrants to that pool on the basis of considerations extraneous to aptitude, such as gender, family income, and skin color.” (73) Can we apply this model to the admission of Africa-Americans to the University of North Carolina? I think not.

Personally, I think Menand’s model is a far better description of the Soviet Union in the 1920s than the post-war United States, and I wonder why Skip Gates – the editor of the series in which this book is published – did not ask him to rethink this chapter. It is a historical fact that it took numerous lawsuits to desegregate higher education by race and gender. Until 1972 it was absolutely legal to discriminate against women applicants to law school on the basis of their gender; and it took the enforcement of Title IX during the Ford and Carter administrations to ensure that once women arrived at university they had equal access to what was offered.

Even more peculiarly, Menand argues that the inclusion of these new bodies and the scholarly work they did had no real impact on the academy or on the liberal arts. If you believe that people like Edward Said, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Gayatri Spivak, Joan Scott, Paul Gilroy and Lisa Lowe have transformed intellectual thought, think again. It’s not that Menand thinks their work isn’t important; it’s just that he doesn’t think it is terribly original. In his view, these lines of thought have already been fully established by (white, male) scholars like Paul de Man, Thomas Kuhn, Hayden White, Clifford Geertz and Richard Rorty. (82, 84)

Which gets to a critical, bizarre and perhaps the least well informed, part of this little book: that the interdisciplinarity claimed by post-colonial, queer, critical race and feminist studies isn’t really methodologically based. Rather, it is a kind of public relations strategy to establish the reputations of individual scholars by being ornery and by posturing a lot about how passé discipline is. These fields are interdisciplinary at all, he argues: they are only anti-disciplinary. (85) How do we know this? Because their faculty all hold tenure in disciplines. Furthermore, investment in interdisciplinarity is not really intellectual, Menand argues: it’s all about status anxiety, and the fear that college professors have that they have ceased to be relevant anywhere but among other disciplinary scholars. It stems from the need “to feel we are in a real fight…with the forces that make and remake the world most human beings live in,” Menand notes, and we who are interdisciplinary displace our desire for a “real fight” onto institutions that are ideologically tilted towards discipline. “The institution is not inherently a friend to innovation and transgression and creativity,” he says, and you can nearly feel the friendly pat on your shoulder. “But it is not inherently an enemy, either. Interdisciplinarity is an administrative name for an anxiety and a hope that are personal
.” (125)

One wonders exactly how familiar Menand is with the world of interdisciplinary thought, since the following chapter – “Interdisciplinarity and Anxiety” – is muddled in a way that is uncharacteristic of the rest of the book and uncharacteristic of Menand’s writing in general. One is constantly reading along and having things jump out – “you cannot take a course in the law (apart from legal history) outside a law school” (105) – and thinking, Well that’s actually not true. Further along, he suggests that the appeal of interdisciplinarity “is that it will smooth out the differences between the empirical and the hermeneutic” by getting two scholars that represent these forms of thought “in the same room together.” (118)

The chapter is full of tautologies that make you really glad that Louis Menand is not your dean, and that he is safely lodged at Harvard where he can do little harm to others. For example, try htis idea on for size:

“Interdisciplinarity is not something different from disciplinarity. It is the ratification of the logic of disciplinarity. In practice, it actually tends to rigidify disciplinary paradigms. A typical interdisciplinary situation might bring together, in a classroom, a literature professor and an anthropologist….This methodological contrast is regarded as the intellectual as, in fact, the intellectual and pedagogical takeaway of the collaboration.” (119)

Well, no. That is in fact, exactly wrong. What Menand is describing is a multi-disciplinary, rather than an interdisciplinary, paradigm, in which the point is to engage the object of study from multiple perspectives, rather than to reconsider the nature of its objectness altogether. Twenty-first century interdisciplinarity means, in short, putting the empirical and the hermeneutic, or any two paradigms, together in the same brain, not in the same classroom. Or try this idea:

“Professors are still trained in one national literature or artistic medium or another.” (120) Again, this is just wrong. There are interdisciplinary Ph.D.s, and there would be more of them if scholars were not required to adhere to disciplinary appointments in the hiring process….Until professors are produced in a different way, the structure of academic knowledge production and dissemination is unlikely to change significantly.” (121) This is precisely bass-ackwards: as those of us working on the ground in interdisciplinary programs know, until faculty are widely hired with full appointments in interdisciplinary programs, graduate students will be trained conservatively and with an eye to competence in a discipline, because otherwise no one will hire them. Similarly, the tenuous hold interdisciplinary fields like American studies, women’s studies, queer studies and critical race studies have in the academy has directly to do with university administrations being unwilling to challenge the influence of departments.

In the final chapter, “Why Do All College Professors Think Alike?” Menand muses about a study done by Neil Gross and Solon Simmons, in which these scholars “discovered” that the vast majority of college professors really are registered Democrats, and really are liberal, or at least centrist. Shockingly, “the more elite the institution, the less likely the professors there are to be left wing,” and the faculty at SLACs are more likely to be left wing than faculty at research universities. (135) Except for pointing out the obvious, which is that just because people belong to the same political party doesn’t mean they actually think alike about much (think Strom Thurmond and Hubert Humphrey, circa 1948; or Barack Obama and Dennis Kucinish, circa 2010), I’m going to leave this one alone – except to say that actually, in denying that there is conformity in the academy, Menand’s evidence tends to suggest, falsely, that there is. Both things can, in fact, be true: that faculty tend to hew to certain kinds of truisms (for example, that “disciplinary scholarship” is rigorous and pioneering, and “interdisciplinary scholarship” is emotional an anxiety-ridden); they can all be registered in the same party; and they can simultaneously committed to a kind of radical individualism that means they can rarely agree on anything, much less a set of political ideas or intellectual approaches to those ideas.

Which brings me back to the question of general education, the thing that I wish Menand had stuck more tightly to, because it isn’t clear to me that relinquishing a core curriculum has been a good thing for American higher education. But this topic deserves a post of its own.

To Be Continued…..

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