(This article was first published in the GC Advocate in February 2010.)
The Marketplace of Ideas by Louis Menand. W. W. Norton and Company (2010).
The Great American University: Its Rise to Preeminence, Its Indispensable National Role, Why It Must Be Protected by Jonathan R. Cole. Public Affairs (2010).
In Willa Cather’s 1925 novel The Professor’s House, Godfrey St. Peter, a professor of history at a Midwestern university, befriends Dr. Crane, a professor in the physics department at the same school (and mentor to the novel’s tragic hero Tom Outland). These two professors, one from the humanities and one from the sciences, find a common foe in what they see as the encroachment of industry and profit in the educational process, a phenomenon that threatens their goal of producing well-rounded, cultivated students. As Cather describes it: “His friendship with Crane had been a strange one. Out in the world they would almost certainly have kept clear of each other; but in the university they had fought together in a common course. Both, with all their might, had resisted the new commercialism, the aim to ‘show results’ that was undermining and vulgarizing education. The State Legislature and the board of Regents seemed determined to make a trade school of the University.” That this appears in a novel published in 1925 is some indication of how long there has been this persistent anxiety over the aims of higher education, and the fear that market forces were corrupting the values of institutions of higher learning. (In The Professor’s House these forces of profit play a major role in the story, as the scientific discovery of the deceased intellectual prodigy Tom Outland ends up being patented and used to fund the luxurious lifestyle of St. Peter’s unscrupulous son-in-law.)
One wonders what Professors St. Peter and Crane would think of today’s universities with their power rankings, outsized athletic programs, and students who resemble not so much pupils as customers (who are always right!). And that’s not to mention the rise of for-profit conglomerates like the University of Phoenix. Louis Menand’s The Marketplace of Ideas and Jonathan R. Cole’s The Great American University, are two recent works on higher education which attempt to make sense of where the nation’s colleges and universities are today, what makes them work or not work, and what challenges lie ahead for American higher education in the coming years.
Before taking his current position as the Bass Professor of English at Harvard, where he has been since 2003, Louis Menand taught here in the Graduate Center’s English department. His newest book, The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University, is part of W. W. Norton’s Issues of Our Time series edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Menand mentions that he served on a committee to re-develop Harvard College’s General Education curriculum, and this had no small part in inspiring the book, which examines the history of higher education, ideas about appropriate curriculum, and the state of graduate education at the current moment. Coming from a different angle is Jonathan R. Cole’s The Great American University: Its Rise to Preeminence, Its Indispensable National Role, Why It Must Be Protected. Cole is a sociologist by training and served as the Provost and Dean of Faculties at Columbia University from 1989 to 2003. In this book, Cole examines the nation’s largest and most prestigious research universities, shows why the United States is the unequivocal world leader in academic research, and argues that this status could be threatened by limitations on research and inquiry put in place in the past eight years.
As you may have gathered from the literary reference that began this review, my own allegiances are in the humanities. I am a student in the English department here at the Graduate Center, and my dissertation project is on academic novels such as Cather’s The Professor’s House and Randall Jarrell’s Pictures from an Institution, examining them in the context of the history of American higher education. All of us in this profession encounter debates around higher education and policy in some form. Though it is impossible to keep up with every article, trend, and debate, we all read our share of pieces from The Chronicle of Higher Education and InsideHigherEd.com. However, my work on this dissertation has led me to dive headfirst into the voluminous field of higher education history. I soon found myself drowning in a sea of monographs full of overlapping information, murky statistical claims, and confusing, convoluted historical narratives about the origins and trajectory of America’s institutions of higher education and all of the administrative personalities that have shaped the field. Complicating matters even more is the fact that the American collegiate system is not really a “system’ at all, but a loose network of degree granting institutions. On the up side, this allows for a wonderful diversity of institutions and approaches. According to Cole, there are roughly 4,300 different institutions of higher learning granting degrees in the United States today. Ultimately, that variety is an asset that allows students of various abilities, backgrounds and interests to choose among a plethora of options. We now have small liberal arts colleges like Berea College in Kentucky, a school known for its innovative financing which does not charge its students tuition. We have massive public state colleges like Ohio State University which, while located in Columbus, functions like a whole city unto itself. And we also have unique institutions with specific historical missions such as my alma mater, Morehouse College, the nation’s only all-male historically black college. Cole’s number of 4,300 also includes the hundreds of community colleges spread out across the country. But how does one begin to document and quantify the outcomes of education given all these disparate institutions and their assorted curricula? How do you compile a history of American higher education in such a way that it gives us a language for assessing the success and failures of education and provides some grounding to make the appropriate changes to ensure that these institutions remain competitive in the 21st century? Some scholars have taken an institutional approach, examining the history of one particular institution and its administrative decisions about curriculum. Other historians have attempted sweeping historical surveys of American higher education as a whole, and the library shelves groan under the weight of these tomes, many clocking in at 500 pages or more.
In The Marketplace of Ideas, Menand narrows his emphasis to a set of particular issues, but in the process provides a useful overview of American higher education. The book is organized into three essays examining three particular issues in higher education: 1) the history of the general education curriculum, 2) the logic of academic disciplines and the allure of “interdisciplinarity” as a buzzword in academia, and 3) the politics of professors and the academic labor market. Menand’s writing style may seem deceptively simple — the book clocks in at a slim 174 pages — but in the course of presenting the background on these topics Menand also does a masterful job of taming and synthesizing over a century’s worth of scholarship on higher education. To boil all that down to an accessible narrative requires some generalizations, and there are many in The Marketplace of Ideas. But Menand has picked his reductionisms wisely and his attempt to fashion a coherent narrative out of all of this history is in itself a useful exercise that will allow scholars to reevaluate some of the central themes in the history of American higher education.
One of the most striking concepts that jumps out of the book’s second section is his insistence on labeling the years between 1945 and 1975 as the “Golden Age of Academia,” a period during which “the number of American undergraduates increased by almost 500 percent and the number of graduate students increased by nearly 900 percent.” This is a level of growth that will likely never be surpassed. Higher education continued to grow after 1975 but at a much slower rate. The Golden Age began with the end of World War II and the introduction of the G.I. Bill, and lasted until the financial turmoil of the 1970s. The G.I. Bill is perhaps the single most important piece of legislation in the history of American higher education. It extended what was once a privilege reserved for children of the wealthy to thousands of working class veterans. These measures have radically reshaped the look, feel and size of America’s colleges.
No doubt many of my peers approaching the job market will want to skip ahead to the third section titled “Why Do Professors All Think Alike.” Here Menand confronts the well-worn conservative gripe against a leftist bias in higher education, especially in the humanities where multiculturalism and pop culture have allegedly replaced the sober study of Western Civilization and its greatness. Menand dismantles this argument by citing surveys that show that the academy does in fact lean liberal, but it does so across disciplinary lines, including in the sciences, and that within that umbrella of “liberal” is a variety of political and religious perspectives. However, Menand acknowledges that “the politics of the professoriate is homogenous,” and goes on to argue that this homogeneity is rooted in how academia trains and hires its professors. While I don’t think Menand’s explanation is convincing his discussion of academic labor is worth a look less for its intervention into the culture wars and more for his examination of the “time to degree” which has blown wildly out of proportion. For instance, a typical graduate student in English will spend roughly ten years earning a doctoral degree. Other humanities fields have comparable numbers. This is an unnecessary and sadistic system. Menand proposes that the humanities Ph.D. should be streamlined in the way that programs in medicine, law and business are administered, with a set number of years and clearer program requirements. The length of the Ph.D. program prohibits many students from considering the process at all. Shortening the time to degree would make graduate education seem less daunting for college graduates from modest economic backgrounds who may have already sacrificed greatly just to get an undergraduate degree and who may be interested in earning a Ph.D. but unable and unwilling to endure its length and cost.
As for the labor market itself, Menand writes that “There is a sense in which the system is now designed to produce ABDs.” These ABDs have increasingly served as the cheap labor force for teaching undergraduate students. In recent years we have seen a graduate student unionization movement necessary to counteract universities using graduate students to teach undergraduate courses, even the upper-level ones once reserved for tenured faculty. (I first typed in “full-time faculty,” but many adjuncts are teaching full-time, which is precisely one of the problems.) Menand does not go far enough in indicting the exploitation of the current adjunct teaching system. And one wonders if this system of contingent labor has any chance of being stopped. Now with the rise of for-profit schools and the prevalence of corporate management in higher education becoming the norm, the situation continues to look bleak. Nevertheless, Menand provides some ammunition against the usual narrative of an “overproduction of Ph.D.s.” Marc Bousquet’s book How the University Works and his blog of the same name, also contests the “overproduction” thesis, showing that the demand for teaching is actually higher with more students enrolling in college each year, and that adjuncts are being slammed with larger class sizes. The question of “overproduction” must be seen in light of the growth of adjuncting as the default teaching model for the humanities.
At first glance the hefty 660 pages of Jonathan Cole’s The Great American University appears to be exactly the kind of dense, foreboding book I described earlier that makes up the canon of higher education history. And to some degree it is. But Cole has done an exemplary job of making the narrative relatively accessible despite the voluminous statistical data and flurry of eminent names that bog the book down at times. Cole has spent most of his life at Columbia where he earned his undergraduate and graduate degrees in sociology, and later served as provost for fourteen years until 2003. His focus in the book is, well, universities like Columbia. Cole identifies about 260 institutions that now claim to be research universities and narrows his focus to the 100+ that sit at the top of the list.
The first section of the book chronicles the history of the nation’s earliest institutions of higher learning and examines how these colonial colleges evolved into major research universities over the years. Long story short, by 2001 the United States has produced a third of the world’s science and engineering articles in refereed journals, and in three of the past four years American academics have received a majority of the Nobel prizes for science and economics. The American university system, like the nation itself, has firm roots in England, but Cole also describes how American institutions borrowed from the German model of the 19th century, with its combination of research and teaching. Germany is a key part of Cole’s conclusions in the book. Cole returns to the history of Nazi Germany in the 20th century to demonstrate how repression of free inquiry damaged Germany’s standing as the site of the world’s most competitive research institutions, driving talented academics in Germany and Austria to American universities where they helped these institutions to flourish. The second part of the book details the specific discoveries and innovations that have originated in American research universities — things such as the bar code, congestion pricing for traffic, and even the Internet itself. The third part outlines what Cole sees as a potential threat to the American research university — the squelching of academic freedom and scientific inquiry — especially that which took place under the eight long years of the Bush presidency.
Cole sounds optimistic that the Barack Obama administration will restore science to its rightful place in our research institutions and restore some of the restrictions put in place by George W. Bush’s flat-earth approach to scientific knowledge. In his most recent State of the Union address, Obama at least mentioned the importance of science education (as well as funding for community colleges). But Cole is leery of the damage done by the recent financial crises, and in this regard the Obama administration has already been a major disappointment (for anyone not on the board of Goldman Sachs that is). This, in fact, raises a looming question about Cole’s own study. He identifies a number of innovations in science and economics as well as the social sciences and humanities, and cheerleads for the goodness of America’s institutions of higher learning. But I was also left wondering as to the extent that these same elite institutions and their departments of economics and business were the breeding grounds for the very policies that have left all of us in financial turmoil and threatened the opportunities for a generation of young Americans whose families may no longer be able to afford college at all. Ultimately, it is this relentless push for profits and a continued faith in corporatization and finance capital to solve all our problems that is changing institutions of higher education, including the way they teach students, and how they train and hire faculty. Neither of these books seems interested in challenging corporatization of higher education at the ideological level (not that they need to do so as several other books and many articles have already tread over that ground). But what they have both done is map out the current terrain of the American university in ways that will help us to understand how to ensure that in the rest of the 21st century, the nation’s colleges and universities maintain high standards of achievement, and continue to be a force for good.