Pictures of an Institution

(This article was first published in the GC Advocate in February 2010.)

Books Reviewed:

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 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.

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