"The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University" by Louis Menand

Special to Tribune Newspapers

"The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University"
By Louis Menand
W. W. Norton & Company, $24.95, 174 pages

In "A Single Man" Tom Ford's ethereal adaptation of Christopher Isherwood's 1964 novel, Colin Firth plays an implausibly debonair literature professor whose redwood-and-glass house stands like an oasis of mid-century mod cast down among little boxes made of ticky tacky. Needless to say, those little boxes are filled with people who all look just the same - the doctors, lawyers, business executives, and pretty children satirized by Malvina Reynolds in her classic ditty of 1962. But for those who (like our professor-hero) live by the metaphor, Firth' s house stands less as a stylish refuge from the plebeian universe of practical matters than as a symbol of his alienation from the wider world.

Movies that glamorize the American professoriate don't come along too terribly often. And if for a nanosecond you imagined that teaching English at a California state university might be a glamorous life after all, Louis Menand is here to disabuse you of that notion. Menand, the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of English at Harvard and a staff writer at "The New Yorker," has written a compact and very smart collection of essays about the forces - political, historical, demographic - that have shaped American universities and their faculties over the past hundred years. To anyone who has spent time on the inside, as they say, "The Marketplace of Ideas" is alternately bracing and chilling.

Why does it take ten-odd years to complete a Ph.D. in the humanities and social sciences, and what does this fact reveal about the university's constitutional intransigence? How did academic disciplines evolve, and how has the professionalization of the professoriate created a class of over-trained people largely unsuited to work anywhere except at a university? And, too, there is that old chestnut and political football - the American professoriate's ostensible ideological like-mindedness.

Menand's broader interest, though, concerns the worth of a "general education" or the liberal arts curriculum that is the mainstay of America's private colleges and universities. Public institutions parted company long ago with their pricier counterparts, by offering alongside courses in English and history courses in accounting and business - subjects thought by advocates of the liberal arts to be incompatible with the loftier goal of leading the examined life of Socratic fame. "This is nonsense," Menand insists. And he advances a compelling case by offering a trenchant, though fair-minded, critique of the very institutions that have shaped him as a teacher and thinker.

As ever, Menand writes like an angel, with the wry elan that made his previous book, "The Metaphysical Club," such a winning exploration of the history of ideas. "The Marketplace of Ideas" is a different sort of book - a book about professors that may not interest civilians. But it's a deeply relevant book nonetheless, about why professors wield considerable influence in American life and why they're inclined to gaze inward, at themselves, rather than outward, at the world to which they relinquish their charges.

What are the liberal arts good for, anyway? Do they prepare students to be professors and nothing else?

These are painful questions to ask. And woe betide the professor who breaks ranks to ask them. Menand is right: Somewhere, quelle surprise, the students tend to go missing from spirited debates over faculty rights, morale, and compensation. And you could press harder and deeper. Most professors don't spend a lot of time with their erstwhile students, once they've flown the nest. But if they did, they might be chastened to discover how poorly equipped many of the best and brightest twenty-somethings are to navigate a brutal world that expects a great deal of them, including the ability to explain themselves succinctly and to assume big responsibilities with minimal coaching.

The incantation should be familiar by now: Speaking and writing clearly and persuasively, together with the ability to "think critically," constitute the beating heart of a liberal arts education. Moreover: These skills offer the surest possible preparation for worldly success, from Sloan-Kettering to Goldman Sachs to Random House.

So why do our finest students struggle so mightily to prepare for job interviews, to write dazzling cover letters, to present themselves confidently, to cultivate useful "contacts," to fathom (never mind tolerate) views different from their own?

It may be comforting to blame the university's crackpot critics for exaggerating the shortcomings of a liberal arts degree; but, like it or not, the soundest complaints come from prospective employers as devoted to the liberal arts as any professor. Their grievance - borne out by substantial anecdotal evidence - is that our talented graduates exhibit an inflexibility of mind and a wide streak of impracticality wholly at odds with the purported virtues of their educations. And Baby Boomer parenting can't be the only reason for the disconnection. If, as Menand argues, graduate students sound a lot like their professors, the same might be said of undergraduates.

Professors are fond of saying, after Rodney Dangerfield, that they get no respect. They certainly don't get enough from the lawmakers and ideologues who savage work they neither understand nor care to. Most professor - far more, I'd wager, than most lawyers, doctors, and business executives - genuinely love what they do. What's more, they're brilliant at it. But, for better or worse, what Menand says about the professoriate's proud and willful disengagement from the wider world rings awfully true.

The accusation that universities fail to prepare their charges for life outside the university is scarcely peculiar to America or to our own time. Freud said so as early as 1929. It may be, sadly, that twenty-first-century Americans simply have less patience than they once did for the necessarily inefficient work of teaching. Yet it's difficult to believe that the values prized by America's leading liberal arts colleges will cease to be useful, or that power will cease to be concentrated in the hands of those lucky enough to attend them. No matter how fast this younger generation is accustomed to moving, certain professions will continue to demand the precision and lengthy attention spans that our finest colleges and universities foster through close reading and rigorous, open discussion.

This is all well and good. But costly internal initiatives that posit vague connections between life inside "the bubble" and outside it may not be the best way of proving skeptics wrong. There is a cheaper, though arguably more elusive solution: thinking differently about why the liberal arts matter and saying so out loud, in the classroom. Such a thing shouldn't be left for students to intuit over time. Perhaps by helping students to understand and explain why their educations matter - to themselves and to others - professors might produce a generation of leaders who defend universities instead of tearing them down.

"Disinterestedness is perfectly consistent with practical ambition," Menand writes. "If anyone should understand that, it's a college professor."Amen.

Kirk Davis Swinehart teaches history at Wesleyan University.

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