Magazine February 22, 2010, Issue

The Hollow and the Ivy

The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University, by Louis Menand (Norton, 176 pp., $24.95)

What accounts for the de­cline of humanities and liberal-arts education on college and university cam­­puses? Why have faculties found it so difficult to agree on a replacement for the core curriculum of old? Why do professors tend to have the same politics? These are some of the questions raised by Louis Menand in this extended essay. Menand, a professor of English at Harvard and author of a prize-winning book on William James and pragmatism, speaks with some au­thor­ity on these questions by virtue of having chaired a Harvard faculty committee charged with revising the general-education curriculum. That experience impressed upon him the difficulty of bringing about curricular reform within a disparate faculty spread out among many schools and departments. Faculty members may be quick to demand vast changes in gov­ernment or corporate life, but they are cun­ningly self-protective and turf-conscious when it comes to their own affairs.

Menand, however, is a gentle critic of the academy, one who recognizes its flaws and excesses but defends it against the criticisms of those who claim that it is excessively politicized and dominated by radicals, and can no longer provide a high-quality education in the liberal arts. In this sense, The Marketplace of Ideas may be read as an insider’s answer to Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind (1987) or Anthony Kronman’s Edu­cation’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life (2007). The latter works made a strong case for the liberal arts as traditionally understood — that is, as the investigation of the enduring questions of life through the reading of the great books from the ancient Greeks to the present.

Menand rejects this view, because he thinks the liberal arts are more about critical reasoning than about great ideas or great books. He also offers cautionary advice to academics and non-academics alike about the real limits of reform within the almost Madisonian structure of governance that has evolved on the modern campus.

Yet Menand suspects that the modern university may be on the brink of major changes owing to technological breakthroughs that have changed the ways in which knowledge is acquired and distributed. The research university is now more than a century old, and it has changed little over that time in the way it produces knowledge and trains new academics through the painstaking process of specialized research. Yet everyone can now generate information and transmit it around the world in seconds; Google and Wikipedia are the great equalizers of our age, placing the novice and the professor on the same footing when it comes to acquiring information. The plodding pace of the research university, Menand suggests, is increasingly out of step with the times and, especially, with the acquired habits of the youngsters now entering it.

But how is it likely to adapt to these challenges? Will online universities overtake the residential college? Will tradi­tional institutions have to give up their 16-week courses for shorter and more concentrated offerings? Will they have to give up the four-year bachelor’s degree in favor of something more flexible? Will specialists eventually give way to generalists? Menand does not say, and the reader is disappointed that, after stating his interesting hypothesis, he does so little to develop its likely implications.

With regard to the liberal arts, such developments are likely to make a bad situation even worse. Menand understands that the liberal arts have not fared well over the past few decades. Very few students today pass through a serious liberal-arts curriculum of the kind nearly every college student encountered a generation or two ago. Business is by far the leading undergraduate major, followed by education and health studies. Only 4 percent of college students major in English, and 2 percent in history, less than one-tenth of the 22 percent majoring in business. Twice as many students receive degrees each year in social work as receive them in foreign languages and literatures combined. Few colleges — about one in 20 — prescribe a core curriculum in the liberal arts. Faculty members in the various disciplines cannot agree about either the content or the value of an education in the liberal arts; with its erstwhile advocates in disarray, it is little wonder that the enterprise has foundered.

#page#Menand traces these problems to the organization of the modern university into specialized departments. This institutional form took shape more than a century ago. By the time the Allied powers went to war against the Kaiser in 1914, educational ideas emanating from Germany had succeeded in transforming all of the leading American universities into research institutions with specialized departments and graduate schools for the training of new scholars.

The modern university vests control over curriculum and personnel in the specialized departments rather than in deans, presidents, or trustees. This means that general academic policies, most especially the content of the undergraduate curriculum, must be negotiated among these various centers of power. Classicists and physicists, historians and astronomers, political scientists and mathematicians — all must have their piece of the curriculum. Over the course of the century, as the curriculum was periodically revised, it was also gradually watered down to accommodate departmental interests.

There are now two broad models of general education for undergraduates. A few colleges, including Harvard, have adopted something resembling a core curriculum in which students are required to take several common courses outside their majors. In most cases, however, this is a “core” in name only because the standard approach allows students so many choices among courses as to defeat the purpose of a common curriculum. Most insti­tutions — more than 90 percent — have adopted the “distribution system,” which requires only that students declare a major field of study, and then take a course or two in each of the other major divisions of the university.

The loosening of curricular requirements has led to an exodus of students from the liberal arts and into fields like business, health, education, and social work — in other words, into vocationally oriented fields that will at least prepare them for jobs. It is hard to blame students for making such choices when professors in the liberal arts cannot make an intellectual case for the importance of their own fields.

Menand is surprisingly philosophical — not to say complacent — about this. First of all, he does not think that things could be otherwise given the structure and incentives of the university. In addition, he suggests that the distinction between vocational studies and the liberal arts is more artificial than real: Both aim to assist students in dealing with the real world. Finally, he says, here clearly parting company with the likes of Bloom and Kron­man, the liberal arts are more about teaching students how to think for themselves and how to appraise facts than they are about imparting knowledge about fundamental issues in history, politics, or philosophy. The liberal arts at their best, he says, disseminate “knowledge that exposes the contingency of present arrangements,” a surprising formulation coming from an author who takes the organization of the academy so thoroughly for granted. It is also revealing of a pedagogical outlook now pervasive in the academy: that students can learn how to think before learning anything important to think about.

Given this outlook, it is easy to understand why many institutions have re­formulated the liberal arts in terms of “methods of study” or “approaches to learning” in place of substantive concepts like “Western civilization” or the great books. This is the approach the Har­vard faculty took when they revised their general-education curriculum in the 1970s and also the approach they took in their most recent effort (under Menand’s chairmanship). Harvard requires students to take at least one course each in eight separate subject areas; in some of them, students can meet the requirement by choosing from as many as 40 different courses. In demonstration of Menand’s point about the link between the structure of the academy and the content of the curriculum, the requirement in aesthetics can be met by choosing one course from a long list that includes “Women, Gender, and Sexuality,” “Virgil,” “The Bible,” and “Bud­dhism and Japanese Culture.” The requirement in “Culture and Belief” can be met by choosing among some 30 or 40 courses offered in fields ranging from economics to Slavic studies. Though the new program is presented as a core curriculum, it does not present students with anything approaching a common intellectual experience and is not grounded in any assumptions about what an educated person should know after four years of college.

#page#Given the academy’s weak defense of the liberal arts, they will continue to unravel on our campuses in the face of the criticism that they have nothing distinctive to offer. Given the curriculum, the criticisms are entirely valid. One can safely predict that Harvard’s new curriculum will itself also unravel within a decade, as students and faculty recognize its artificiality. If this is the best the faculty can do, there is little point in maintaining the illusion of a core curriculum.

There are certainly too few conservatives on elite campuses to mount an effective defense of the liberal arts. Menand cites surveys demonstrating that more than 60 percent of professors are “liberal” while only 10 percent are “conservative.” This understates the problem somewhat. In 2004, 95 percent of social-science professors at elite institutions voted for Kerry, and the remainder voted for third-party candidates. None (at least in the survey) voted for Bush. There is far more diversity of opinion in a Wall Street investment firm than in the faculty of an Ivy League university. Did this happen by accident? Menand does not say directly, but certainly implies, that academics have erected a political test for entry into their profession.

Conservatives can offer a helpful critique of the research-university model, because they trace their principles to an intellectual heritage richly different from the one that shaped it. Conservatives look back not to the German thought and practice of the 19th century, but to the Whig tradition that developed out of the British and Scottish Enlightenments of the 17th and 18th centuries. The Whig tradition em­phasizes liberty, limited government, free markets, prudence in politics, and a separation between government and civil society, while the German tradition stresses planning and the priority of the state over society. Conservatism looks to Locke, Burke, Adam Smith, Hume, and The Federalist, while academics (outside of economics) are more likely to look in the direction of Hegel, Marx, and the Frankfurt School. Conservatives defend the achievements of the Whig tradition — the Constitution, free markets, an independent civil society — while modern liberals want to reform or overcome them. Con­servative thought, if allowed inside, would enrich the academy by broadening its horizons and challenging entrenched assumptions — which would no doubt help to rescue the liberal arts from their current malaise.

– Mr. Piereson is the president of the William E. Simon Foundation and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, where he is director of the Center for the American University.

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