How the Universities Got This Way

Louis Menand’s The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University is a short, provocative book that raises many more questions than it answers. Its greatest contribution is that it clearly delineates the development of the American university from its origins in the late 19th century to the many absurdities that characterize it today.
Menand’s exposition of the various key events and trends that have shaped the contemporary American university runs like a stream throughout the book’s occasionally disjointed sections and chapters (the book is largely a compilation of lectures he gave at the University of Virginia). What we learn is that, for the most part, all of the key features of the American university as we know it today emerged full-blown in a burst of academic gestation over a single generation – approximately 1870 to 1900 – largely through the efforts of one man, Charles Eliot, Harvard University’s president from 1869 to 1909. Although Menand reviews the important ways in which the American university has changed since then, describing some of the key twists and turns along the way, he stresses that much has remained the same – often for no particularly good reason.
Menand divides the American university’s historical evolution into three distinct phases: a formative period running from its launch in 1870 under the influence of Harvard’s Eliot through its institutional maturation in the 20th century up to the onset World War II; a “golden age” of rapid expansion in enrollment, funding and prestige that lasted from 1945 to 1970, a product of post-war population and economic growth and the cold war, heavily influenced by another Harvard president, James Bryant Conant; and a post-golden age phase taking us from 1970 to the present, that Frederick Hess (but not Menand) has aptly dubbed the “politically correct” university.

According to Menand, Charles Eliot’s academic inventions, all of which endure, include:
merit-based university admissions, replacing the largely class-based system that had prevailed until then; introduction of rigor and standards into the training of doctors, lawyers and other “learned” professions, things that were notoriously absent previously; making the baccalaureate degree a prerequisite for professional school admission (where only high school had been required before); professionalizing and standardizing all academic disciplines which entailed, among many other criteria, that most academic faculty have PhDs; and perhaps most significantly, requiring university faculty to pursue research and scholarship along with their teaching.
This institutional architecture remained largely unchanged during the American university’s post-war “golden age.” What did change was the scope and popularity of the national academic enterprise: college enrollments soared; funding for both instruction and research – most of it provided by the federal government – increased exponentially; and the prestige and importance of the credentialed university faculty reached its highest level ever. But after 1970, on the heels of Civil Rights and Viet Nam War protest and youthful and feminist “empowerment,” the structural rigidities and intellectual certainties of the golden age university were not able to withstand the challenges to established authority that assailed all American institutions, yielding the post-golden age American university which we are left with today.
Menand provides some powerful ammunition for those who argue that the post-golden age university is an institution in decline and disarray. He points out that overall enrollment growth has slowed with fewer students majoring in liberal arts subjects today than a hundred years ago; that direct government funding of higher education is falling; that key humanities disciplines are beset by corrosive intramural battles; that general education and academic standards have eroded; that meritocracy in academic admissions and hiring has given way to the exigencies of “diversity.” And most alarming from Menand’s point of view, there is the glaring and growing disparity between the rate at which we turn out humanities doctorates and the academic (or for that matter, even non-academic) demand for them.
Further, the basic American university paradigm ushered in by Charles Eliot is riven by a serious internal tension, the conflict between the conception of the university as a utilitarian enterprise, well-suited to a rapidly growing democratic and capitalist United States, and the ostensible ideal of the university as a place of learning “for its own sake” or at least for the sake of personal and societal civilization and enrichment. This tension has been resolved over the years by the erection of a virtual firewall between the humanities disciplines and all of the university’s “practical” disciplines from the sciences through engineering and the various professional fields. Menand argues that this dichotomy doesn’t make much sense: “The divorce between liberalism and professionalism as educational missions rests on a superstition: that the practical is the enemy of the true. This is nonsense. Disinterestedness is perfectly consistent with practical ambition, and practical ambitions are perfectly consistent with disinterestedness. If anyone should understand that, it’s a college professor.”
While this institutional tour d’horizon frames the book, most of its pages are devoted to asking (but not really answering) four key questions roiling the contemporary American university: Why is it impossible to expose today’s college students to the kind of coherent general education curriculum that used to be the norm at the United States’ better universities? Why has intellectual chaos descended on the humanities disciplines? Why are only a tiny minority of professors politically conservative? And why do we produce more than four times as many PhD credentialed graduates in the liberal arts than the academic marketplace can absorb?
As to the answers: In his first and longest chapter, “The Problem of General Education,” Menand takes us through the historical evolution of Columbia University’s core curriculum, one that he and most fans of rigorous, highly structured general education take as America’s finest model of the genre. But then he goes on to document how his own campus, Harvard, and most other elite universities disdain such a highly specified approach in favor of “distribution requirements” which leave the selection of general education content largely to the student. One senses that Menand favors (or at least approves of) a Columbia-style core curriculum but seems to be resigned to it being an anachronistic outlier: “the problem with general education is that it is perceived as an attempt to impose on general education a mission – call it ‘preparation for life’ – whose rationale liberal education has traditionally defined itself in opposition to. This is why ….liberal arts faculty want to own general education and to have little to do with it at the same time.”
My own experience as Provost of the State University of New York suggests that the “problem” of general education is simpler to understand – and that solving it is not necessarily futile. For several painful years, as my office under instructions from the university board worked to introduce a reasonably rigorous general education requirement on all 58 of SUNY’s undergraduate campuses, I saw firsthand the hostility to such an effort. Campus presidents hated a tight general education requirement because it forced them to devote scarce campus resources to a handful of departments and subjects that did not align particularly well with either their instructional (i.e. proto-vocational) or research (i.e. federally fundable) academic priorities. Faculty hated it even more for two reasons: its Western Civilization requirement was at odds with their disdain for the work of “dead white males,” and its American history requirement implied that the U.S. historical trajectory had occasional positive attributes. Students hated it because some of the courses might be hard or boring and it distracted them from their primary vocational interests. In the end, implement it we did – it is still in place – and SUNY is much the better for the experience, I believe.
Menand’s answers to the other three questions all lead back to the same phenomenon: that the American university’s liberal arts wing has become an increasingly cloistered echo chamber, populated by a self-selected professoriate that is progressively more unrepresentative of America’s educated elite.
The book is clearest and most critical in decrying the overproduction of Ph.D.s, a subject Menand has addressed in essays as far back as 1996. He unfavorably compares the length of time it takes to get a liberal arts doctorate (six to nine years typically, and over ten in English) with that for becoming a doctor (four years) or a lawyer (three years). And while most medical and law students actually emerge with a degree, and nearly 100 percent of degree holders are able to get a job in their field, fewer than half of the humanities doctoral students finish (the majority of the rest are ABD – “all but dissertation”), and fewer than half of those succeed in getting a faculty position – mainly in less prestigious non-research colleges on which their extensive research training (which accounts for the length of their graduate school residency) is largely wasted. Add to this pay levels about the same as those earned by baccalaureate-holding public school teachers, and you get an idea of how perverse this phenomenon is.
The question, then, is why is this supply-demand imbalance not only persisting, but actually getting worse? Menand has two answers. First, perpetual student-hood followed by mediocre career prospects apparently appeals to a certain kind of educated person – the kind that disdains practical affairs (especially business), high incomes and conservative politics. Regarding the latter, Menand, in a lengthy disquisition in his chapter, “Why Do Professors All Think Alike,” ascribes it entirely to such self-selection. I am not so sure. My own experience is that there are plenty of moderate and conservative PhDs entering the academic stream, but when their ideological leanings are discovered they are quickly discouraged or even expelled by their colleagues.
But the heart of Menand’s critique is that the overproduction of PhDs is driven less by demand than by the supply. It is the university administrators who have ginned up this doctorate production mill for several indefensible reasons; primarily because they believe their institution’s prestige depends on having a doctoral program, even if it is of dubious quality; but also conveniently to pay for their expensive research mission. All of those doctoral students – even the ABDs – constitute an army of low paid (through fellowship stipends) instructors to teach the majority of their undergraduate courses.
Menand deplores this state of affairs, but his remedy is somewhat counterintuitive: “the moral of the story that the numbers tell once seemed straightforward: if there are fewer jobs for PhDs then universities should stop giving so many PhDs – by making it harder to get into a PhD program (reducing the number of entrants) or harder to get through (reducing the number of graduates). But this has not worked. Possibly the story has a different moral, which is that there should be a lot more PhDs, and they should be a lot easier to get.” He suggests that doctoral education, like law and medicine, be of a predetermined length – probably four years – and that it should not be focused exclusively on training for faculty positions. He believes that a more generic doctoral degree, sort of a higher level counterpart to the generic baccalaureate, would prepare smart young people for a wide variety of jobs that require a greater level of knowledge and analytical training, and that it would attract a much more ideologically diverse cohort of students. It is an intriguing idea, but I am not at all convinced that giving American universities license to mint even more PhDs – even time delimited ones – will necessarily lead to more successful job placement or greater ideological diversity on campus.
In the end, despite its informative history and useful insights, The Marketplace of Ideas disappoints. Menand too often pulls his potentially most effective punches, and as a product of, and current faculty member in, an elite American research university, he focuses too heavily on the peculiarities and culture of this type of place. Although he was, from 1988 to 2003, on the faculty of New York’s City University (first at Queens College and later at the Graduate Center), one senses that he doesn’t really understand the country’s public universities that he himself acknowledges dominate American higher education. While they are superficially as P.C. as their elite counterparts, they often only play at it, being far more vested in “practical” concerns: staying afloat financially, beholden as they are to generally conservative trustees and state legislators; needing to instruct their many thousands of undergraduates of middling academic ability; and assigning most of their resources and faculty to disciplines and programs that lead fairly directly to jobs – far from the most fevered precincts of academic perversity and political correctness. That said, this is a thoughtful insider’s perspective on the American university and how it got that way.


  • Peter Salins

    Peter Salins is University Professor of Political Science at Stony Brook University and director of its graduate program in public policy.

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