Liberal Arts: Lurching towards Obsolescence?

Reviewed: Menand, Louis. The Marketplace of Ideas. New York: W.W. Norton & Co Ltd, 2010.

Louis Menand’s The Marketplace of Ideas offers suggestions for revamping liberal education at a time when the liberal arts seem increasingly irrelevant to incoming freshmen. 1 Andrew Scull’s notorious hatchet job “UCSD letter” and other imbroglios are signs of the hazardous times. 2  Trained as a historian and working as an English professor, Menand digs up fascinating history and proffers bits of insider gossip. Nonetheless, he falls short with an “if you can’t beat them, join them” attitude, arguing that market forces (one can infer, a hybrid corporate-university model) stimulate competition and innovation in an academic culture which he views as mostly stagnant and out of touch with “real” societal concerns. Indeed the first line of his book is: “Knowledge is our most important business.” He notes that the “value-added” component of a college education is lost when “most of th[e] esoterica [of a professor’s knowledge] is available instantly on Wikipedia” (19). He also seems to imply that women, minorities, and the 1980s “culture wars” instituted the decline in academic culture away from its mission of disinterested research and non-ideological, or apolitical, vetting and debate. 3


Menand spends the early part of his book historicizing the general education paradigm, and ultimately argues that “the problem with general education is that it is perceived as an attempt to impose on liberal education a mission–call it ‘preparation for life’–whose rationale liberal education has traditionally defined itself in opposition to” (25).  While differentiating between distributed and core models of general education, he posits that in the end a general education should be a “binding experience,” for “in a meritocratic society, citizens need a common fund of knowledge, a kind of cultural lingua franca, to prevent politically dangerous divisions from developing” (41). One might pause to wonder what these dangerous divisions are, and it is here that Menand’s own “apolitical” politics become apparent. He argues that the Harvard report on “General Education in a Free Society,” a 1945 Cold War document, resolved problems such as socioeconomic resentment and intellectual relativism by familiarizing students with American “touchstones for contemporary culture and debate. . .[representing] a common heritage that bonds each citizen, whether a lawyer or cabdriver, to each” (42). What remains unexcavated in Menand’s high appraisal of such a Cold War document is its easy and unselfconscious universality, ignoring the contradictory position of persons excluded from full and robust citizenship and representation in such courses and texts, or those persons marked as “other” and burdened with particularity. A series of such uncritical moves on Menand’s part make portions of the book read as apologias for the current hegemonic ideology and neoliberal status quo.


He spends the middle portion of the book, “The Humanities Revolution,” lauding the humanities for forever altering the way knowledge was produced and what it looked like. He then uses “Interdisciplinarity and Anxiety” to throw into doubt the “buzziness” of the term interdisciplinarity. In his view, “interdisciplinarity is simply disciplinarity raised to a higher power” (96-7). He believes it is the term’s vagueness and evangelical overtones that create anxiety as to what it is that academics are really doing in the modern university.


In spite of some of the more uncritical portions of the book, Menand does offer some thoughtful, albeit counterintuitive, solutions to academic problems. Controversially, rather than lament the “cheapening” of Ph.D. candidates through their proliferation, he argues that there should be greater numbers of Ph.D.s awarded and that they should moreover be easier to obtain. This would make a Doctor of Philosophy an added texture for non-academic employees and workplaces. Imagine a society where many people were trained in ways to think about thinking. Additionally, he proposes limiting exploitative cheap ABD (All But Dissertation) labor by seriously reducing the time to degree, replacing the doctoral thesis with the publication of a peer-reviewed article (152). “If it were easier and cheaper to get in and out of the doctoral motel, the disciplines would have a chance to get oxygenated by people. . .much less invested in [its] paradigms,” he quips (153). By advocating oxygenation, he is referring to his other main intervention regarding what he calls “cloning” and the phenomenon of an academic “guild” system.


Menand emphatically believes that professors must be trained differently from their predecessors. In the section “Why Do Professors All Think Alike?” he notes that universities are surprisingly resistant to change. Quoting former UC Chancellor Clark Kerr, Menand relates, “few institutions are so conservative as the universities about their own affairs while their members are so liberal about the affairs of others . . . The faculty member who gets arrested as a ‘freedom rider’ in the South is a flaming supporter of unanimous prior faculty consent.” 4  His biggest criticism is that “the professoriate is homogeneous,” meaning predominantly center-left Democratic (140). This is problematic for Menand’s dialectical approach to intellectual inquiry as “liberalism needs conservatism, and orthodoxy needs heterodoxy, if only in order to keep it on its toes” (153). While this seems like an opportunity for Menand to appear as a reactionary wolf in sheep’s (read liberal academic) clothing, his ideas and way of writing both irritate and inspire. I believe Menand is sincere when he attempts to deflect critiques that he is presentist or utilitarian, but I am not at all convinced that he is without an agenda.


This book is worth reading for its snappy prose and occasional gossipy bits, if not for Menand’s overall plan of action. It is more interesting to ponder and debate the proposals of The Marketplace of Ideas than to ignore them, especially when liberal arts education seems to be lurching towards obsolescence.


[1] The vast majority of undergraduates major in business and science: “Twenty-two percent of all bachelor’s degrees are awarded in [business]. Ten percent of all bachelor’s degrees are awarded in education. Seven percent are awarded in the health professions. Those are not liberal arts fields. There are almost twice as many bachelor’s degrees conferred every year in social work as there are in all foreign languages and literatures combined” (54).

[2] Andrew Scull is a Sociology professor at UCSD, who in order to respond to the budget crisis, urged the UC Regents to eliminate several “teaching” campuses from the UC system.

[3] I believe Menand does link the influx of women and minorities into the university to problems in academia despite explicitly stating otherwise. Menand writes: “What the recent history of the disciplines does suggest, though, is that it is wise to avoid the following narrative: when more women and non-whites came into the system, traditional norms of scholarly constraint disappeared” (90). However, reading symptomatically, he in fact forwards this very narrative, albeit in subtle ways. He demarcates 1980 as the time when the system became “interested” instead of disinterested. Through implication, and by using white American male enrollment (71-2) as his baseline for academic health and integrity, he implodes his brief rhetorical defense that he is not forwarding this message.

[4] Menand quotes Kerr to anecdotally drive home his argument that academia is recalcitrant towards change and faculty are hesitant to vote for controversial rearrangements in curriculum and governance when the consequences of such decisions can exact a very high and real cost. “Unanimous prior faculty consent” is referring to a tendency noted by Kerr for faculty to rubber-stamp and approve only those policies that have previously held true and functional for previous generations of faculty; this to Menand’s mind is how university policies remain mostly consistent or stagnant over time.

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