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The Marketplace of Ideas

What’s wrong with the higher education system in the US and how can we fix it?

By Elizabeth Toohey / March 11, 2010

The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University By Louis Menand W.W. Norton 176 pp., 24.95

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The structure of the American university has long been a subject of contention, and now is no exception, especially given the current economic climate. Last year, Mark Taylor called for an end to tenure and traditional disciplines in The New York Times op-ed, “End of the University as We Know It,” and William Pannapacker’s column, “Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go,” was among the most viewed links on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s website.

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If the system looks broken – not just to academics or those fighting the culture wars, but to anyone invested in the idea of a liberal arts education – then fixing it requires an understanding of how the American university came to be in its current state.

This emphasis on historical perspective as a first step to reform distinguishes Louis Menand’s The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University. Located somewhere between Gerald Graff’s “Professing Literature,” which takes the history of literary studies as its focus, and more polemical calls for reform like Taylor’s, Menand approaches his subject by identifying four widespread problems in academia, tracing them back to their roots, and offering ways to move beyond them.

These include the trend of “interdisciplinarity,” the ubiquitous center-left politics of faculty, the identity crisis of the humanities, and the all-too-contentious question of what should constitute a general education program. (Menand was on the committee that recently revamped the curriculum at Harvard University and the book is dedicated to his fellow members.) In excavating the origins of these trends, Menand – whose discipline is English, but who won a 2002 Pulitzer Prize for “The Metaphysical Club,” his outstanding intellectual history of modern America following the Civil War – shows how slippery knowledge and its production can be.

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