As his title hints, Louis Menand has written a business book. This is good, since the crisis in American higher education that the Harvard professor of English addresses is a business crisis. The crisis resembles the more celebrated one in the US medical system. At its best, US education, like US healthcare, is of a quality that no system in the world can match. However, the two industries have developed similar problems in limiting costs and keeping access open. Both industries have thus become a source of worry for public-spirited citizens and a punchbag for political opportunists.
Menand lowers the temperature of this discussion. He neither celebrates nor bemoans the excesses of political correctness – the replacement of Keats by Toni Morrison, or of Thucydides by queer theory. Instead, in four interlocking essays, he examines how university hiring and credentialing systems and an organisational structure based on scholarly disciplines have failed to respond to economic and social change. Menand draws his idea of what an American university education can be from the history of what it has been. This approach illuminates, as polemics cannot, two grave present-day problems: the loss of consensus on what to teach undergraduates and the lack of intellectual diversity among the US professoriate.
Much of today’s system, Menand shows, can be traced to Charles William Eliot, president of Harvard for four decades after 1869. Faced with competition from pre-professional schools, Eliot had the “revolutionary idea” of strictly separating liberal arts education from professional education (law, medicine, etc), and making the former a prerequisite for the latter. Requiring a lawyer to spend four years reading, say, Molière before he can study for the bar has no logic. Such a system would have made it impossible for Abraham Lincoln to enter public life. Funny, too, that the idea of limiting the commanding heights of the professions to young men of relative leisure arose just as the US was filling up with penurious immigrants. Menand grants that the system was a “devil’s bargain”.
Clusty Search: Louis Menand – “The Marketplace of Ideas”.