Loads of Learned Lumber

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Louis Menand, _The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University_

OH, THE IRONY that Louis Menand's previous (and excellent) book, The Metaphysical Club, took as subject the circle of polymaths that advanced the maturation of American intellectual life in the decades following the Civil War: Oliver Wendell Holmes, C.S. Pierce, William James, and John Dewey. In the century since, he here tells us, the American university has nurtured a bosom serpent: disciplinarity.

Menand wrote this book having been deeply involved in the reform of Harvard's undergraduate general education curriculum, and the subtitle suggests that process was far from easy. As far as I can tell, it's never easy. What makes it hard?

Menand argues that designing a general education curriculum means answering the question, "What should a well-educated person of the present moment know, or be acquainted with, or understand, or be able to do?" A tricky enough question, made trickier by the necessity of relying on a college's faculty to provide the answers.

One prepares for becoming a member of a college faculty, Menand reminds us, by becoming an adept in some discipline, trained by a department. Writing a dissertation requires spending years in the abstruser realms of that discipline, wrestling with questions of almost zero interest to the larger population, or even to other academics in other disciplines. One becomes a member of a faculty by being hired by a department, having demonstrated that one is an adept in its discipline. One then hones one's adeptness in one's discipline by further scholarship and research and trains young aspiring adepts in the discipline.

So, when one is asked what a well-educated person should know, the only answer likely to come to mind will be, "Among other things, a well-educated person ought to understand the fundamentals of my discipline." Thus, the battle is on, and the curriculum ends up a Rube Goldberg contraption, every bizarre detail of which was fought for tooth and nail by somebody.

Is "interdisciplinarity" the answer? Ha! Menand has short shrift for that beloved buzzword: "Interdisciplinarity is not something different from disciplinarity. It is the ratification of the logic of disciplinarity. In practice, it actually tends to rigidify disciplinarity paradigms." "Interdisciplinarity" usually just means you have two or three disciplines on their separate pedestals in the room, rather than just one.

Menand also looks at the question, "why do all professors think alike?" The answer, again, is our long professional incubation -- 11.3 years is now the median time to earn a doctorate in the humanities, with another five to the tenure decision. To hang in that long, Menand argues, you just have to adapt to the prevailing climate, talk the talk, walk the walk, fit in: "The academic profession in some areas is not reproducing itself so much as cloning itself."

None of this is going to change soon.

No comments: