The Old College Try

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

In a New York Times article titled “Making College ‘Relevant’” (December 29, 2009), Kate Zernike reported on the various responses of academic institutions to increasing pressure, from both parents and students, to show that the expense of a liberal-arts education is worth it.

Thomas College, a liberal arts school in Maine, advertises itself as Home of the Guaranteed Job! Students who can’t find work in their fields within six months of graduation can come back to take classes free, or have the college pay their student loans for a year.

The University of Louisiana, Lafayette, is eliminating its philosophy major, while Michigan State University is doing away with American studies and classics, after years of declining enrollments in those majors.

And in a class called “The English Major in the Workplace,” at the University of Texas, Austin, students read Death of a Salesman but also learn to network, write a résumé, and come off well in an interview.

To the question What is college for? the implicit answer in these examples is Whatever comes after college: real life. So much for John Henry Newman’s claim, a hundred and fifty years ago, that a university education should ensure that the student “does not stand where he did, he...

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About the Author

Bernard G. Prusak is associate professor of philosophy and director of the McGowan Center for Ethics and Social Responsibility at King's College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.