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 has a new center, and a range of thoughts to which he was before a stranger.” This, too, is education for real life, but in a different sense.

Louis Menand, who writes for the New Yorker and teaches at Harvard, has been thinking about higher education for years, and has now written a book about it. Most of this book, The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University, was written before the recent economic crisis. (One chapter was first published in 2001, and the three others were presented as lectures in February 2008.) But the book is nevertheless remarkably timely. Menand presents it as

an attempt to answer four questions about American higher education today. Why is it so hard to institute a general education curriculum? Why did the humanities disciplines undergo a crisis of legitimation? Why has “interdisciplinarity” become a magic word? And why do all professors tend to have the same politics?

Menand does speak to these questions, but at bottom the book is an extended reflection on the anachronism of American higher education, which “is still a late nineteenth-century system, put into place for late nineteenth-century reasons.”

In the late nineteenth century, research became the main mission of elite institutions like Harvard, the modern disciplines were defined, and an undergraduate degree became a necessary credential for entrance into professional schools. College education, being for the first time clearly separate from professional education, was protected from its imperatives. During the Cold War, when there was a huge infusion of public money into research universities, the research professor became, in Menand’s words, “the type of the professor generally,” and so “research, rather than teaching or service, defined the model for the professor—not only in doctoral institutions, but all the way down the institutional ladder.” We are living with this legacy today.

As Menand notes, today liberal education faces the same danger it faced in the late nineteenth century—namely, “that it will be marginalized by the proliferation, and attraction, of nonliberal alternatives.” Hence the great and growing popularity of the undergraduate business degree. But nineteenth-century responses to the dangers facing liberal education will not do in the twenty-first century. So what should the twenty-first-century response be?

One possible response for college and university administrators is simply to give the market what it wants: “nonliberal” or preprofessional alternatives. That is, administrators might reject the claim that the marginalization of liberal education is any sort of danger to be feared, and focus resources elsewhere with a clean conscience. Zernike’s examples show that some administrators have decided this is the only realistic course of action. According to Zernike’s article, when the regents of the University of Louisiana, Lafayette, voted to eliminate the philosophy major, they agreed with faculty members who said that subject is “a traditional core program of a broad-based liberal-arts and science institution.” Nevertheless, they also concluded that, given how few students had graduated as philosophy majors in recent years, “one cannot help but recognize that philosophy as an essential undergraduate program has lost some credence among students.” And so the regents submitted, however reluctantly, to the shrinking demand.

For Catholic institutions like Villanova University, where I teach, shuttering the philosophy or theology department would be nearly inconceivable. Without philosophy and theology, Villanova would not be what it is. Yet Villanova’s professional schools—business, engineering, and nursing—exercise an important influence on the culture of the institution, despite the fact, disputed by no one, that the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences is the heart of the university. Students at the professional schools are required to take a number of arts and sciences courses, and not the other way around. It is nonetheless a common concern, here as elsewhere, that the curriculum is at the mercy of consumers who, as they are not yet college-educated, are not ready to make educated choices about what a good college education should be.

And so another response to the dangers liberal education faces today—one that takes the dangers seriously—is to go back to work on a core curriculum, or general-education requirements. The opening chapter of Menand’s book is “The Problem of General Education.” Menand covers the “two basic systems of general education: the distribution model and the core model,” and addresses various rationales for core programs that require all students to take particular courses and, sometimes, to read particular books. Menand explains what is modern about general-education programs, and then argues that it’s precisely what is modern about them that “makes proposals for general education reform so difficult to negotiate.” A bit of history allows us to understand why it is so difficult to reform American higher education.

As Menand writes, “General education was a response to the rise of the research university in the United States, between 1880 and 1920.” The research university, with its increasing specialization, provoked two basic criticisms. The first was that it was too narrow and led to overspecialization. The second  was that “the modern college was not worldly enough, and that devotion to knowledge for its own sake led professors to neglect the socializing aspect of what they were doing.” For critics of overspecialization, “general education became the name for whatever it was that a curriculum of majors and electives failed to provide.” For critics of the university’s unworldliness, general education was “where colleges connect what professors do with who their students are and what they will become after they graduate—where colleges actually think about the outcome of the experience they provide.”

From the point of view of professors trained for, and dedicated to, research, general education can seem to contradict what the academy is supposed to be about. One paradoxical result is that, while every department wants a part of the general-education curriculum—because having more students usually means getting more money—few professors want to teach general-education courses. Teaching general education is usually regarded as a thankless distraction from the work of research.

The system has been able to sustain itself so far by drawing on the huge glut of PhDs and near-PhDs—so-called ABDs (“all but done” or “all but dissertation”)—that has developed over the past thirty years. During the Cold War, American higher education grew exponentially. “Between 1945 and 1975,” Menand writes, “the number of American undergraduates increased 500 percent, [and] the number of graduate students increased by nearly 900 percent.” This rapid growth came to an abrupt halt in the late ’70s, leaving universities with more tenured faculty and PhD programs than they needed or could afford. As a consequence, “the supply curve [has] completely lost touch with the demand curve in American academic life.”

A reasonable response might be to cut PhD programs, but institutions that did so would lose prestige—and therefore money. What’s more, as Menand observes, while there is “a huge social inefficiency” in producing so many academics for so few jobs, there is “an institutional efficiency” in having so many PhDs and ABDs to choose from. Full-time non-tenure-track faculty—such as postdocs, adjuncts, and ABDs—help universities and colleges reconcile their commitment to research with their commitment to general education. Research requires time, focus, and institutional resources; and research by academic “stars” brings their institutions prestige. So administrators have a reason to give researchers what they want. Enter the “contingent faculty,” paid not to produce research but to staff the core courses that the tenure-track and tenured faculty don’t want to teach. There are, it should be acknowledged, good reasons for them not to want to teach these courses, apart from the intrinsic satisfactions of research. Pay raises come not from excellence in teaching but from getting published in prestigious journals and by prestigious presses. As Menand puts it, many “professors regard institutional initiatives as provisional and as unrelated to career advancement, which comes from recognition at the national level.” It is not surprising, then, that in a 1989 survey only 40 percent of professors reported that they felt loyalty to their institutions, while 70 percent said they felt loyalty to their discipline.

Menand’s proposed solution to at least some of what ails American higher education has to do with what he calls “professional reproduction”—that is, the way that professors train new professors. His proposal is not to reduce the number of PhD programs (he is too clear-eyed to think that universities would sacrifice their own prestige for the good of the whole system), but instead to increase the number of PhDs and make the degree easier to get. In other words, Menand thinks getting a PhD should be more like getting a law degree: something that can be done in three years, rather than the nine years it takes the average PhD student today. If it took less time to get a PhD, not only might more people do so, thereby enriching society at large, but people in PhD programs might no longer be so attached to the idea of getting an academic job. As it is, Menand writes, PhD students seem doomed to “struggling through a graduate program and then finding themselves virtually disqualified for anything but a teaching career that they cannot count on having.” If getting a PhD were easier or quicker, then people with PhDs who could not find good academic positions could quickly move on to something else while still in their twenties.

Maybe so, but maybe not. If there were more PhD students, academic jobs would become even harder to get, and people who really want to teach and write for a living might become even more desperate to get them. One might also doubt whether there is nowadays an institution that could lead the way in reforming all of American higher education. If Harvard, or the whole Ivy League, made the PhD easier to get, would other institutions follow? In any case, it’s far from obvious that it would be in these institutions’ interest to change the status quo, unstable though it is. On the other hand, if change in the “marketplace of ideas” can only come from market pressures, it seems awfully optimistic to assume that the change will be for the better.


Related: A Higher Education: Can the Humanities Survive? by Andrew Delbanco
The Saga of St. Joseph's, by Dennis O'Brien

Bernard G. Prusak holds the Raymond and Eleanor Smiley Chair in Business Ethics at John Carroll University.

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Published in the 2010-03-26 issue: View Contents
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