The Marketplace of Ideas: Menand's book on the American University

Though much of what Louis Menand argues in the book is about the teaching and production of PhDs in the humanities, and more specifically about English PhDs, it makes interesting reading for anyone interested in higher education in the United States.

Now that I am past that hurdle of graduate school anxiety, meaning having to answer the question "What hell are you still doing in graduate school?", this book was pleasurable reading. When I say graduate school, I mean graduate school that leads to a PhD and not a professional degree such as Law, MBA, or a master's degree.

T. M., a colleague, often remarked that friends were thinking about law school, went to law school, graduated from law school and got a job, all in the time that T.M. took to working towards his PhD degree in Neuroscience. (Law school takes 4 years, an MBA 2 years, and the average PhD in the sciences about 5-6 years, and in the humanities much more).

The first part of Menand's book covers General Education. Questions about what should be taught in college that is common across disciplines. This has been taken up in more detail and better addressed by Menand in the New Yorker article that is a must-read. (Menand's article on: Why we have college? in the New Yorker) 
It's sometimes claimed that learning any scholarly field well developed general mental faculties, which may the be applied to problems and issues encountered in life after college. But problems and issues in the academic world are not always analogous to problems and issues encountered in life after college... and there are matters [such as law, architecture, engineering] that everyone has to deal with in life, and knowing something about them is important to participate effectively in the political process. But college students have no more sophisticated an understanding of them than people who have attended only high school do.
It is fairly obvious to anyone who went to college in India, that Menand would be horrified if he learned about the Indian system. To most Indians Menand might well be splitting hairs. It is perhaps a popular, and in my opinion, an incorrect idea that Indian undergraduate education is far superior to an American-style undergraduate education. That reeks less of an objective comparison and more of a subjective, or patriotic idea. A related post in the NYTimes (thanks to J.) that shows that it ain't that easy getting in.

The second part of the book covers the Crisis of Legitimation that is faced by the humanities. As a science major it was somewhat fascinating to read the description of anxiety that faces a PhD student in the humanities. Not only does it take the average English (or anthropology) student about 9-10 years to graduate, he/she is often faced with existential anxiety about their discipline. Menand in his book writes, that while most people don't really understand what physicists are studying, yet they believe that having a physics department is a good 'return on investment. Such a question when asked of the humanities could not be satisfactorily answered and that lead to anxiety about their disciplines. His remarks on 'interdisciplinary' made hilarious reading. That word is so popular that it is hard to see any conference, or program at a university not mention it. Menand writes, "Interdisciplinarity is an administrative name for an anxiety and a hope that are personal."

The Economist wrote a lengthy economic analysis of the value of the Phd (see my related comment) and concluded that it was not a good return on investment. But, people still do them.  We would not have any poems, novels,  painting or music if everyone was homo economicus and chose to make the best return on investment decisions. There is more to life than money, and also aspiring PhDs must realise that only 5% of them actually end up with jobs in academia. Unfortunately, the academy chooses to ignore this fact and makes many of them ill-prepared for life outside academia. The Economist and Menand seem to agree that it's actually in the universities' interest that supply of aspiring PhD students exceed the demand for the finished product. The unfinished products, the graduate students, or the ABDs (all but the dissertation), are a highly qualified talent pool for jobs such as research and teaching that save the universities tons of money instead of hiring full-time faculty.

The Marketplace of Ideas On Amazon

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