Socially Valuable Knowledge

An Interview with Louis Menand

by Arnold Pan

2 June 2011

Pulitzer Prize-winning Harvard Professor Louis Menand diagnoses some of the problems in the American university system and makes some proposals for what can be done, all without the alarmism of many of his colleagues.
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The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University

Louis Menand


Unlike pretty much everyone else writing about higher education these days, Louis Menand doesn’t think academia is in a state of emergency. In the book The Marketplace of Ideas, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Harvard Professor diagnoses problems in the American university system without working from the assumption that it is in critical condition, preferring to look at the big picture by taking into account historical context and a longer view of the situation. Menand tackles his subject matter from a refreshingly even-keeled perspective of someone on the inside who isn’t afraid to challenge some of the institution’s sacred cows. “I don’t think American higher education is in crisis. I do think some sectors are having a very difficult time, though. The issues I write about in The Marketplace of Ideas are all endemic to the system, but they were not experienced as issues—as problems that it was necessary but difficult to address—until recently.”

Published last year, The Marketplace of Ideas comes at a time when many are raising hard questions about the status of an educational system that’s supposed to be on the brink of implosion: Tuitions are spiraling out of control even as university budgets and academic services shrink, a college education seems less practical since graduates from even the most prestigious schools are having difficulty finding work, and there aren’t enough jobs within the academy to keep programs vibrant and growing. PopMatters caught up with Professor Menand for an e-mail exchange, asking him about the stakes involved in reimagining higher education and covering a range of the topics from his book.

“Still, I don’t think there is a crisis: people want to go to college, and they spend unprecedented amounts of time and money trying to get into a good one,” Menand insists. “In economic down times, for some portion of the college-age population there is a trade-off, involving income foregone versus expected marginal increase in income down the road. There is a measurable differential between the value of a college degree (associate’s or bachelor’s) and the value of a high school diploma. That differential changes. Also, in economic down times, questions are raised about the utility of a college education.”

Times like these require those inside and outside the academy to not only know more about the history of the university in the United States, but also to understand that you can only deal with the symptoms emerging now by appreciating where they came from, which might be the main purpose of The Marketplace of Ideas. Writing as a historian, Menand notes in the book that his “emphasis is on the backstory of present problems.” Marketplace touches on contentious matters within academia, including why humanities disciplines have a difficult time justifying themselves to an increasingly skeptical public and why professors appear to think alike.

While some of these subjects might appear to be inside baseball to the casual reader, they raise a bigger issue relevant to anyone interested in higher education, namely what the relationship between academic scholarship and the world at-large is. Menand points to the sense of anxiety professors in the humanities feel about their place vis-à-vis society, caught between “the position of privilege that academic professionalism confers on its initiates and about the peculiar position of social disempowerment created by the barrier between academic workers and the larger culture,” he writes in Marketplace.

Perhaps the hottest of the hot-button issues Menand raises is the relationship between the university and society, and why it is that they are perceived as being disconnected from one another. “Obviously there are some academic fields about which the public is vaguely hostile or indifferent,” Menand grants. “When there are budget problems, these fields can feel a justifiable sense of insecurity, particularly (but not only) in public universities. It’s good for people who speak for higher education to speak for the importance of such fields. On the other hand, academic work—intellectual work in general—is never going to win any elections. One wants the public to feel that institutions of higher learning are a good social investment. One doesn’t need the public to approve everything that gets written or taught. That is counterproductive.”

One crucial reason for the sense of detachment between academia and society is that professional intellectuals tend not acknowledge the inconvenient truth that Menand alludes to in the title of the book: the university functions like a marketplace. Menand interrogates the misguided, idealistic notion that the college campus is a refuge from real-life pressures, which can be perpetuated when academics view their research as objective and immune to external forces.

“Academics are socialized (as are all professionals) to think about their work as protected from market forces,” Menand explains. “In some senses, it is so protected, but there are rewards and people do compete with one another to acquire them. The personal incentives for doing this are imagined to encourage the production of more or better knowledge, in the same way that the pursuit of economic self-interest is imagined to encourage innovation, efficiency, less expensive goods and so on.”

Menand elaborates on his analogy between the economic marketplace and the academic marketplace, describing how ideas compete with one another to gain institutional relevance and to attract financial support, whether scholars are conscious of it or not. “The question in the case of economic reform is often which principles are indispensable and which can be compromised. Academics sometimes have to make similar decisions, but most of us are trained to regard our principles as inviolate: the liberal should never be mixed with the practical, college education should not be presentist or instrumentalist, all professors should have produced a scholarly monograph or the equivalent before they are hired, public recognition should never count in decisions about professional advancement, and so on. Maybe principles like these should be regarded as inviolate. But then we should understand the price we pay in things we can’t do well or, in some cases, do at all,” Menand says.

The idea that the university is less and less socially pertinent has something to do with the difficulties US higher education has had in keeping up with the times. Part of the problem is how complicated a process it would be to restructure such a vast and unwieldy system. From individuals to institutions, academics to administrators, academia as an industry has a tendency to succumb to inertia and doing things the same way they’ve always been done, regardless of changing social and economic conditions.

Menand prefers to take a more measured and cautious approach to his subject matter, writing in the book that he favors “reform when it shakes the system, not when it breaks the system.” But one of the most provocative points he makes in Marketplace is that “intellectual life should involve taking chances.”

“I think academics can be over-cautious about change, that the world will not come to an end if it turns out we made a mistake,” Menand explains. “It’s like with your children: you don’t want to inhibit them from trying things they might fail at. That’s how they learn. If you are afraid to be wrong, you’re going to have a hard time in life. I am a person who is afraid to be wrong, and so are most academics I know—that’s one reason we’re in this business. It attracts perfectionists. But institutionally, we grow by taking risks.”

Another topic Menand devotes much attention to in Marketplace is the need to reform the Ph.D. process in the humanities, which provides a good case-in-point of how rethinking business-as-usual in the academy might yield potential benefits. In the book, Menand wonders, practically enough, why it takes three years to train a lawyer, four years a doctor, but six to nine years to produce a college English teacher who has few alternative professional options after completing the degree. Redefining what the Ph.D. means could have far-reaching effects on teaching at the university level, as well as on the kind of knowledge that academic research offers to society.

Even though most involved believe it is common sense to shrink Ph.D. programs due to dwindling resources and a dire academic job market, Menand argues for the opposite, to expand Ph.D. programs and to shorten their duration and requirements. Doing this, he says, might attract more scholars with a wider variety of backgrounds, motivations, and career aspirations. By diversifying and opening up the highest rungs of higher education, a Ph.D. degree could be better appreciated as having value away from the ivory tower.

“The worry is that the narrower the funnel through which people enter a profession, the more self-selected those people will be,” Menand points out. “That may be a benefit in some occupations, but in an intellectual organization, you want diversity of opinion, and the university (unlike a corporation) is actually designed to accommodate conflicting views. It helps people work together by getting them to disagree with one another. I’m aware that there are logistical problems with that policy, but we are already enmeshed in a logistical nightmare.”

The goal of broadening the horizons of scholarship within and outside the academy speaks again to the complicated relationship between the university and society. On the one hand, the university needs to better appreciate its connection and responsibilities to society. On the other, it cannot be beholden to the whims of popular opinion, but needs, as Menand writes in Marketplace, “to serve the public culture by asking questions the public doesn’t want to ask, investigating subjects it cannot or will not investigate.” So while Menand sees the value of academic research creating, in his words, “socially valuable knowledge,” that doesn’t mean college curricula and research should be forced to justify themselves in terms of their social utility.

Part of the university’s unique mission is to thread the needle between being socially engaged but not necessarily reflective of passing trends. “The deal implied in the principle of academic freedom is that society is best served by allowing professional researchers to govern their work according to norms internal to the profession,” Menand suggests. “In return, society can expect to ‘net’ productive and useful knowledge. We can expect, of course, that society, in whatever guise—legislators, journalists, alumni—will pay attention to what is taught and published and make its views known. We can also expect that these views will have some influence on what academics do. What we do not want is to compel every academic practice or product to have to justify itself before the bar of public opinion. That threatens to turn knowledge into the intellectual ratification of the status quo.”

If Menand’s perspective on such matters is able to represent more sides than is typical, it’s because his point-of-view has been shaped by taking a different path from most intellectuals in his position: Awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 2002 for The Metaphysical Club, Menand is at once an esteemed scholar and a professional journalist with an audience beyond the academic community, both the holder of an endowed professorship in the Harvard English department and a staff writer for The New Yorker. Menand worked as an editor, staff writer, and columnist for several publications while he was pursuing a career in academia. What he came to realize from his background in journalism was that the editors and writers he worked with were as well read and intellectually curious as the faculty he knew—it was just that the former “had not gotten Ph.D.s.”

“I myself might easily have become solely a magazine editor or writer, and would have if I had not been lucky on the job market the year I got my degree,” Menand tells. “But despite this great similarity in background and interests, magazine people and university people think very differently. I was actually a little shocked by the things people said in my first magazine job: I couldn’t imagine my academic colleagues talking that way. I eventually got used to the different cultures, but my experience with magazines made me see that the way academic do things is, from another point of view, unusual and even peculiar, and I became interested in finding out why.”
Still, Menand dismisses the suggestion that he’s a public intellectual, preferring to think of himself in less loaded terms as a writer and historian. However you describe him, though, Louis Menand is a thinker who has tapped into the zeitgeist by exploring issues he’s personally interested in that also happen to be ones relevant to a larger public. While Menand himself might not put it this way, a work like The Marketplace of Ideas might just help shape the conversation on the state of American higher education now and in the future, not only helping to make sense of an institution that’s not easily explained, but also contributing to the greater good by raising questions of how the system works and how it can work better.

“I’m a historian,” says Menand. “I don’t predict the future; I predict the present. My assumption is that the higher education system will continue to grow, that new constituencies will enter the system, and that the system will become more variegated. This has been the trend since the 1880s, and I don’t see any reason for it to stop.”

Topics: louis menand