Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Thoughts on Louis Menand's A Marketplace of Ideas

I read Menand's new book on the kindle app on my ipod touch, which means that I don't have page numbers for references. The good folks at Amazon are invited to find a way for those of us who like to cite sources to do that.

I've been a fan of Menand's for a while. The Metaphysical Club is a fantastic (and readable!) bit of intellectual history, especially for its portrait of William James. Menand has the rare ability to boil complexity down to readability without flattening out the nuances in the process, and heaven knows he does his homework. When I heard that he had a book coming out addressing higher ed, I was excited at the prospect.

It wouldn't be entirely fair to call A Marketplace of Ideas disappointing, since the expectations I brought to it aren't its fault. Menand admits at the outset that the questions he addresses are salient mostly at the rarified level of elite graduate institutions; community colleges are mentioned only in passing, and mostly as afterthoughts. Given the perspective from which he writes, the analyses strike me as sane and grounded, but they mostly aren't the questions I would have asked. For example, he devotes a chapter to the battles over defining general education, focusing mostly on Columbia vs. Harvard. Well, okay, but that's not really my world. At my cc, we define general education mostly by transfer requirements. Lively questions around Gen Ed here have mostly to do with developmental needs, outcomes assessment, and how to offer non-standardized experiences (i.e. freshman seminars) when transfer agreements are written around checklists of traditional disciplines. Jacques Barzun has nothing to do with it.

That said, Menand's book offers some useful food for thought, even if it has to be rearranged a bit on the plate.

A few of his basic facts tell a good bit of the story. From 1945 to 1975, the number of undergraduate students in the US went up 500 percent, but the number of graduate students went up 900 percent. Since then, growth of undergrads has slowed dramatically, but graduate students just keep increasing. Menand pointed out that from 1989 to 1996, the number of graduate students in most liberal arts disciplines increased steadily, even as the number of undergrads nationally declined every year. As he correctly put it, by the 90's "the supply curve had completely lost touch with the demand curve in American academic life." That's because the incentives for individual universities are skewed in favor of producing as many ABD's as possible, whether there are full-time jobs out there for them or not. As one would expect from incentives like that, the time-to-completion figures in the liberal arts fields keep getting longer, even as the market utility of the degree continues to drop. In Menand's estimation, the predictable consequence of these conflicting trends is that all but the truest believers are screened out, and those who remain are neurotically attached to the status quo, despite its obvious unsustainability.

Oddly, though, his proposed solution is to make Ph.D.'s much easier (and faster) to achieve. By setting degree completion at a determinate length, like the three years of law school, he hopes to open up the doctorate to people who currently self-select out. The upside would be a greater likelihood of diverse approaches to scholarship. Why an already-flooded market would benefit from an even greater influx, though, is not entirely clear. Given that the liberal arts Ph.D. is largely unrecognized as an asset outside of academia, and given that the supply curve left the demand curve in the dust decades ago, one would expect that increasing the supply would be the last thing you'd want to do. My best guess at an interpretation is that Menand considers groupthink a greater problem than unemployment. I suspect that solving the unemployment problem would also solve most of the groupthink problem. History will decide.

Given Menand's well-deserved prominence, I hoped he would have used the opportunity to address the root causes of the crisis of higher ed. He gestured towards some of them with his discussions of demographics and the anomalous growth rates of the 1960's, but simply didn't address the productivity trap of measuring learning in units of seat time. He also left out most of the competing demands for public dollars, and offered only a glancing gesture at the political climate of the last thirty years. Dispiritingly, he attributed much of the economic problem to more students majoring in business. At the cc level, at least, that's mostly irrelevant; even business majors have to take gen ed classes. The real story is the farming out of the gen eds to adjuncts, which is made possible by the overproduction of ABD's and Ph.D.'s. Supply and demand curves have a funny way of finding equilibria, even if they aren't where we wish they were.

I'll give Menand credit for his usual readability, and for an unusual level of self-awareness. As advertised, his book gives an elite-faculty-eye view of the trajectory of the liberal arts in America. It just could have been so much more.