Broken Academia

Uni5 Louis Menand, writer for the New Yorker and Harvard professor, has a new book out, The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University (Issues of Our Time). Menand explains that academia is broken. It takes too long to create PhDs and the system produces too many of them for the small number of teaching slots. It produces a homogeneous professorate, which is increasingly detached from society. The chasm between the professor and the student has never been wider. 

Much of Menand's criticisms have been bouncing around the academic blogosphere for a long time. In the reviews of the book, I can't say that I was blown away by any of his conclusions. (Here are the reviews in The Economist and The New Republic.) Still, it's good to see the criticisms of academia put together in one book by such a skilled writer. Hopefully, it will expand the debate to a larger audience.


8 thoughts on “Broken Academia

  1. Hmm. “The gap between professor and student has never been wider.” I have not read the book nor the reviews, but I wonder how such a gap might be measured. With the popularity of student-centered learning, the increasing pedagogical training, the emphasis on student evaluations to assess teaching, and the growth in numbers of the contingent faculty that are judged by such numbers, I wonder if that gap is narrower than portrayed by Menand. It doesn’t seem logically to follow.
    But again, clearly this means I need to read more and not be so lazy in my anecdotal commenting.

  2. I wonder if that gap is narrower than portrayed by Menand.
    Maybe Menand is referring to the new sexual harassment policies?

  3. I’m a lazy blogger and haven’t read the book. Just listened to the commentary on NPR and read the reviews. This post was supposed to be more of “heads up” post, rather than a review.
    So, disclaimer in place, let me take a stab at this, Julie.
    I think Menand is primarily talking about humanities education, but I suppose his criticism could be applied to other subject areas. I think his point is that students are increasingly going to college for business or nursing or education, not history or English. They have to take classes in history or English, because of college requirements. They are looking for introductions to Shakespeare or overviews of American history, but they are getting professors who specialize in the agriculture of turnips in the East Anglia from 1721-1756. Professors are too specialized and over educated, and their students need something else. Also, professors are doing too much research, which doesn’t necessarily help out the students.
    I hope I didn’t butcher his ideas, but that’s what I’ve gotten from the commentary.

  4. I think his point is that students are increasingly going to college for business or nursing or education, not history or English
    I wonder how much of a change this is. It used to be that many people who went to college went to specialized teachers colleges, or that “A&M”s really were mostly focused on A and or M, that nurses got a two year degree (almost all need a 4 year now, many get an MS), etc. I’d be a bit surprised if the over-all composition had vastly changed. Rather, I suspect that where people do this sort of studying is what’s changed. I don’t know this, of course, but I’m disposed to be wary of cries of how things are not good like they were in the old days.

  5. But, it isn’t just the students and their field of study that has changed. The professors have changed in that more of them are expected to do research. And with more researchers, better developed fields, and a base of knowledge already more or less established, you get the specialization Laura is talking about. The advice I got in graduate school, and never managed to take, was to pick an area narrow enough that you can know more about it than anybody else.

  6. I thought Laura (and Menand) meant that professors are absurdly overtrained. You shouldn’t need people with a Ph.D to adequately teach survey of English Lit.

  7. To teach the top of the class, you’d need something more than an undergraduate degree in English. Plus, without some type of credential, you’d never get a good salary (not that the people who do most of that teaching get such a salary now). Maybe we should have a non-research equivalent of the Ph.D.? At the risk of self-promoting, I’d like to suggest the ABD.

  8. I have not read Menand’s latest book. But, I did read the Metaphysical Club and it is a very good intellectual history. So I think his ability to follow academic trends is pretty good. Like Laura I am basing my comments on Menand’s shorter writings on this subject and reviews of his book. The book is not available at my local bookstore here in Bishkek.
    One of Menand’s chief arguments appears to be that US Ph.Ds take too long to earn. He is absolutely right on this point. As mentioned in the Economist review you can do a Ph.D. in the UK just as good as any US degree in under four years. I did my doctorate at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London in two years. The extra years needed for a US degree do not substantially add to the quality of the education. In fact a good argument could be made that it detracts from it.
    Another of his points is that the material and skills needed to teach undergraduates are not the same as for writing a dissertation. That is people are trained to become specialists in a specific area and then expected to teach a lot of general courses. In some cases they end up teaching courses which are completely unrelated in anyway to their research. In other words why does a person need to spend nine years studying turnips in 18th C. E. Anglia to teach the freshman survey of modern British history? Menand argues that you do not.
    In earlier years there were more people doing grand historical works like Menand’s own The Metaphysical Club. Now research is a lot more narrow in focus. I think a return to doing broader and more comparative historical works would be a good thing. The type of work done by George Fredrickson or Barrington Moore come to mind as the type of comparative histories that we do not see enough of today in academia.

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