In the four rigorously reasonable essays in “The Marketplace of Ideas,” Louis Menand takes up four questions about American higher education: “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 professors all tend to have the same politics?”
Menand, a professor of English at Harvard and a staff writer for The New Yorker, offers answers notable in part for what they don’t contain: namely, the complaint that it’s all been downhill since 1970 because of feminism, multiculturalism, postmodernism, deconstruction and queer theory. Yes, humanities enrollments have declined since 1970, as have enrollments in the social and natural sciences. But as Menand points out, that’s partly because departments of business administration and computer science have drawn students away from all fields in the liberal arts and sciences and partly because the decades following World War II were anomalous in the history of American higher education — a “Golden Age” of tremendous expansion, when the number of undergraduates increased fivefold and the number of graduate students ninefold. To assess the American university by starting from 1970 is to take the high- water mark as if it were the mean.
Menand’s discussion of general education starts on a wry note: “The process of designing a new general education curriculum and selling it to the faculty has been compared to a play by Samuel Beckett, but the comparison is inapt. Beckett’s plays are short.” One usually hears that general education courses are in a parlous state because hyperspecialized professors disdain teaching broad introductory courses. But the real story is more complicated.
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