The state of higher education in America is one of those things, like the airline industry or publishing, that's always in crisis. The academy is too distant from the concerns of everyday life, or else it's too politically engaged. The academy has become completely irrelevant, except for the fact that it's too relevant. We ought to be grateful to our universities for this. Academic wrongheadedness is one of the few things people across the political and cultural spectrum can agree upon.
One popular way of describing the failure of the contemporary academy is to complain that it no longer produces special things called "public intellectuals," so it is either a great relief or a rule-proving exception to read a blazingly sane take on the academy's troubles by one of the few professors who pretty safely deserves the term. Louis Menand's The Marketplace of Ideas manages to do many things in four short essays—describe the changing self-conception of the university, identify the difficulties behind curricular reform, and analyze the anxieties of humanities professors. But the book's chief accomplishment is its insistence that what we take for academic crises are probably just academic problems, and they are ours to solve.
Menand is a dialectical thinker. He has inherited the wry historical sensibility that runs from William James and John Dewey through Lionel Trilling and Menand's strongest recent antecedent, Richard Rorty. This is to say that he understands that most new problems were once solutions to old problems. His new book suggests that contemporary higher education's biggest problem is professionalization. The academic department has become a guild, and, like any self-regulating bureaucracy, its errand is to replicate itself. To draw on an example close to Menand, who is both a member of Harvard's English department and an unfailingly interesting cultural critic at The New Yorker, the result is that "the university literature department is not especially well suited to the business of producing either interesting literary criticism or interesting literary critics." What it does well, of course, is produce good literature professors.
And this is precisely the issue: Professors, the people most visibly responsible for the creation of new ideas, have, over the last century, become all too consummate professionals, initiates in a system committed to its own protection and perpetuation. Professors worry that any general-education requirements, any attempt to make a college education seem relevant in a specific way, will be too "presentist" or "instrumentalist." They have been taught to think of their own work, which is accountable only to the internal standards of their profession, as something pure, something unrelated to the messy business of the world. But this belief itself was only ever dreamed up as a solution to different problems, and once we understand it as a matter of historical contingency, we shall presumably be better able to deal with its consequences.
In the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, the American college faced several obstacles. It was still largely in thrall to theological obligations, and scientists had to contort themselves to seem religiously legitimate. It was also watching its student base disappear to the newly emergent professional schools. The man responsible for the sweeping institutional reform that created the modern research university was Harvard President Charles William Eliot—"the greatest professionalizer in the history of higher education," Menand calls him in his Pulitzer Prize-winning intellectual history of pragmatist thought, The Metaphysical Club.
In the course of his 40-year tenure starting in 1869, Menand explains, Eliot became "identified with almost everything that distinguishes the modern research university from the antebellum college: the abandonment of the role of in loco parentis; the abolition of required coursework; the introduction of the elective system for undergraduates; the establishment of graduate schools with doctoral programs in the arts and sciences; and the emergence of pure and applied research as principal components of the university's mission." Eliot's most "original and revolutionary idea" was to require a college degree to enter professional school. This established the educational model that still obtains: liberalization first, then specialization. Universities assumed the role of credentializing professionals, and the professoriate was on the way to becoming a guild.
This transformation gave the professoriate a new autonomy, but at a price: If professors wanted academic freedom, insulation from the demands of the commercial marketplace, they had to start thinking of what they did in nonvocational terms—as the pursuit of specialized knowledge for its own sake. This self-conception helps to explain why the attempt to construct a general-education curriculum has been so fraught. General-education requirements are designed with the idea that there are some nonnegotiable ends to a college education—to provide, for example, the "social glue" that bonds disparate Americans to one another, or to generate productive minds for the purposes of Cold War defense—but professors have been socialized to believe that what they do can't be reduced to something so vulgar and utilitarian.