When I entered York University in Toronto as an undergraduate in 1963, I could not have anticipated a better experience than would come my way over the following four years. Whatever contrasting visions, careerist intrigues and down-and-dirty academic politics might have been going on behind the scenes (and it turned out there were plenty), York outwardly professed to be a liberal arts college dedicated to what was called in the genderly incorrect language of the day, “the whole man.” For many of us (including women), it fulfilled its promise admirably.
At the time, York offered an education that would include at least an exposure to the major fields of intellectual adventure—the humanities, the social sciences and the natural sciences. A solid general education was required. Students were compelled to start their academic careers as generalists; what happened afterward was another matter. So, I studied history and philosophy, geography and sociology as well as physics, chemistry and astronomy. Only after a comprehensive initiation to the arts and sciences were we permitted to select our major fields of specialization. Although I had intended to major in English and minor in History, that prologue to professionalism was singular; it opened my eyes to other possibilities and my path changed. I opted to study political science, and I never regretted the switch. In time I would drift away from that discipline as well, but the grounding I had been afforded made postgraduate study possible not only in political science, but later in history, philosophy and sociology. York’s intent, of course, was not to produce dilettantes or happy wanderers. It was to ensure that what we now call academic silos did not suffocate the premature specialist. In that, it succeeded.
York’s ideal so impressed me that, when it was transported almost single-handedly to Seneca College through the efforts of Peter Spratt, my classmate at York and later my boss at the college, I believed wholeheartedly that we were on to something good and something important in the development of college education in Canada. Compromises were made since we worked with certain administrative restrictions, but the program was transferred in a form as close to the original as could be expected. After all, I thought, what could be better than generations of liberally educated and vocationally trained graduates, whose work skills combined with a measure of social and cultural awareness, a basic understanding of science and technology, communicative competence and a growing appreciation of themselves, work and the economy? It might not have been Harvard or MIT, but it was something in which we could take pride.
Even in colleges, among the core values expressed and defended in theory was academic freedom. It included the beliefs that no inquiry by students and teachers should be forbidden, no doctrine or dogma by any authority should be imposed, and whatever truth claims might be asserted in any field would prevail only by virtue of an appeal to argument and to evidence. I thought then, and I think today, that this was a lofty but also an attainable ideal. I am saddened, of course, that academic freedom was not affirmed in practice in the Ontario colleges until at least lip service had to be paid as the price for being permitted to award bachelor’s degrees. In the meantime, the ideal of general education had been diminished almost to the point of extinction not only at my college, but at others wherein the provincially mandated non-vocational portions of the curricula had never been taken seriously as a valid educational commitment.
Still, it is important that the old principles not be forgotten. Recollections of the past are required of us, partly because they continue to provide a standard against which we may compare ourselves today, and partly because we may one day be sufficiently embarrassed by what—whether through political hostility, careerist ambition, conscious deceit, malign neglect or simple lethargy—we have chosen or allowed ourselves to lose.
To understand the nature and depth of our deprival, it is useful to recall the origins of what, in North America at least, is commonly called a liberal education. The handprints of John Milton’s Areopagitica and John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, as well as the contributions of any number of luminaries from the European Enlightenment are all over the project. As well, the influence of the Scottish Enlightenment and the entire history of English liberalism are plain to see. So, too, are the effects of American pragmatism and progressivism in the persons of C. S. Pierce, John Dewey and William James. And Kant, of course, remains a formidable and fundamental presence, even if he is seldom explicitly discussed. Yet, for all that, this openly and increasingly modernist approach also gave due consideration to Plato and Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas, Machiavelli and Montesquieu, Rousseau and Hegel as well as to Darwin and Marx, Nietzsche and Freud, Camus and Sartre … well, the list goes on. Liberal education a half-century ago entailed respectful attention to conservatives and to radicals. It accepted traditional and contemporary ideas on the sole condition that every idea—old or new—should be rigorously tested before it is given tentative approval and that no dogma should stand in the face of contrary evidence and superior logic. It still does.
Louis Menand’s The Marketplace of Ideas affords an excellent introduction to the debates that must necessarily flow from the issues raised so far. It affirms the intellectual, moral and practical value of the liberal arts; yet, it is not sanguine, complacent or lacking in self-criticism. In fact, it worries a lot about the state of the arts. It is composed of four related essays that deal with four significant questions. Why is general education so difficult to implement today? Why have the humanities fallen into disrepute? Why are interdisciplinary studies so greatly encouraged? Why is there such uniformity in the political opinions of faculty?
Menand, of course, is certainly well placed to pose these questions with authority. He is a minor star in the American cultural night. This is no faint-praise damnation, for even to be noticed in the galaxy of American academic fireballs is an tremendous accomplishment. Menand writes erudite essays for The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books. He has racked up over thirty years teaching in the English Departments at Princeton, City University of New York and, for the past eight, at Harvard. He is the very model of a modern public intellectual.
Here are three things that Professor Menand thinks are the matter with liberal education: first, professors have become too “professional,” for they are self-regarding, unaccountable and privileged; second, professors have not displayed adequate imagination, for they talk to one another and not to the outside world; third, they are complacent, lethargic and progressively more boring, because they are all pretty much of one mind about most things. Ninety-five percent of all professors in the humanities and social sciences, he claims, voted for John Kerry in 2004; no one voted for George W. Bush. Even if this were true, I suspect that something of the reverse would apply in Business and Engineering schools, but that is mainly beside the point.
This litany of faults is a little hard to swallow. Louis Menand and I run in rather different social and professional circles, and so we are apt to see academic life from incongruous perspectives. Yet, I cannot help thinking that, if properly parsed and reworked into the speeches of a Rick Santorum, a Michele Bachmann, a Sarah Palin or a Rush Limbaugh, the meaning would be discomfitingly similar. The sanctimonious Mr. Santorum and the obscene Mr. Limbaugh also claim that elite liberal intellectuals are out-of-touch, snobbish and uniformly committed to left-wing points of view. The difference may be that Professor Menand sees a problem and longs to solve it; the others see a cancer and wish to destroy it. The diagnoses, however, are disconcertingly similar.
According to Gideon Lewis-Kraus, writing in Slate Magazine, Professor Menand is a “dialectical thinker” who has inherited the mantle of Lionel Trilling and, more recently, Richard Rorty.1 He offers a diagnosis rather than a cure. Menand thinks that the liberal arts in the universities have based themselves on the old Guild System. If this is so, then Menand is limiting himself to a very small proportion of the postsecondary experience. A more apt comparison is surely to the industrial system at a time when Taylorism (scientific management, time-and-motion studies and the systematic deskilling of the workforce is well underway). It is, for example, common for both colleges and universities to turn over as much as 75% or more of their actual teaching assignments to graduate teaching assistants and contract or adjunct faculty. This is not a Guild System, it is the proletarianization of the teaching class. Meanwhile, I suppose, if roughnecks from Oklahoma or Wyoming regard Menand and his intimates “elitists” and “snobs,” they pretty much have it right, but they are a small pocket of traditional privilege in an educational system that is following the corporate business model. And even this is not the end of it.Menand is bothered by the appearance of insularity. He finds it disconcerting that it takes nearly a decade to complete a Ph.D. in the humanities—much longer than is needed to plant, grow and harvest a civil engineer, a lawyer, a dentist or a doctor. In addition, during that dismal decade, it seems that the majority of doctoral candidates drop out. The current joke seems to be that graduate schools in the humanities are in business to crank out ABDs (doctoral students who have completed their requirements “all but dissertation.”) What can they be doing all that time except, of course, providing cheap labour to universities eager to reduce their tenured faculties and allow the remainder plenty of time for research, sabbaticals and the like? Menand would like to speed up the process and reduce the doctoral attrition rate. Meanwhile, he laments that “the academic profession is not reproducing itself so much as cloning itself.” What is needed is comprehensive institutional reform. Though he is a little vague on the details, he is convinced that things need to be shaken up!
The universities, Menand insists, need to pay attention to the outside world. Professors need to be “relevant.” They cannot last forever in “ivory towers,” keeping to themselves and chattering amiably about arcane subjects that cannot be understood even by the intelligent laity. He does not, of course, come out completely for vocational education and the transformation of higher education into job training. That would cost him his membership in the Harvard Club for sure. In fact, he rehearses many of the traditional defenses of a liberal education. It should be in business (so to speak) in support of democracy. This means that it must be diligent in defence of academic freedom in order to foster political freedom in the polity. It should uphold and upgrade public culture, which means there must be a little elitism to separate it from an episode of “The Simpsons.” Popular culture studies may be acceptable, but studies should not be part of popular culture. It may even be provocative and impress upon the people the need to debate freely the issues of the day. This may involve speaking a little truth to power, but it is more concerned with raising the general level of political discourse on matters of public policy including education, health care, economic equity, human rights and so on. So, in the end, we get the impression that the perpetual crisis in liberal education and the evident ills of liberal democracy can be kicked a little further down the road. This would mean, however, that the universities would have to produce not just run-of-the-mill English professors with their noses in dusty old texts, but a slew of “public intellectuals,” capable of keeping up with their academic specialties, but also being prepared to appear on public affairs broadcasts and, of course, writing erudite articles for publication in The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books.
Professor Menand, by the way, is also an intellectual historian and a keen observer of the evolution of educational institutions. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his book The Metaphysical Club, an account of a few very famous men and their very pragmatic ideas as they redefined the university, particularly in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.2 He refrains from saying much that is specific about just how the cobwebs are to be cleared and the rot is to be removed from contemporary higher education, but he is convinced that the university is in need of reform, rejuvenation and renewal. He is serious about it, because not only did he write this book, but he has summarized it in articles for upscale magazines well known to senior business executives. It has also come to the attention of the National Review, which commented that Menand’s tome was “laced with uneasiness but comes to no firm conclusions.” Thus informed, it is not impossible that the non-academic elite will be called upon—presumably through service on a “blue-chip” national committee. It will be able to allay Professor Menand’s worries and come up with a policy paper and a plan to whip the academy into shape. In any event, it appears that the main burden will, as usual, be born by outstanding leaders who will have the authority and the charisma to compel and to persuade those reluctant professors to energize themselves and get with the program—whatever that program might turn out to be. My guess is, however, that such a committee will not include former Harvard president Larry Summers, who is too busy sorting out the economy.
I wish Professor Menand and his kind well. Their hearts are certainly in the right place. Professor Menard’s commitment to education and to American democracy is entirely sincere. His scholarly record is is unblemished. And, he writes very erudite articles for The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books. My only problem is that I don’t quite know what edge of the known universe he inhabits. Now, it is obvious that Professor Menand is a credit to his class, his community and his creative energies. He is surely a credit to Harvard University. He is immensely knowledgeable and filled with the very best of intentions.
So far, so good. That he is part of the elite of the elite, the crème-de-la-crème is obvious, and so is the difference between him and teachers in second-tier universities, third-tier universities, and all manner of three-year colleges, junior colleges, community colleges and ancillary institutes of one sort or another is not in dispute, The life he lives is a yawning gap away from most postsecondary educators, and so the problems he faces and the solutions he seeks are certainly different from those of the vast majority of the readers of this journal. What’s more, Menand makes no claim to speak either to or for the masses. As Dean Dad acknowledged in Inside Higher Education, Professor Menand inhabits not just Harvard but, at “the rarefied level of elite graduate institutions, community colleges are mentioned only in passing, and mostly as afterthoughts.”3
What troubles me is not the discontinuity of interests, nor any envy I might have stored up against someone so well-placed (and deservedly so); instead, I worry about Professor Menard’s entry point into the analysis of education. He carries with him the aura of Lionel Trilling to be sure, though I sense more of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., than Richard Rorty. What’s missing is the material basis for the life of the mind he describes.
Menand’s emphasis on powerful and independent ideas and on the great men who ushered them into the cultural conversation and put them in practice in exalted institutions betokens his liberal faith—not the faith in liberal education which is admirable, but the belief that the marketplace of ideas is built on the same structure and functions according to the same rules as the marketplace of other commodities. As long as educational institutions, from the mightiest of America’s wealthiest and most privileged to the lowliest cattle college in the beyond of beyond, are fashioned according to democratic principles, pragmatic responses to demographic, economic and technological changes will flow more or less naturally. In that case, nothing extraordinary need be done. It is enough that intelligent people to speak intelligently and honestly to one another in order for solutions to social problems including education to be found.
The world, however, does not work that way. There are two problems with Menand’s approach. First, just as the economy is susceptible to the concentration of wealth in massive corporations that drive out competition, so also is the free marketplace of ideas open to distortion and abuse when diversity is crushed under the weight of an hegemonic ideology. Menand seems to think that this dominant ideology, as far as the universities are concerned, adheres to the politics of the “center-left.” The trouble is that the dominance of ideas that are “liberal” by American standards is, at best, the frosting on a “neoliberal” cake. A soupçon of fashionable liberalism may be served up at the Harvard Faculty Club, but the guest list is limited and the guest speakers will surely fall in the tradition of McGeorge Bundy, Henry Kissinger, ex-Canadian Liberal Party leader Michael Ignatieff (who wrote of the legitimacy of torture from his office in the Kennedy School of Government) and, of course, the aforementioned Mr. Summers whose policies were implicated in the Wall Street debacle of 2008 and who was returned to Washington by President Obama to fix the mess he had helped to make (taking time to insult women seeking an education in mathematics and physics along the way).
None of this is to denigrate the great liberal conversation. It is splendid. It informs and enlightens callow undergraduates. It encourages the creation of a civil polity and it permits the greatest of opportunities for individuals to explore themselves and their world. That is why I was so pleased to receive a genuinely liberal education as an undergraduate and so committed to helping to reproduce that experience in a college setting. Unfortunately, the original program at York University has long since been transformed, and not for the better. The subsequent iteration at Seneca College has been cut back to about one-third of the original commitment and any pretence at supplying a comprehensive general education has been jettisoned. Liberal education has not yet been completely abandoned, but it has largely been integrated into a market-driven vocationalism that lacks a coherent purpose.
Shortly before I arrived and shortly after he resigned on principle from York University on a matter of principle (I did mention that some unseemly things were going on behind the scenes, didn’t I?) Canada’s beloved conservative philosopher George Grant claimed that the curriculum is the “soul” of the university. I doubt if the conservative Christian Platonist Grant would have thought much of Menand’s notion of the curricular soul, but I believe he would have admitted that at least Menand had such a concept. He would have acknowledged that Menand has something of enduring value that he wants to defend. I wish him well and I wish him luck. I fear, however, that higher education, whether at Harvard on in the trenches is in serious danger of losing its soul. College education is more akin to robotics. It is instrumental, utilitarian and pragmatic to a fault, which is to say it is market-driven and therefore devoid of principle.
It is not impossible that an active democracy and a socially responsible private economy can make something of liberal pluralism, equity and human rights, and authentic opportunities for ever greater numbers of people to share in prosperity and personal development. Corporate capitalism, however, is annoyed by active democracy and is uninterested in social responsibility unless it suddenly turns a profit. To expect a genuinely liberal education to thrive in such an environment is ever-so-slightly delusional; for it to survive will be triumph enough.
1. Gideon Lewis-Kraus, “The Opening of the Academic Mind: How to Rescue the Professoriate from Professionalization,” available at http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/books/2010/01/the_opening_of_the_academic_mind.html
2. Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America (New York: Farar, Strays and Giroux, 2001.
3. Dean Dad, “Thoughts on Louis Menand’s ‘A Marketplace of Ideas,” available at http://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/confessions_of_a_community_college_dean (February 8, 2010).
Howard A. Doughty, teaches at Seneca College in Toronto. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org