Thursday, January 21, 2010

Reform and Resistance in the University

Louis Menand, The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 2010) is an engaging new contribution to the ongoing debate about higher education, its future, and its status. In this book, Menand considers four challenging issues, namely, why it is hard to develop a general education curriculum; the crisis facing the humanities; the emergence of interdisciplinarity; and the reasons for the similar political positions held by university faculty. For someone in a professional school, Menand provides a lot of interesting contextual information about the development of professional education in the university. Menand notes, for example, “The rise of the modern university and the emergence of the modern academic disciplines were part of the same phenomenon: the professionalization of occupation. Professionalization means two things: credentialization and specialization” (pp. 100-101). Menand also writes with insight about interesting historical trends, such as the shrinking of liberal arts in the university, the shift from teaching to research as the model for the professor, and fashionable ideas about interdisciplinarity; about the latter, he argues, “interdisciplinarity is not something different from disciplinarity. It is the ratification of the logic of disciplinarity. In practice, it actually tends to rigidify disciplinary paradigms” (p. 119). He also wrestles with one of my favorite topics, the preparation of future faculty: “People are taught . . . to become expert in a field of specialized study; and then, at the end of a long, expensive, and highly single-minded process of credentialization, they are asked to perform tasks for which they had no training whatsoever: to teach their fields to non-specialists, to connect what they teach to issues that students are likely to confront in the world outside the university, to be interdisciplinary, to write for a general audience, to justify their work to people outside their discipline and outside the academy. If we want professors to be better at these things, then we ought to train them differently” (pp. 157-158). This is why I teach a doctoral seminar about the role of faculty in professional schools in the modern research university (and, yes, next year, this will be a required reading in the course).

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