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  • The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University by Louis Menand
  • Jan Arminio
The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University
Louis Menand
New York, NY: W.W. Norton Company, 2010, 174 pages, $13.60 (softcover)

A book in the Issues of Our Time series edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Louis Menand’s The Marketplace of Ideas prompts considerable food for thought. A faculty member at Harvard, offering a big-picture view of higher education, Menand connects to the historical roots of higher education to analyze four issues. He examines the reasons for the (a) lack of reform in general education, (b) growth of critical studies (e.g., Women’s Studies, cultural studies, gay and lesbian studies, and postcolonial studies), (c) excitement about interdisciplinary studies, and (d) homogeneity of faculty political attitudes. Each chapter is an essay devoted to these issues in which Menand explores new perspectives on old problems. Why might student affairs professionals be interested in these seemingly purely academic issues? As campuses continue to wrestle with reforms called for from stakeholders, it behooves student affairs professionals to understand the complex nature of these issues and to participate in their continual examination.

One means of holding higher education accountable to its stakeholders is job placement rates. In the first chapter, Menand reminds his readers that the debate of what every person needs to know has been substantial following World War I. In general, higher education institutions adopted the curriculum of liberal arts first (i.e., general education) followed by professionalism (i.e., the major). General education answers the question of what it is that every person needs to know. This has been exemplified in two possible systems. The distribution system seeks breadth across social and natural sciences and the liberal arts. The second system, the core, initially established to socialize the children of immigrants, embraces the ideal of learning how to learn. A method of inquiry is the overarching learning goal. The great books programs are an example of a core system. In the context of business being the largest undergraduate major in the U.S., the reform of general education is stalled by fears that the liberal arts will be further “marginalized” by “the attraction of nonliberal alternatives” (p. 53). Menand’s exploration prompted me to wonder about the contemporary role of general education as careerism seeps into factors that determine a good institution. I wondered too how this will continue to influence the work of career counselors in student affairs.

In his second chapter, Menand reviews the impetus of the Golden Age of higher education (1945-1975) and the age that follows it (1976-current day). The Golden Age represents dramatic growth of higher education; its impetus being the Cold War and baby boomers going to college. Though the growth of higher education has been modest since the end of the Golden Age, what makes this current age remarkable to Menand is the transformation of who is being taught, how, and what. The breakdown of the homogeneity prompted what Menand calls the humanities revolution. As I write this, I am aware that I am a product of this breakdown. Those of us who took critical studies courses and who use qualitative research methodologies are also a part of this humanities [End Page 749] revolution. Menand argues that the Golden Age of higher education is an “anomaly” (p. 91). The age was an exception to all of the ages of American higher education. He urges educators to stop waiting for its return.

In the next chapter, Menand describes the interest in interdisciplinary programs to be a great “buzz factor” (p. 95). In detailing the buzz, he laments the philosophical underpinnings of professionalism and socialization within disciplines. He writes, “professionalization of everyone and everything is perfectly consistent with the demise of professional authority” (p. 117). Using the rationale that complex problems need complex tools to solve them, interdisciplinary studies programs (at my institution this includes our higher education program) became a possible answer to the concern of graduates using only their discipline as a tool to solve every problem. But Menand astutely suggests that “interdisciplinarity is not something different...


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pp. 749-751
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