The recent announcement of funding cuts by the Labour government has focused attention, yet again, on teaching in British universities. Should teaching be primarily utilitarian with a demonstrated relevance for the economy, or should it include recondite and esoteric subjects that have no apparent practical purpose? It is impossible, after all, for even the wealthiest university to teach everything. How, and on what grounds, is the choice to be made?
Louis Menand, in The Marketplace of Ideas, has written with insight on the problems and conundrums besetting American universities. His discursive essay focuses exclusively on the US, but his conclusions apply to higher education elsewhere. The character and content of learning, the organisational structure of the university, the dominance and tenacity of disciplines and departments, the slow pace of internal reform within educational institutions, and the vulnerability of universities to political assault - such topics self-evidently apply to colleges and universities everywhere.
From a British perspective, the US university seems paradisiacal. The top American colleges - a group that includes the eight Ivy League universities, along with a dozen or so equally prestigious institutions - possess multibillion-dollar endowments, gorgeous campuses, enormous libraries, well-equipped classrooms and lecture halls, small class sizes, and, for the professoriate, generous salaries and ample research leave. But a focus on the elite institutions is misleading: there are, after all, approximately 3,000 reputable universities in the US, a congeries that includes as much diversity as one could imagine.
Many colleges trace their origins to a religious impulse; others are determinedly secular. Some are small private colleges that teach only the liberal arts; others are large state universities that include professional schools for medicine, law, engineering and business. A significant number - "historically black colleges and universities" - appeared in response to the exclusion of African-Americans during the era of segregation and still possess student constituencies that are overwhelmingly black. Some colleges offer degrees in circumscribed areas of study - dentistry, say, or criminal justice, or the law - while others attempt to encompass all fields of knowledge. Most pertinently, many colleges struggle financially, relying precariously on an uncertain combination of student fees and tiny endowments, while others luxuriate in generous funding from state legislatures and wealthy alumni.
A university degree is perceived as a prerequisite for meaningful employment and, as a consequence, the university has an unrivalled status and importance within US society. And yet, paradoxically, it seems under constant attack for one reason or another. The professoriate is an elitist clique, according to critics, that prohibits legitimate external oversight and indoctrinates students with a radical philosophy; tuition fees increase exorbitantly; sports such as football and basketball corrupt the academic mission; and esoteric subjects with no practical purpose consume resources that would be better expended elsewhere.
Menand's analysis contains much wisdom on the character of higher education and his remarks on the content of university teaching seem especially perceptive. Students at US universities are free to choose their courses (electives) until the end of the second year, when they focus on a major subject. They must also take general education courses in a mandatory programme.
At Columbia University, for example, all first-year students take a course in the history of moral and political thought and a survey course of Western literature. The University of Pennsylvania, another member of the Ivy League, requires students to choose from a series of foundational courses that teach methods of learning, and from courses that ensure breadth of knowledge.
Such programmes are laudable in their intent but are both contentious and notoriously difficult to implement. Is their purpose to transmit a shared cultural heritage, to prepare students for life after graduation, to teach students how to learn or to inculcate civic values? Universities recruit their faculty to teach specialised areas of knowledge; and faculty organise themselves in distinct disciplinary departments - how, therefore, can the faculty be expected to teach general courses?
Nowhere, according to Menand, is the crisis in the humanities expressed so acutely as in the obsession with interdisciplinarity. The creation of academic disciplines was part of the move toward professionalisation during the decades around the turn of the last century. Each academic discipline has created an educational requirement - the doctoral degree - for entry; and each discipline has established itself as autonomous and free from external control. Disciplines, as a way of organising knowledge, are necessary parts of the university structure that serve a useful and valuable purpose.
Yet, nevertheless, the appeal for interdisciplinarity is ubiquitous and unceasing. Interdisciplinarity has become a shibboleth; its alleged value as a novel and better method of organising scholarship goes unexamined and unchallenged. Talk about interdisciplinarity, as Menand demonstrates so brilliantly in his essay, is more the rhetorical expression of an inner anxiety felt by the professoriate about its ambiguous social position than it is a realistic, feasible method of advancing knowledge. University administrators favour it because it provides them with a rationale for the diminution or abolition of individual departments; but its effect in the university context is otherwise nugatory.
Despite its privileged position, the professoriate in the US always seems vulnerable to assault either from politicians anxious to cut expenditure on education, or from media demagogues eager to characterise the outlandish sayings of some eccentric professor as representative of the whole.
Universities are radical enclaves, the story goes, with teachers who indoctrinate students with subversive beliefs. Professors are admittedly more liberal than the general population but, Menand speculates, this is more a consequence of the inordinate length of time required to obtain the doctorate, now a necessary credential for the university teacher, as compared with the relatively short time needed to obtain either a law or business degree. The increased length of time required for a PhD - approximately 10 years - has done nothing to reduce the supply of qualified applicants for teaching jobs, and because there are so few tenure-track positions, universities now rely more and more on part-time faculty who earn little and receive few benefits such as, say, pension rights.
The Marketplace of Ideas is a complex, intricate and fascinating book that distils great insight and analysis in a comparatively brief space. The controversies and difficulties within the American University system have so far resisted solution and, one suspects, they may be with us for many more decades to come. And despite the problems so cogently expressed in Menand's book, one is left with the impression that universities, despite occasional setbacks and reverses, are healthy and vital institutions that serve society enormously well.
Louis Menand is Robert M. and Anne T. Bass professor of English and American literature and language at Harvard University.
Although both his parents were academics, his career was not a given. "I struggled against it!" he says. "Because it was what my parents did, it made me not want to do it."
He dropped out of law school and followed his love of literature, which led to a PhD in the subject at Columbia. He went on to teach at Princeton and the City University of New York before joining Harvard in 2003.
Menand is well known as a journalistic writer but he doesn't tailor his style to different audiences: "I happen to write in a way that's just commercial enough for magazines to buy it and just scholarly enough for me to make it as a professor."
In his free time, he enjoys visiting California. "I love getting off the plane and the feeling of the air. It's like a natural anti-anxiety drug."
The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University
By Louis Menand
W.W. Norton, 174pp, £17.99
Published 19 February 2010