Max Novendstern: I thought I’d start with the title of your book, “The Marketplace of Ideas.” I read your title as a sort of exhortation – that the university should be more engaged with the ideas, the institutions, the people that make up the “marketplace” beyond its walls, on the “outside.” Is that right?
Louis Menand: That’s a good explanation of the title. Most of the essays in the book deal with a certain frustration that professors feel about the relevance of their teaching and scholarship. We all think that what we teach and write about is relevant and we want it to make a difference to students and to people out there in the world. But we’re impeded by the nature of the institution in which we were trained and in which we do our work. The book is an effort to explain why the institution evolved in this way.
MN: It seems that your career is a counter-example to some of the claims you make in the book. You say that professors envy those who “battle with the forces of the market.” But as a writer for the New Yorker, you’ve been able to do battle with those forces, no?
LM: I’ve been able to write for a larger audience than most academics do. But there’s a lot of important scholarship that doesn’t reach an audience outside of the academy, either because it’s theoretically difficult, methodologically difficult, ontologically difficult, or, sometimes, because people don’t want to hear it. I think this can be frustrating. I wasn’t thinking about myself when I wrote those words. I was thinking about the university as a whole.
MN: What would be an example of someone who brings his or her scholarship to bear on the world outside of the university? Is that what the “public intellectual” category denotes?
LM: That’s one form it can take. Public intellectuals are people who do have some message that they want to convey to the public beyond their peers at the university, and so they find venues for doing that. I think that’s a good thing. But I don’t think everyone needs to be a public intellectual. I do think all of us, at some level, want to feel that the work that we do, in the form that we’re doing it, makes a difference, even if it’s just to our students, not to a bigger readership.
MN: So what form should that take?
LM: My book isn’t really big on recommendations. My general feeling is that if you want professors to do things differently from the way they do them, you have to train them differently, which would mean having graduate education different from the form it takes now. That would be the key area for reform. Right now we’re training people in a very intensive and time-consuming process to be specialists. And then after we’ve given them their credentials and their jobs we’re asking them to do all kinds of things that transcend specialization. But we haven’t trained them to do that, and we don’t reward them for doing that either. We create specialists and we reward specialization. If we value other things, like general education and interdisciplinarity, then we should be training people to do them. But we’re not really doing that.
We create specialists and we reward specialization. If we value other things, like general education and interdisciplinarity, then we should be training people to do them. But we’re not really doing that.
MN: That to me was one of the most biting aspects of the book. You pointed out that the “less social authority a professor enjoys, the more restrictive the barriers to entry are.”
You pointed out that if you want to argue in front of the Supreme Court you need to go to Law School for three years; if you want to do open heart surgery you need to go to Medical School for four years; but if you want to produce scholarship in the English Department you need to go through a nine year program.
LM: There’s a piece in the Times this Sunday stating that it now takes 9.3 years to get a doctorate in the humanities. This issue of time-to-degree has been around for the last fifteen or twenty years, but it’s become very pressing recently because the time to get the degree is getting longer and the number of jobs available relative to the number of degrees awarded is shrinking. Everyone is becoming aware that the situation is crazy. From my point of view, the main reason it’s crazy is that you don’t want intelligent college students taking one look at this profession and saying, “Later for that. I can’t afford to take the risk.” You want to make your profession attractive to intelligent people to get into or you’re going to die.
MN: So if I were a student interested in engaging with ideas – at a high academic level, let’s say – what would you recommend to me right now?
LM: I would have a hard time recommending that you get a degree in the humanities. Not only would it take on average 9 plus years, but the prospects of getting a good job are small. And that’s just not a good state for a profession to be in.
I would have a hard time recommending that you get a degree in the humanities.
MN: In your book you explain that general education was first justified as an attempt to make education more “worldly,” that a school should make good citizens. Is that still the justification for general education programs?
LM: It’s the justification for the new general education program, at Harvard. What happens when general education programs are created is that the faculty looks at the education they’re giving their undergraduates and they ask, “Is there anything in this education that assures us that students will be educated in way that will make them better citizens when they leave?” If the students are just cherry picking their courses and majoring in an academic discipline, there’s no guarantee that they are going to be learning stuff that they need to know to function effectively in the world. General education traditionally has been – there are exceptions, obviously, but traditionally – has been a way of teaching students in a way that helps them prepare for life after college. That’s the Gen Ed piece of the curriculum, and it’s what the new general education program is all about.
MN: It seems that Harvard in particular – and this is really just anecdotal – that Harvard in particular takes very seriously the idea that students should be able to engage with the world “outside” the university when they graduate. Student here learn to read, to care about – maybe to write for – publications like The New York Times. Is that something that defines Harvard?
LM: Yes. It’s part of the DNA of Harvard. I think students think in terms of careers and public leadership roles after college. It may even be that we tend to admit students who are like that to begin with. But it’s certainly a part of the culture at Harvard, and it may not be a part of the culture of other universities.
MN: Do you think that comes at a cost for Harvard? I mean, do we lose anything…?
LM: No. There are other places you can go to college. I think it’s something that we feel we do well. We train people for leadership roles.
Do you think that comes at a cost for Harvard? No. I think it’s something that we feel we do well. We train people for leadership roles.
MN: Something that struck me when I first got here was that most Harvard students aren’t here to become future professors. They have other things in mind. And yet one thing that professors do very well is train you and judge you by the standard of whether you’re going to be a good future professor.
So we have this tension. And it makes day-to-day life a little bizarre: I’m around all these people who are doing these exciting, unrelated things, and most of them have nothing to do with the classroom – with the one thing that ostensibly unites us, the thing all these professors are here for. What are your thoughts on this Professor?
LM: I think this is also particular to Harvard. The General Education reform was a part of a general review of the whole college experience that President Summers initiated. One of the concerns that faculty had was that students’ main interests are outside the yard. We wanted to feel that we were contributing in some way to issues that students cared about and activities they cared about in our teaching, and General Education was a way to do that.
MN: I told some of my friends that I was going to be interviewing you and I asked them to give me suggestions. Something that kept coming up – and this gets us a bit away from your book – was the point that the flip side of all this diversity is a loss of community, the loss of the sense that there is an undergraduate “class” at all.
I don’t know if you’re familiar with what Ross Douthat or Keith Gessen writes about the Harvard experience, but they both strike on this chord. Keith Gessen has said of Harvard: “I don’t think there was an idea of a humanistic education, of forming people.” Ross Douthat has said: “Harvard was easy because almost no one was pushing back.”
The idea being that because there are so many people doing so many different things here, that because everyone is so driven and diverse, you get the sense that there is no direction your four years here is supposed to take. You get the sense that there’s no common experience of being in this university, no project that the university has for, you know, “your soul.” Is that valid, do you think? Is that general to all universities these days?
LM: It’s not unique to here, but Harvard falls into the category of universities where that doesn’t happen.
MN: Is that just part of the bargain of going here?
LM: Yeah I think so. You couldn’t impose a great books curriculum like Columbia has on Harvard. There are two reasons for that. One practical reason for that is that Harvard’s too big. It’s much bigger than Columbia. You couldn’t find faculty who are competent to teach or who would want to teach a great-books-type course. You would have to have 1650 students a year going through that program. That wouldn’t be possible unless you gave it all to graduate students and that would sort of defeat the purpose.
The second thing though is this DNA issue. Harvard, even for undergraduates, is very much about specialization. Students come here and many of them don’t know what they want to do and a lot of them change their minds. But a lot of them do know that they want to do and they don’t want to (in their minds) waste time doing some required thing that’s not relevant to them. So the General Education curriculum is intended to ease people in to areas that they otherwise wouldn’t have explored, but it gives them a broad menu of choices to fulfill those requirements so they that don’t feel that they are being coerced.
Students apply to Columbia knowing they’re going to take the great-books requirements, so they’re already self-selected to do it. Students are self-selected to go to Harvard because they’ve got some big interest that they’re already interested in pursuing. The faculty is the same way. It’s just not a general education kind of place, in that sense. Those critiques are right. But students who want something different probably shouldn’t come to Harvard.
It’s just not a general education kind of place, in that sense. Those critiques are right. But students who want something different probably shouldn’t come to Harvard.
MN: Right, I suspected that you’d say that. I don’t know if you heard about or went to Harvard Thinks Big? A roommate of mine put it together. Part of his justification – a justification you allude to in your book – is the idea of examining ideas produced within departments by people outside of those departments. In this case, using Sanders Theater and then the internet to reach a wider audience that would serve as a standard to measure their ideas against.
My question then is: does the internet – and these tools that allow you to distribute information out of the university to mass audience more easily – are they a future for this sort of “more worldly engagement”?
LM: It’s possible. I think in general if you asked President Faust and other educational leaders what the future of the university will be like, they would say it’s going to get bigger and broader and there’s going to be more access. Libraries are going to be more accessible to the public, and scholarship is going to be online. Presumably courses are going to be available online. And so I think the Ivory Tower model will be superseded.
The history of higher education is all about democratization. It’s about making it more and more available learning to more and more people. So I don’t see that stopping.
Presumably courses are going to be available online. And so I think the Ivory Tower model will be superseded. The history of higher education is all about democratization. It’s about making it more and more available learning to more and more people. So I don’t see that stopping.
MN: It seems to me that while the number and types of people who are admitted to Harvard has expanded, the barriers to getting in here, at the same time, have gotten higher. So we’re becoming less exclusive internally and more exclusive externally. Do you think the internet is something that can overcome that tension?
LM: There are these online universities like the University of Phoenix that do that kind of distance learning. They are very effective and I think they’re very important. But they serve a very different student from the typical liberal arts undergraduate. People want to go to residential college for four years, they want to take courses in classics and history and neurobiology and so on, and they don’t want to worry too much about what they’re going to do after they get out. That’s a privileged opportunity. There will always be many levels of ways to get a college education. But I think the Harvard kind of experience is still going to be very much in demand and hard to get into.
MN: So my final question: what if we look at the internet on the production side, not just the consumption side – as a way to help faculty not just students? I was recently talking to Professor James Kloppenberg [of the History Department] about Twitter. I said it could help him reach out to new people, and help him, you know, “engage with the marketplace of ideas.” I offered to set him up with an account at our next office hours. I’m not sure he bought it!
What about you, Professor Menand? Do you buy the case that social media and the internet can give new reach to our ideas? Do you have a Twitter account?
LM: I don’t. I am not a person who has an instant opinion about everything. I need to think about things first, so my tweets would arrive very, very late.