Friday, November 6, 2009

Louis Menand on the Marketplace of Ideas

Posted by Jeff Lipshaw

I've just pre-ordered a copy of Louis Menand's new book The Marketplace of Ideas, part of the "Issues of our Time" series edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., based on the taste I got from the excerpt in the November-December 2009 issue of Harvard Magazine (the alumni journal - I am not an alum, but I am married to one, and it keeps me humble - she left the article lying on my deskImages ).  Menand is the Bass professor of English at Harvard, and the author of the thoroughly engaging intellectual history The Metaphysical Club, about the Boston "reading group" consisting of Charles Sanders Peirce, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., William James, etc.  The excerpt is about the "Ph.D." problem in the humanities, and does this sound familiar on the subject of legal academics, primarily motivated by their scholarship, teaching professionals-to-be who could care less about those arcanities?

Doctoral education is the horse that the university is riding to the mall. People are taught—more accurately, people are socialized, since the process selects for other attributes in addition to scholarly ability—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 have 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.

And on the subject of intellectual regeneration and foment:

The academic profession in some areas is not reproducing itself so much as cloning itself. If it were easier and cheaper to get in and out of the doctoral motel, the disciplines would have a chance to get oxygenated by people who are much less invested in their paradigms. And the gap between inside and outside academia, which is partly created by the self-sorting, increases the hostility of the non-academic world toward what goes on in university departments, especially in the humanities.

The wonderful irony here is that one of the suggestions is that getting a Ph.D. be more akin to getting a J.D., with the requirement of passage not a pre-publication dissertation, but a peer-reviewed article! Which, of course, is exactly the opposite of the direction often advocated for legal academics!

In any case, food for thought!

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