Sometimes it’s refreshingly difficult to tell where a writer is coming from; sometimes it’s maddening; other times, it makes you wonder if the writer is trying to be deceptive or, alternately, is just too clever by half. I alternated between the last two thoughts reading a recent review of the Harvard professor Louis Menand’s recent book of essays, “The Marketplace of Ideas” (“The Opening of the American Mind“). I still can’t tell if I should feel deceived…
It’s hard to disagree with the idea that a kind of low-minded professionalism has crippled U.S. higher education. We surely suffer from a profoundly self-centered institutional culture that’s sharply protective of its own material interests. I think everyone in academia has personal experiences with this phenomena. I knew a professor who hated the faculty union’s egalitarianism. Since he was the most famous person in the department, he would say, he should be better paid.
More broadly, this political short sightedness is reflected in the gulf that separates the super privileged in the richest institutions and the rest of the system. The concentration of financial and social capital at the top of the U.S. educational hierarchy– from kindergarten to graduate school– would make the most powerful corporate oligarch blush. Economic crisis seems to have only acerbated these problems. Regressive policies– from tuition hikes to furloughs– are the order of the day.
Given this conservatism, it’s hard to imagine what Menand means when he claims that the academy is liberal because, “95 percent of humanities and social-science professors voted for Kerry; zero percent voted for Bush.” Is this really a good measure of cultural or political diversity? Could it be, instead, that Bush’s often explicit anti-intellectual ethos alienated a lot of teachers? Whatever the merits of Menand’s ideas, if he sticks to this one, he’s lost my vote.