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Book Review

The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University

Louis Menand, author of the Pulitzer Prize winning The Metaphysical
Club: A Story of Ideas in America, believes the American university
system is very much antiquated. Menand introduces us to the
philosophical and historical ideas that created the university in the
nineteenth century and traces what he sees as their often lethargic
development over the last two centuries.

He writes, “The American university … has changed very little
structurally since the time of the First World War. It has changed in many
other ways—demographically, intellectually, financially, technologically,
and in terms of its missions, its stakeholders, and its scale—and these
changes have affected the substance of teaching and research. But the
system is still a late nineteenth-century system, put into place for late
nineteenth-century reasons.”

After tracing the evolution of the university, Menand examines what he
believes is wrong—be it the lectures that fail to engage students, the
political correctness of the faculty, or the fact that professional schools
do not adequately prepare students for their actual careers. He examines
an American university system in which the requirements to get a degree
have been continuously dropping and students graduate without a broad
liberal education like their European counterparts.

Menand, who was involved for three years in the development of a new
general education curriculum at Harvard, suggests that students are
reading the wrong books and being offered courses that are far too
narrow and only appeal to the hyper-specialization of the professors,
most of whom refuse to speak across their academic disciplines. The
universities, Menand urges, must adapt to better serve their rapidly
changing student bodies and to take advantage of the new ways
knowledge is produced and disseminated. He proposes reforms and shows
the benefits that he believes will come with them.