2016-11-28

Book Review: "The Marketplace of Ideas" by Louis Menand

The book that I have been able to read most recently is The Marketplace of Ideas by Louis Menand. The author generally discusses the current state of the liberal arts and humanities in higher education in a historical context, focusing on the tensions that have pervaded it for many decades, including the distinctions between the useful/practical versus learning for its own sake, disciplinarity versus interdisciplinarity, generally teaching the liberal arts to all students via a distribution versus core curriculum model, et cetera. The author further discusses how political issues have shaped academic discourse in the liberal arts, as well as how certain features of academia that are perceived to be new are actually logical extensions of features that were in place long ago, and vice versa. Overall, the author argues that much of academic work in the liberal arts, as it is conducted today, is structurally bound by how things were more than a century ago, even as the objects of study have themselves evolved quite a bit over that time.

Having completed my undergraduate education at a technical institution, I expected to see a bit more about the simultaneous evolution of science, engineering, and humanities curricula, given that the author does discuss the shifts in emphasis from teaching to research at major universities, and given the rather broad title and description of the book. Instead, the author admits fairly early on that because he is a history professor by training, his focus is almost exclusively on the liberal arts and humanities. That focus is understandable, yet I feel like by essentially ignoring simultaneous developments in science and engineering in academia, the discussion of the developments in the liberal arts and humanities in academia seems strangely divorced from the historical events surrounding those developments. Moreover, I feel that the author is somewhat siloed in his own view of disciplinarity versus interdisciplinarity in academia by focusing only on the liberal arts and humanities and ignoring how interdisciplinary research has evolved among the various branches of natural science and engineering, which is ironic considering his arguments that interdisciplinarity in the liberal arts and humanities has actually reinforced disciplinary rigidity in those fields; perhaps the author would have been better served by more extensively consulting (or coauthoring) with someone who is familiar with STEM fields in academia, but if he felt that such interactions would only reinforce rigid disciplinary boundaries and would not help mutual understanding across fields, then that may be more reflective of his own siloed experiences and resulting biases than of anything else. Additionally, the author has an occasional tendency to slip into technical philosophical and literary jargon; while the context makes the meaning of such jargon clear enough, it would have been nicer for the author to use more broadly accessible terminology, given that the book seems to be marketed toward a general audience (in line with some of the ideas discussed in the book itself). With all that said, I do appreciate seeing this aspect of academia that I otherwise would not have really seen, given my undergraduate education in physics at a technical education followed by my current status as a graduate student in electrical engineering. While it is short on prescriptions, it is long on context, which is its aim in any case. Finally, the book itself is generally clear and concise, and it is a short, quick read.

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