Author Louis Menand On Reforming U.S. Universities

Robert Siegel talks to Louis Menand about his new book, The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University. Menand, a Harvard University English professor and New Yorker writer, contends that higher education in this country is antiquated. What is taught and how it is taught has not kept up with the changes in demographics, technology and other factors. He says trying to reform the university is like trying to get on the Internet with a typewriter.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Louis Menand is a New Yorker writer and a Harvard professor. He won the Pulitzer Prize for History back in 2002 for his book "The Metaphysical Club." Well, now, Menand has written a book for a series called "Issues of Our Time," a book about higher education. It's called "The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University.

Menand is a professor of English, and he's especially interested in higher education in the humanities. One issue he addresses is how a PhD in literature became both more common and more difficult to achieve, even as the number of jobs for PhDs in literature declined.

Menand says there are several reasons for that.

Professor LOUIS MENAND (Author, "The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University"): One is that there was an enormous increase in the number of universities in the United States between 1945 and 1970. It was what people in the business of higher education call the golden age of American universities, this enormous amount of increase of undergraduates, even bigger amount of increase of graduate students, and an enormous number of new campuses opened up in the 1950s and 1960s.

And this expansion expanded the number of doctoral programs so that a new institution, in order to establish more credibility for itself in the higher education system, would add doctoral programs in various subjects and start awarding PhDs. So this caused a ballooning of the number of people with PhDs who were going on the market, looking for jobs as professors, college teachers.

Then after 1970, the system started to slow down and even go backwards, and you ended up with an enormous number of PhDs for a declining number of slots.

SIEGEL: But that decline is 40 years under way. We say since 1970. That's a long time ago. You'd think the numbers would have ratcheted down over that time.

Prof. MENAND: Yeah, it's astonishing to me that the number of PhDs awarded has been going up pretty steadily since the 1970s, and the number of job openings has more or less been going down. It seems to be a process that people have a very hard time reversing.

The other piece of it, which is even more amazing to me, is that the time it takes to get the PhD has been increasing steadily since the 1970s so that the median time to get a PhD in a humanities discipline, like philosophy, English, art history, is nine years. Half of people who get PhDs...

SIEGEL: Mm-hmm.

Prof. MENAND: ...in those fields take more than nine years to get the degree.

Now, if you think that you can get a law degree and argue a case before the Supreme Court in three years, get a medical degree and cut somebody open in four years, why should it take nine years to teach poetry to college freshmen? And there are a number of factors involved in that. One obviously is the job market. Another is the fact of part-time hiring. That is, a lot of graduate students teach college students, and they do it quite full time for very little money because they are still enrolled as students in their institutions.

The median age for people getting a degree in the humanities, getting a PhD, is 35.

SIEGEL: Mm-hmm.

Prof. MENAND: So if you think about that, it's really - it's an astonishingly long apprenticeship in a profession that really shouldn't require that much training.

SIEGEL: So it sounds like the number of PhDs being awarded in those fields is driven as much by the number of professors who teach graduate students and who assign them dissertations as it is by the possibility for ever getting a job being one of those people.

Prof. MENAND: Yeah, it's true. There have been several studies, long-term studies, of career outcomes of people who've gotten PhDs. And one of those studies showed that of people who got PhDs in English - and only about half the people who enroll in graduate programs in English actually get the PhD - only five percent of those ended up teaching in research universities, which is really what we're training our students to do.

So there's a real disjunction between the training students receive to become research scholars and the kind of teaching that most of them will end up doing, which don't involve training graduate students and generally don't involve a huge amount of research. But they still need the PhD to get those jobs.

SIEGEL: After your brief detour in law school - I gather you spent a year in law school - how many years was it getting your PhD in English at Columbia University?

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: And how old were you when you emerged with it?

Prof. MENAND: Yeah, I went to law school for not very good reasons. When I graduated from college, I stayed only a year and then I went to graduate school in English at Columbia. I was six years getting my degree. And I was, I guess, 28 when I got my first job.

SIEGEL: Well, six years would be a sprint by contemporary standards too.

Prof. MENAND: Yeah. That actually - in the '60s, that was the norm, about four and a half years in the sciences and about six years in the humanities. So you can see how far we've come since that time.

SIEGEL: Well, Louis Menand, author of "The Marketplace of Ideas," thank you very much for talking with us about it.

Prof. MENAND: Thank you, Robert.

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