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It must have been almost 4 years ago that I first read a part of this book (chapter 2 -- The Humanities Revolution -- was published in a slightly different form as an Occasional Paper for the American Council of Learned Societies back in 2001). I remember reading it over and over as there was something that encouraged, but, at the same time, truly bothered me (it regarded a concept merely present in the introduction of the paper). At a certain moment I just left it for what it was, but when this book was published, under the same title as the paper for the ACLS, I could not resist and have a new look at it. Maybe the author, in the years that had followed since the first appearance of the paper that became the second chapter, had had the same doubts as I had, but to my great joy that what had bothered me in the paper did not make it into the book.*
Let me, however, turn to the book. In four rather small, but very dense, chapters Menand respectively confronts the problematic of the institution of general education curricula, the revolution and following legitimation-crisis of the Humanities, the current frenzy about interdisciplinarity and the homogeneity of thinking of the professorate. In doing so, one has to admit, all the ever- and over- present stop words (vocation(al), diversity, every form of '-disciplinarity' [be it inter-, anti-, or even post-], professionalization, etc.; probably, the only one missing is excellence) that currently are supposed to diversify the various universities (making them, in a rather grotesque way, all the exact same) are present. In short all the boxes are ticked regarding the current possibilities and doubts about reform in the university and they are very lucidly put into their historical context.
Historically contextualizing the previously mentioned four topics that are fundamental for understanding the current malaise of the American university system (but not just the American university) is important for Menand as he is convinced that the "American university is a product of the nineteenth century, and it has changed very little structurally since the time of the First World War".  As such, to be able to understand an institution that has become part of the unconscious [cf. 17] the author sheds some light on the historical processes regarding the four themes taken into consideration -- the original 'why's' and the reasons why these 'why's' have become problematic.
Interestingly enough, all four historical contextualizations result into a very similar tale and equally similar conclusion. The problem of a/the general education curricula, the humanities, interdisciplinarity, and the problem of the alikeness of thinking of the professorate, all amount to being 'internal' problems (that is, strictly 'academical 'problems -- very little consideration is given to the possibility that also 'external' legitimacy questions might also be at stake; although I am obviously obliged to add that this is indirectly almost always present when a 'public' institution is such as a university is involved simply because the university does not just consist of its staff but also has students) and consist of problems that, in a certain sense, might just also be the exact richness of the university institution.
As the author claims, the aim of this book was to "throw some light from history on a few problems in contemporary higher education" , and, it has to be said, this is exactly what was done in a very eloquent and highly interesting way. True, people who are minimally interested in the topic of higher education will probably find little that they did not already know (the author, however, never claimed to offer absolutely new insights regarding the four topics confronted in this volume).
It should be added that Menand has a very witty pen and even though the general tone of this volume is not the comedy (maybe tragic-comedy would be better) it is often hard not to smile somewhat -- some of the sections would alas (?) fit perfectly well in a David Lodge novel. Even though the author's language is sometimes very 'picturesque' (in the literal sense of the word), the 'pictures painted' by Menand are very precise and cunningly found, and, most importantly, the very much always make the point crystal clear.
In conclusion, even though this volume specifically focuses on the American system of higher education, I sincerely and highly recommend this book to all of those who are starting or thinking to start a career in the university. I recommend this volume especially because it will leave this group (the future of the academe) with a rather ambivalent sensation wanting to question, not just this book, but the whole of the consolidated working procedures of the institution that we (I have to admit that I am part of the group I am addressing) are entering into. Considering Menand's contribution to the current discussion on the value, but also the valiancy, of education in this way, I believe that the value of this work cannot be underestimated as what it does is exactly what every possible scholarly work should do: arouse questions!
As some sort of post scriptum I would like to add just one last small consideration -- I am fully aware of the highly personal aspect of this final adding and of the fact that this last consideration is rather provocative. Allowing myself the usage of a similar 'picturesque' description as frequently used by Menand himself: imagine that I have a cartoon-like small white adorable angel on one shoulder and a little red angry devil on the other one. The very cute little angel would whisper in my ear that I should have to thank the intellectual honesty of the author as he does not spare his own generation of established academics (absolutely true). The little reddish devil on the other hand would, however, smile nastily and whisper that also this honesty has unfortunately become the 'talk to talk and the walk to walk' striving for changes that will only leave everything as it is. Unfortunately, I fear that also this tiny little devil might have a very good and disenchanting point.
* For those interested in figuring out what the concept was -- this review is not about my ideas nor about my possible problems with some of Menand's but about his new book -- please do have a look at the paper that freely available on the site of the ACLS. Just as this book, also that paper will not be a waste of time.
© 2011 Kristof K.P. Vanhoutte
Kristof K.P. Vanhoutte, Ph.D., Rome