Louis Menand recently published excerpts from his upcoming book The Marketplace of Ideas. Here’s one excerpt I found both challenging and troublesome:

The moral of the story that the numbers tell once seemed straightforward: if there are fewer jobs for people with Ph.D.s, then universities should stop giving so many Ph.D.s—by making it harder to get into a Ph.D. program (reducing the number of entrants) or harder to get through (reducing the number of graduates). But this has not worked. Possibly the story has a different moral, which is that there should be a lot more Ph.D.s, and they should be much easier to get. The non-academic world would be enriched if more people in it had exposure to academic modes of thought, and had thereby acquired a little understanding of the issues that scare terms like “deconstruction” and “postmodernism” are attempts to deal with. And the academic world would be livelier if it conceived of its purpose as something larger and more various than professional reproduction—and also if it had to deal with students who were not so neurotically invested in the academic intellectual status quo. If Ph.D. programs were determinate in length—if getting a Ph.D. were like getting a law degree—then graduate education might acquire additional focus and efficiency. It might also attract more of the many students who, after completing college, yearn for deeper immersion in academic inquiry, but who cannot envision spending six years or more struggling through a graduate program and then finding themselves virtually disqualified for anything but a teaching career that they cannot count on having.

I’m not sure what he means to accomplish by making these goals the equivalent of a Ph.D. It sounds to me as though he has something in mind not unlike a really rigorous and flexible M.A. program–i.e., not one that aims to produce a Ph.D. lite, so to speak, but one that aims to produce a more rigorously educated person. But he’s stuck there, because professors of English (like myself) are trained to teach people how to do serious study of literature (or film, or writing, etc.), not to “educate them rigorously.” And what would that mean, exactly? This isn’t any longer the Victorian era when reading classics at Oxford prepared you for the job of running (or ruining, as the case may be) the British Empire. And one notes that Harvard English probably won’t be undertaking this kind of self-transformation, so who does he suppose will be the first one to do it?

I thought the best thing he said in that passage is the disincentive of going to graduate school in the humanities. I was one of the blissfully stupid ones who skipped off to graduate school singing “tra-la-la” and not worrying a fig about the job market. Now I’m thankful almost daily that I ended up with a very good job, but not everyone who entered graduate school with me has been so lucky. Menand states in an earlier section that Ph.D. training isn’t transferable. I know several people who have made the transition, but usually it wasn’t without a sense of bitterness. It’s a bad problem.

In the meantime, people like Rohan Maitzen and I will still be wondering whether our M.A. programs can be improved. Her recent post (where I also found the link to the Menand article) is good on some of the questions that can be profitably asked about the nature of the M.A. especially:

All of this mental muddle is particularly distracting because one of the things I’m trying to get done is course planning for next term, and particularly the plans for my upcoming graduate seminar on George Eliot. When I first taught such a class (in 1997-98), I thought it was pretty obvious what I should do: graduate courses are training for professional work in the field of literary criticism, right? That shouldn’t have seemed so obvious to me then (I didn’t take into account, for instance, that Dalhousie’s program includes a ‘terminal’ M.A. and thus serves a student population that is not necessarily headed down an academic path), and it certainly does not seem so obvious to me now. But what difference does, or should, it make that there seem to me to be a number of uncertainties about the purpose of their degrees more generally, our seminar in particular, and even literary criticism itself? Is a (real or mock) conference paper a reasonable goal, or a paper suitable to be revised and submitted to a peer-reviewed journal? Should I diversify the requirements to suit a wider range of possible applications of scholarly expertise–say, a resource-rich website, an experimental hyper-text edition of a chapter, a paper aimed at a general audience, a portfolio of book reviews, a class wiki? Is it possible to accommodate such a range and still to ensure equal workloads and fair evaluation? I’ve been reading and rereading a swathe of critical articles in preparation for the usual “secondary readings” requirements but if I can’t even be sure myself what we need to accomplish in the class, how can I choose what they should read? Probably I’ll just do what I usually do, which is pick some articles that seem particularly useful or interesting, or that stand for some reason as key or classic pieces; require a couple of short response papers, a seminar presentation, and a term paper (of the usual academic variety). It’s tempting to reinvent the course–but it’s part of a whole system of requirements and expectations, and so there I am again, reluctant to deviate from local norms, to point out that most of them will never need to do academic criticism (or get a permanent job in which it is required of them for tenure) and so we should really find something else to do about what we read.

To figure out how to change the system, so that there is some kind of hierarchy where you begin by learning more, and more things that might be relevant in the real world, and end with specialized training in scholarship, would not be such a bad thing. But if the people at Harvard–who after all are the ones who landed the plum-est jobs in the land and have the time to re-conceptualize graduate study on something other than the nineteenth-century German model–can’t come up with more than a vague notion that things should change, we probably shouldn’t count on it happening any time soon.