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There’s an art-historical through-line, too, from Clement Greenberg’s championing of Jackson Pollock to Pop Art in England and the U.S. (Menand is especially good on the sometimes contentious collaborative partnership of Robert Rauschenberg, Merce Cunningham, and John Cage.) While The Free World is attentive to the role of the U.S. government and its intelligence agencies in disseminating American culture abroad, it is not, as Menand explains, a study of the “cultural cold war,” the sponsorship of American culture as a kind of soft power. For Menand, American arts and culture are not in any simple way determined by state ideology.
That doesn’t mean he is reverent. Menand’s tone is one of dry, semi-sociological remove. At its best, it is as witty as it is informative. Here he is, for instance, on Trilling’s skepticism toward the putative anti-establishment force of poets from Arthur Rimbaud to his student Allen Ginsberg: “Trilling imagined culture — in the anthropological sense — as a Möbius strip. You can invert mainstream values, but it is the mainstream values that give the inversion meaning. … There is, in the end, no right or wrong side of the strip, just different ways of fooling yourself about where you are.”
Menand is concerned throughout to describe the rapidly changing institutions in which art and culture happen: the paperback-books business; transformations in First Amendment law; the relationship between radio and the record industry. And above all: the ballooning American university, which was in its period of greatest expansion. The university was an incubator of talent, a switching station for European and American intellectuals and artists, and an increasingly accessible purveyor of the cultural products of a postwar world to a large public.
I spoke with Menand, who is a professor of English at Harvard, about the Cold War university, whether ideas still matter, and the state of liberal education now.
You discuss two periods of “explosive growth” in American higher ed: 1880-1920 and 1945-1975. In the latter, undergraduate enrollment increased by 500 percent, graduate-student enrollment by almost 900 percent. What did this expansion mean for the cultural history you’re tracing?
It expanded the audience for serious books — Grove Press thrived on the college market — for foreign and avant-garde non-first-run movies, and for music. With college, the space for youth culture grew from a four-year demographic (high school) to an eight-year one, and popular music matured along with it.
On the other hand, the growth was almost entirely made possible by government money, first, after 1945, in the form of research grants from federal agencies like the Defense Department, the National Institutes of Health, NASA, and so on, and then from the 1958 National Defense Education Act, the government’s response to Sputnik. This created what Clark Kerr called “the federal-grant university,” and it tied academic research to the interests of the state — a situation that would blow up when the country intervened militarily in the war in Vietnam in 1965.
And, as Russell Jacoby argued long ago, the expansion of the university also had the effect of absorbing Bohemia — the little worlds of creative writing, the arts, and dissident opinion. Dissidents became professors. Novelists got advanced degrees. They all became academicized.
Academic literary criticism in this period, you say, obscures its debt to “the turn-of-the-century man or woman of letters.” Might our own time see a resurgence of the person of letters, but this time with roots in the academy?
You put your finger on the main challenge and opportunity the academic humanities face. On the one hand, student demand for our product is cratering and the job market for new Ph.D.s is consequently dire (though there may be a brief bump post-pandemic as universities seek replacement lines). On the other hand, there has never been a greater demand for cultural commentary. Online and even in print, it’s overwhelming. And for serious voices and informed criticism, not just clickbait. Somebody’s got to write this stuff. It ought to be possible to re-engineer post-graduate education to produce people who can meet that need. Needless to say, I am not holding my breath. But if we don’t adapt, we will wither away.
The end of your chapter on deconstruction, an interpretive movement popularly accused of a nihilistic disregard for truth, struck me. I’ll read it:
Many liberal educators worried that deconstruction was destabilizing. It was. So is liberal education. It is meant to enable students to see that the world they were born into is not natural or inevitable. Deconstruction simply added language to the list of the things we should not take for granted. It reminded us that the ice we walk on is never not thin.
As this passage suggests, any honest account of the justifications of a liberal education will have to go beyond pieties about critical thinking or civics or citizenship or what have you — because liberal education is “destabilizing.” How can university educators respect that truth and make their case?
Well, I think that is what we mean by “critical thinking” — not taking anything for granted. People don’t want to hear that because it’s a lot easier to accept, or ignore, the status quo and become a successful professional, which is what liberal education is the gateway to. The traditional argument for liberal education is that you will be a better professional, and more personally empowered, if you have first examined life disinterestedly. What we teach in the liberal arts — hermeneutics, history, and theory — are intended to help you do this. Professional schools don’t teach these things. You are not going to learn them anywhere else.
“I don’t think we believe anymore that much turns on what kind of music you listen to.”
The period you discuss — roughly 1945-1975 — was one in which, as you explain in the preface, the culture industry expanded massively — including the university. “Ideas mattered. Painting mattered. Movies mattered. Poetry mattered.” What’s different between that 30-year period and, let’s say, the last 30 years — from the first Gulf War to the present? Do ideas still matter?
I don’t think we believe anymore that much turns on what kind of music you listen to or what kind of movies you prefer. I was drawn to write about that earlier period because it was a time when those questions had weight. Most intellectual argument now is political. We’re at a bit of an impasse, though, because neither of the alternatives on the table — neoliberal globalism and nativism — seems attractive to many people, but there is no other well-articulated theory influencing discussion. The times call for some creative thinking.
You discuss Jacques Barzun and Lionel Trilling’s creation and superintendence of the great-books core (“General Honors”) at Columbia University in the ’30s — a revival of a course taught there beginning in 1920 by John Erskine. “In the history of American higher education, General Honors belongs to a brief period of reaction against disciplinary specialization.” Does this history have anything to teach us at present, when a revived version of the canon wars of the ’90s is intersecting with radical contractions across the humanities?
The so-called great-books courses, which begin at the time of the First World War, were explicitly exercises in socialization and assimilation. That is not, to put it mildly, the kind of course most educators want to teach today. In my view, though, disciplinary overspecialization is still a problem. We’re not speaking outside of our silos. I team-teach in a course for first-years in which faculty lecture on works they are specialists in, and the rest of us run discussion sections. I have learned an enormous amount from my colleagues this way. And one of the things we are trying to teach the students is that they do not have to be experts to read these works or to have opinions about them. Literature and the arts are a commons: They are open to all.
Of Isaiah Berlin’s willingness, on being asked by a publisher, to write a book about Marx despite never having read Marx, you write: “He regarded the book as an opportunity to do his homework (always a healthy motive for writing).” In writing The Free World, what did you know nothing or very little about before you started? Where were you doing your homework?
I had a superficial and, as I gradually learned, largely erroneous knowledge of most of the subjects I wrote about. I wrote the book to teach myself what those people really thought and did, and, from a social history perspective, what was really going on in that period. Like most history writing, the book was an effort to understand my own subjectivity.
The only chapter where I thought I knew a lot about the subject beforehand is the one on France and Hollywood, but even there, I learned things by writing it. The most challenging chapter for me, because it was not something I had ever researched, was the one on French postcolonialism — Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon, and so on — and its intersection with James Baldwin. Baldwin himself was an incredibly complex figure to get to know. So writing that chapter was really revelatory and, as it turned out, of course, very relevant to the contemporary moment in race relations.
The movement against the Vietnam War, you write, “split liberals along generational lines. This is largely because it intersected with a backlash against the postwar university.” I wonder how analogous this is to some of the dynamics of our own period — when public trust in the university is declining and when left and liberal political commitments can seem intensely generational.
One parallel is that student activists in the 1960s accused the university of being complicit in the state’s operation of the War in Vietnam, and that was not something many academics wanted to hear. Today, the issue is complicity in the regime of white supremacy, and ditto. As for “the public” (but let’s be sure we know who we mean by that), it does not trust any institutions. I would not say the universities have the worst of it. Lack of trust has not reduced the number of Americans — or students internationally — who want to enter American universities and get the degree. We have great public systems in the United States, and there are still relatively inexpensive ways to get an excellent education. If we get in the habit, which we had in the 1950s and ’60s, of using taxpayer resources to make life better for people broadly, those institutions should be able to thrive again. The belief, if anyone has it, that we do not need knowledge to compete globally, that we can just entrepreneur our way to prosperity, is idiotic.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.