‘If We Don’t Adapt, We Will Wither Away’: Louis Menand on the University

Historians in the News
tags: Cold War, academia, intellectual history, cultural history, American culture

Louis Menand’s The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War, out tomorrow from FSG, begins and finishes with global geopolitics: at one end, the carving up of Europe into Soviet and American zones of influence after the Second World War; at the other, America’s catastrophic invasion of Vietnam. But the bulk of the book is concerned with the history and the global circulation of ideas: Lionel Trilling at Columbia University; Jean-Paul Sartre in Paris; Claude Lévi-Strauss in Paris and New York; Aimé Césaire in Paris and Martinique; Hannah Arendt in New York; Isaiah Berlin in London and Leningrad; James Baldwin in Harlem, Greenwich Village, and the South of France. This is a very partial list of the book’s cast.

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.

Read entire article at Chronicle of Higher Education