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These include the trend of “interdisciplinarity,” the ubiquitous center-left politics of faculty, the identity crisis of the humanities, and the all-too-contentious question of what should constitute a general education program. (Menand was on the committee that recently revamped the curriculum at Harvard University and the book is dedicated to his fellow members.) In excavating the origins of these trends, Menand – whose discipline is English, but who won a 2002 Pulitzer Prize for “The Metaphysical Club,” his outstanding intellectual history of modern America following the Civil War – shows how slippery knowledge and its production can be.

“[F]ew institutions are so conservative as the universities about their own affairs while their members are so liberal about the affairs of others,” Clark Kerr, a chancellor of the University of California, noted in the early ’60s. Menand’s reference to Kerr is a keynote for his study, which shows a keen eye for the paradoxes of university life. The debates on general education and the snail’s-pace process of redesigning it, Menand observes, have “been compared to a play by Samuel Beckett, but the comparison is inapt. Beckett’s plays are short.” Instead, Menand’s analogy is to psychoanalysis: “interminable, repetitive, and inconclusive.” Along the same vein, he notes the circular logic of great books programs (we read them because they’re great and they’re great because we read them).

Menand is renowned as a writer with a cool tone and a keen wit (witness his description of Sputnik as having “the size and lethal potential of a beach ball”). These qualities, and the book’s humanitarian yet practical underpinnings, make it a compelling read.

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