What have you been reading this summer?

Historians of science in America, what have you been reading? What was worth the effort so far this summer?

Share some recommendations.

I just finished Louis Menand’s _The Marketplace of Ideas._ Don’t be fooled: this is really a book of lectures about the university only loosely tied to the “marketplace” or tied to one another. It did have its moments, however. Read more…

Chapter two struck me as most worth reading, especially for those who teach or research the Cold War university. Menand takes a story we know best for the sciences and applies it to the humanities. In the process, he provides a new way of thinking about the culture wars—or the “crisis of the humanities.” His presentation rejects one structural explanation and posits another. First the rejection: a diversified student body did not force multiculturalism and deconstruction on the humanities. “It is wise to avoid the following narrative,” writes Menand: “when more women and non-whites came into the system, traditional norms of scholarly constraint disappeared. The argument is not that this narrative is undesirable—although one sometimes hears proponents of diversity reiterating an upbeat version of it. The argument is that the narrative is incorrect.”(91)

Menand argues instead that the Cold War university had built a model for the humanities—a “Golden Age” of the humanities—that could not be sustained. The humanities during the Cold War enjoyed unprecedented growth, especially in graduate studies, and devoted huge resources to “scientistic” research programs that promised access to the realm of value-neutral, objective knowledge to those researchers who stuck to firm disciplinary norms. Menand surprised me with how well this outline fit even for literature departments.

Scholars of Kuhn’s generation (like Paul de Man in literature) challenged the Cold War humanities on intellectual grounds (with a little help from the Vietnam War). Only then did a diversifying student body come into play—student interest added fuel to an already burning fire. I think Menand underplays student agency in this story, but I understand he’s fighting a narrative that has laid too much credit (or rather, blame) on students’ shoulders.

As Menand summarizes, “Within the history of education, the Cold War university was the anomaly, and what are criticized as deviations and diffusions in the present system are largely reactions against that earlier dispensation. People may admire the old dispensation, or feel some nostalgia for it, but it was fundamentally untenable.”(91)

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