Below is a comment I made on a 3QuarksDaily post, which pointed to an interview with Louis Menand about his New Yorker piece on universities today. In the course of writing it, I think I hit on some insights that might have some value, though they need further development.
I thought it was a quite interesting interview. What Menand is meditating about is a crucial problem with tertiary education in the U.S. today, I think. Universities, from their beginning in medieval Europe, have always been closely connected with their surrounding societies and responsive to their needs, especially for certain kinds of professionals: theologians, (a sort of) physicians, etc., in the Middle Ages, Empire-builders in 19th-century Britain, scientists and military experts in 19th-century Germany, and so on
What does this country need from universities today? It's not at all clear, as the Menand interview makes clear, because it's not at all clear what sort of country it is. It feels as though the country is groping around for something that no one has a clear picture of, because the post-WW-II world, which still structures how most universities still work, has become mostly obsolete. The economy and political structure of that era don't function any more, obviously, but we haven't developed anything workable to replace them. Our computer-based technology is racing ahead along lines which it itself defines, and universities and pretty much everything else is along for the ride, but where is it going?
Menand doesn't answer any of these questions here, and I don't think any one else has answers right now, either, but they are important questions.