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February 14, 2011
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Louis Menand offers opposing views of college in the latest New Yorker. On the one hand, he writes, college is basically ?a four-year intelligence test. Students have to demonstrate intellectual ability over time and across a range of subjects. If they're sloppy or inflexible or obnoxious?no matter how smart they might be in the I.Q. sense?those negatives will get picked up in their grades.? And at the end of it all graduates are ranked, scored. The G.P.A., in this perspective, is a really just a judgment ?that professional schools and employers can trust as a measure of intellectual capacity and productive potential.?
Menand's second theory of college's purpose is not so purely practical. ?In a society that encourages its members to pursue the career paths that promise the greatest personal or financial rewards,? he notes, ?people will, given a choice, learn only what they need to know for success.? Literature and music and art, then, will go mostly ignored. A student ?will have no incentive to acquire the knowledge and skills important for life as an informed citizen, or as a reflective and culturally literate human being.? In such a world, college is the one place where such knowledge and skills can still be passed on, even to those pupils who would rather finish their business classes and get on with it. Through this process college ?socializes,? taking ?people with disparate backgrounds and beliefs? and instructing them in ?mainstream norms of reason and taste.? Thus does campus function as a ?way of producing a society of like-minded grownups.?
Much confusion and argument about higher education, Menand rightly posits, arises because colleges today subscribe to both theories. College is supposed to be both democratic and meritocratic, to be selective and for everyone, to teach future professionals the particular skills that will be required of them and to offer an expansive and classical education. But the two visions are not easily reconcilable.
?If you are a Theory 1 person,? Menand says, ?you worry that, with so many Americans going to college, the bachelor's degree is losing its meaning, and soon it will no longer operate as a reliable marker of productive potential.? The upping of ?public investment in higher education with the goal of college for everyone?in effect, taxpayer-subsidized social promotion?is thwarting the operation of the sorting mechanism. Education is about selection, not inclusion.? A Theory 2 person, though, believes the hyper-competition for college slots is perverting the whole system and ?warping educational priorities.? Students who ?spend every minute of high school sucking up to . . . teachers? and bulking up their resumes are missing the point entirely, because education ?is about personal and intellectual growth, not about winning some race to the top.?
The insinuation is that a Theory 2 person is necessarily less concerned than his Theory 1 peer about admitting to college students potentially unprepared for it and the dilution of the meaning, the value, of the bachelor's degree. But why must this be so? Simply because one sees college as the place where minds go to be broadened and not narrowed does not mean one must also hold a ?college-for-all? (or college-for-most) position. Nonetheless, the basic idea is correct: college is not sure what college is supposed to be. Thus, it attempts to be many different things and serve many different people in many different ways. Unfortunately, some of the purposes that college has adopted for itself are opposed. And so for many institutions, at some point, somewhere down the road, someone will need to make some thorny choices.
?Liam Julian, Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow