Monday, June 6, 2011

What's the Point of College?

Randall Stephens

If you haven't already checked it out, have a look at Louis Menand's New Yorker essay, "Live and Learn: Why We Have College," June 6, 2011. The Pulitzer Prize-winning intellectual historian and Harvard professor considers the changing nature of college in recent years and the various ideals that have shaped higher ed. He also discusses several books that take stock of the situation. Are we in the midst of a major change in higher education? Says Menand:

Before 1945, élite private colleges like Harvard and Yale were largely in the business of reproducing a privileged social class. Between 1906 and 1932, four hundred and five boys from Groton applied to Harvard. Four hundred and two were accepted. In 1932, Yale received thirteen hundred and thirty applications, and it admitted nine hundred and fifty-nine—an acceptance rate of seventy-two per cent. Almost a third of those who enrolled were sons of Yale graduates. . . .

The system appears to be drawing in large numbers of people who have no firm career goals but failing to help them acquire focus. This is what Arum and Roksa believe, anyway. Students at very selective colleges are still super-motivated—their motivation is one of the reasons they are selected—and most professors, since we are the sort of people who want a little gold star for everything we do, still want to make a difference to their students. But when motivation is missing, when people come into the system without believing that what goes on in it really matters, it’s hard to transform minds.

If there is a decline in motivation, it may mean that an exceptional phase in the history of American higher education is coming to an end. That phase began after the Second World War and lasted for fifty years. Large new populations kept entering the system. First, there were the veterans who attended on the G.I. Bill—2.2 million of them between 1944 and 1956. Then came the great expansion of the nineteen-sixties, when the baby boomers entered and enrollments doubled. Then came co-education, when virtually every all-male college, apart from the military academies, began accepting women. Finally, in the nineteen-eighties and nineties, there was a period of remarkable racial and ethnic diversification.>>>


Unknown said...

Maybe the best argument for LIberal Arts education is the one Menand doesn’t deliberately make, “liberal education is the élite type of college education: it’s the gateway to the high-status professions.” He observes that “Students at very selective colleges are still super-motivated.” Of course they are, the system is working for them and they can see a bright future. Menand warns that the flowering of inclusion that began with the GI Bill and continued through coeducation and racial integration, may be coming to an end, which is a point well taken. As is his point about the growing divide between the top schools and the rest. But he never really identifies causes and effects. He doesn’t mention that the millions of middle-income jobs (white collar, in skilled trades, and in self-employment) these newly-included people looked forward to have been substantially reduced by globalization and the financial crisis. Still, if you look at the things the kids who expect to succeed in life are doing, based on the data Menand cites, there seems to be a positive correlation between working hard and doing well. Maybe the task of educators, is to convince students of this.

LD said...
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Lisa Clark Diller said...

I love the observation that the liberal arts courses are the primary ones in which students have to actually read and write. It also explains a great many of the complaints on my course evaluations!

All of these issues would be interesting, but not as urgent, if education weren't so expensive and professor weren't being turned into cheap hourly wage-workers. I think all of the reasons Menand lists for why we're educating people can be useful and should be included as part of the process--but it becomes more problematic when students have to mortgage their future. Is becoming an educated citizen worth $50,000 of debt when one is going to be earning less than $35,000 a year?
Still, this is a useful continuation of the provocative conversations we've been having. Thanks for directing my attention to it.

PW said...

Menand states "The system appears to be drawing in large numbers of people who have no firm career goals but failing to help them acquire focus."

I agree with this point, but also think that, unfortunately, many schools don't do a good job helping those who do HAVE firm career goals. Too often there's a lack of connection with employers for internships and post-graduation employment, a dearth of practical classes that have application in increasingly competitive job markets and a failure on the part of syllabus creators to understand and adapt to the changing dynamics in their field of study.