With reunion upon us, it is an excellent time to ask, “why go to college?” Indeed. To help us out with that question, Louis Menand has a provocative piece in a recent New Yorker examining the ins and outs of this exact question. As I got a few paragraphs into this one I started to wonder why this question gets discussed so rarely. It hardly seems self-evident, but I would guess it’s some combination of “expand your mindset,” “expand your skill set,” and “expand your wallet.”
Of course, Menand is a more eloquent writer than I am, and he posits two theories, with the first one going something like this:
College is, essentially, 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. As an added service, college also sorts people according to aptitude. It separates the math types from the poetry types. At the end of the process, graduates get a score, the G.P.A., that professional schools and employers can trust as a measure of intellectual capacity and productive potential. It’s important, therefore, that everyone is taking more or less the same test.
That seems like a riff on the “expand your wallet.” The second has more to do with expanding horizons:
College exposes future citizens to material that enlightens and empowers them, whatever careers they end up choosing. In performing this function, college also socializes. It takes people with disparate backgrounds and beliefs and brings them into line with mainstream norms of reason and taste. Independence of mind is tolerated in college, and even honored, but students have to master the accepted ways of doing things before they are permitted to deviate. Ideally, we want everyone to go to college, because college gets everyone on the same page. It’s a way of producing a society of like-minded grownups.
At Lawrence, we recruit students based on our mission in the liberal arts, so I’m not sure if you could pigeonhole us into either of those categories. But we certainly make the claim that we train people to think and communicate, which are not explicitly vocational skills, but do come in handy.
Menand is certainly sympathetic to our cause, here and elsewhere, and makes some interesting points about our students. One is the results of the Collegiate Learning Assessment — a test designed to see if students learn anything in college:
The most interesting finding is that students majoring in liberal-arts fields—sciences, social sciences, and arts and humanities—do better on the C.L.A., and show greater improvement, than students majoring in non-liberal-arts fields such as business, education and social work, communications, engineering and computer science, and health.