College: Love it then leave it

Tag: College: Love it then leave it

Some Friendly Advice

Foreign policy guru Walter Russell Mead reprints an essay full of advice for those returning students, including some thoughts on a liberal education.  Here’s the bullet points:

  1. The real world does not work like school.
  2. Most of your elders (including parents and teachers) know very little about the world into which you are headed.
  3. You are going to have to work much, much harder than you probably expect.
  4. Choosing the right courses is more important than choosing the right college.
  5. Get a traditional liberal education; it is the only thing that will do you any good.
  6. Character counts; so do good habits.

I suggest you take a look at what he has to say, and in particular the discussion of the importance of a liberal education.

Following this advice will be hard; a liberal education is no easy thing to get, and not everybody wants you to have one.  However, in times of rapid change, it is paradoxically more useful to immerse yourself in the basics and the classics than to try to keep up with the latest developments and hottest trends.  You can be almost 100% sure that the hot theories making waves in academia today will be forgotten or superseded in twenty years — but fifty years from now people will still be reading and thinking about the classic texts that have shaped our world.  Use your college years to ground yourself in the basic great books and key ideas and values that will last.

For the same reason, don’t worry too much about getting specific skills at this stage.  You are going to keep learning new skills all your life and you are going to find many of your skills obsolete as time goes on (when I was a kid I was very good at operating something called a mimeograph machine).  What you want to do now is to develop your ability to learn.

He then lays out the elements of what it means to be liberally educated, concluding with this:

[U]nless you are following up on an interest that is already a deep and passionate one, try to take courses taught by great teachers.  The main purpose of an undergraduate education isn’t to polish up your knowledge and finish your learning.  It is to launch you on a lifetime quest for wisdom and understanding.  You want professors who can help you fall in love with new subjects, new ideas, new ways of investigating the world.  The courses that end up mattering the most to you will be the ones that start you on a lifetime of reading and reflection.

That should get you through registration.

English Major Downgrades U.S. Credit Rating

Sam Tanenhaus is the editor of the New York Times Book Review, and he, unsurprisingly, majored in English literature.  His old buddy, John Chambers, is the chairman of S&P’s sovereign rating committee, and Chambers, (perhaps) surprisingly, also majored in English literature. The two were friends at Grinnell College back in the day, and Tanenhaus takes time out to tell us about it at

For those of you completely uninterested in world affairs, Chambers has been making news because the S&P recently lowered America’s credit rating from AAA to AA+, causing something of a stir in world financial markets.

The article only hints at how Chambers got from Grinnell to Wall Street.  Instead, Tanenhaus gives us a taste of spending time in the cornfields of Iowa, the midwestern psyche, and the joys of hashing out the intricacies of Proust.  He then concludes with a more general meditation on the liberal arts:

John has told me the most important thing Grinnell taught him was how to write a well-argued paper. He learned his lesson well. The S&P report, whatever one thinks of its conclusions, is a model of clarity. Even an English major like me has no trouble making sense of the following: “The effectiveness, stability, and predictability of American policy-making and political institutions have weakened at a time of ongoing fiscal and economic challenges.” Or: “The fiscal consolidation plan that Congress and the Administration recently agreed to falls short of what, in our view, would be necessary to stabilize the government’s medium-term debt dynamics.”

So keep that in mind next time you worry about whether you have the “right” major (or majors).  Clothes don’t make the man.

Why Go to College?

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.

Well, that’s reassuring.
Definitely worth a read if you are interested in higher education.