About ten years ago, the writer Louis Menand wrote an article for The New Yorker called “Live and Learn,” the subtitle of which revealed its true topic: “Why we have college.” In it, he differentiated between two and a half substantially different reasons why college should exist in the first place, and why the fact that we don’t talk about those motives makes it almost impossible to do any of them well.
Mission A is “expos[ing] future citizens to material that enlightens and empowers them, whatever careers they end up choosing.” It is an exercise in enculturation, in curiosity, in social norming. In this view, college education “takes people with disparate backgrounds and beliefs and brings them into line with mainstream norms of reason and taste…. 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.” This is the function praised by the “great-ideas” people and decried by the “indoctrination” accusers, both of whom are kind of right, as we all are.
Mission B is sorting and ranking, of knowing who’s better than whom. In this view, “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.” This model is laudable in its clarity, though it furthers the gender and race and class divisions that students arrived with in the first place. If you were born on the goal line, you’re automatically closer to a touchdown than someone born outside the stadium entirely.
And then Mission C, which Menand touches on only peripherally and only because his own students drag his attention toward it, is that college is intended to be technical training for a particular kind of job. Under this view, “…advanced economies demand specialized knowledge and skills, and, since high school is aimed at the general learner, college is where people can be taught what they need in order to enter a vocation. A college degree in a non-liberal field signifies competence in a specific line of work.”
There are clusters of colleges aimed closely at each of these three motives, and yet other colleges that try to be a little bit of all things to all students. But if we never actually say these things out loud, we’ll never actually know what kind of college we’re providing, because we won’t know why we’re doing it.
About that same time, the school I was working at was going through one of its innumerable disciplinary accreditation processes, the work of the home office making sure that all of its franchisees provide more or less the same product. In this particular instance, we were trying to ensure that we could talk about how the current curriculum met all of the expectations of the professional community for what a bachelor’s-degree-holder should know. That accreditor worked every year or two to administer a questionnaire asking professionals what students should know at the moment of graduation, what they should learn as young pre-licensure professionals, and what they probably wouldn’t know until they’d been in the profession for a few years. At no one’s surprise, the results were that all graduating students should know almost all of it, except for the business strategy parts—the grown-ups would take care of that, leaving their army of highly trained drafting monkeys at work in the back office.
Every profession is increasingly complex, in software and in policy and in diversity of available materials and tools. If we expect 21-year-olds to be competent young employees the day they graduate with their BA or BS, we’re just going to have to stuff more knowledge and technique into that undergraduate experience. But state and federal departments of education appropriately want to make sure that they aren’t paying for increasing seat time beyond the standard of 120 credits in four years, and that students aren’t incurring even more loan burden to get a degree that now takes five years, or six years, or eight. So the curriculum becomes a zero-sum game, in which innumerable forces each work to claim some share of the 120-credit landscape. As former college president Jill Ker Conway once wrote, the curriculum is the battlefield upon which intellectual wars are fought.
Now imagine again, as we did a couple of days ago, that you’re sixteen years old, a junior in high school, trying to figure out this opaque landscape even as you’re hurtling toward it. Everybody’s haranguing you about how important college is, but they haven’t done any meaningful thinking about why, or about how it might be appropriate for YOU and for your individual life trajectory. Nobody around you has experience with lots of different types of colleges, so you’re left to rely on shouted brand names (Ford! Chevy! Berkeley! Stanford!) or affordability and convenience.
Nobody tells you about the bitter fights that have gone on over that 120-credit landscape you hope to inhabit. Every inch of it was a contested decision, but now it’s presented to its potential consumers as logical to the point of inevitability. What does your get-ed consist of? Why are you doing it? How has the discipline divided your courses into methods and knowledge and underlying principles and theories of its future? You can’t take any of these programs for a meaningful test drive, it’s like buying a car from the brochure. Just shut up and get in, okay?
I’m serious. Put yourselves into that imaginary sixteen-year-old’s head, worried about issues of boyfriends or girlfriends, worried about issues of identity, engaged in a high school that’s doing whatever the state wants, worried about whether Dad’s going to be laid off or Mom’s going to be transferred to Dayton. And then imagine this flurry of garbled, unreliable information, a collegiate blizzard of half-truths pouring down upon you from which you’re expected to snatch exactly the right snowflake.
We have GOT to do better.