Trends in Ed: Menand and Mis-education

| June 3, 2011

In the New Yorker this week, Louis Menand discusses several books and themes that I’ve already mentioned here in Trends in Ed.  The title of his piece is “Debating the Value of College,” and I think its publication in America’s flagship intellectual magazine is a sign that the problems with our higher education system are beginning to be taken seriously.

Although I’m not sure he succeeds in building a coherent narrative out of the myriad issues involved, Menand at least begins like a logical philosopher, asking himself “What is college for?”  The two theories he comes up with are: a. “Sorting the more intelligent from the less intelligent,” and b. “Socializing students to become informed and like-minded citizens.”  Later on a third theory rears its head: c. “College is about learning a vocation.”  (This one is to explain all the non-liberal arts majors.)

After exploring the evidence offered in two books (Arum and Roska’s “Academically Adrift,” and Professor X’s “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower”), Menand begins to have doubts that our college system is doing a particularly good job on fulfilling any of these functions.  Students don’t seem to be working particularly hard, they drop out at very high rates, they may not actually be learning much, etc. He offers us no conclusion to be gleaned from this investigation (besides a somewhat lame lamenting of the decline in student motivation), but at one point he approaches an interesting suggestion, only to back away.

This is in his discussion of “tracking,” an approach to higher education abandoned, he tells us, by 20th century America, although still common in the rest of the world.  Instead of making a college degree a prerequisite for professional school, “You don’t wait twenty years for the system to sort people out, and you don’t waste resources on students who won’t benefit from an academically advanced curriculum. You make a judgment much earlier, as early as middle school, and designate certain students to follow an academic track, which gives them a liberal education, and the rest to follow a professional or vocational track.”

As Menand points out, eliminating tracking, and making liberal-arts education the gateway to “high-status professions,” has saved the liberal arts from economic and social irrelevance.  But the costs seem high, particularly in terms of al the students who would be better off just training for their professional careers, rather than undergoing a difficult and irrelevant detour.  Given his bias towards the liberal arts (he likes them for the way they shape human beings), I think this is his way of saying “although I can’t really justify our current system, we should keep it because it forces young people to be like me.”  Where you come down on that, depends, I guess, on how you feel about Louis Menand.