Phi Beta Cons

Does College Make You Smarter?

George Leef notes a remarkable consistency among the responses (including his) to the New York Times question “Does College Make You Smarter?“ The word is out: Our colleges and universities don’t provide the knowledge they claim to offer.

While this is depressing — and something we are striving to fix — I can’t help but think about one of my favorite articles, “How We Dummies Succeed,” by Robert Samuelson, published in the Washington Post on Sept. 6, 2006. He said that what makes America great is the “American learning system” (as opposed to the “U. S. school system”). That includes, besides traditional higher education, “community colleges; for-profit institutes and colleges; adult extension courses; online and computer-based courses; formal and informal job training; self-help books.”

His point was that Americans are constantly trying to learn, but they want practical, not abstract, knowledge. If their high schools fail them, they find a community college, or they get some training, or they learn on the job. Alexis de Tocqueville observed this tendency to seek useful knowledge, says Samuelson.

Thus, the fundamental problem with traditional colleges and universities may be simply that they are trying to teach too many people (a point that George has often raised). In order to keep money flowing, they find themselves creating ivy-covered Potemkin villages that maintain the appearance of education even when little occurs. Too many people, especially young people, have been persuaded that they need to go to college — when many of them don’t want to be there and, as UConn professor Gaye Tuchman said in the Times’ discussion, they would just rather have a job.

Jane S. ShawJane S. Shaw retired as president of the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in 2015. Before joining the Pope Center in 2006, Shaw spent 22 years in ...


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