Phi Beta Cons

Louis Menand’s Three Theories

In a June 6 New Yorker article, Louis Menand mused that something is amiss in college education. His evidence included such works such as the Academically Adrift study by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, the anonymous In the Basement of the Ivory Tower, and Menand’s own classroom experiences.

Menand’s essay is laced with uneasiness but comes to no firm conclusions except that college doesn’t seem to be doing what it did for the post–World War II generation. That period began the expansion of student numbers, bringing in many who in previous decades would never have attended college. Those students, he says, wanted to prove that they could succeed in the rigorous academic process. In doing so, they also gained something of permanent value — better understanding of the world.

Today’s students are different, he says. They want a credential that shows they have the technical skills necessary for a well-paying job in today’s society. But they’re not always getting even that.

The most useful contribution of this essay may be Menand’s articulation of three different views of what education ought to be — theories that may help frame future discussions.

Theory 1 is that college should be a challenging sorting-out process that  helps professional schools and some employers to find the most academically accomplished  students — a kind of filtering that Menand thinks serves society. Theory 2 is that college teaches valuable things about the world to people who will soon be so immersed in jobs and families that they won’t have time to learn them (Menand favors this theory).

Theory 3 is that college provides specialized knowledge for today’s jobs. That is the way college is supposedly operating now, he suggests, but it’s not doing a good job of it. “The system appears to be drawing in large numbers of people who have no firm career goals but failing to help them acquire focus,” he writes.

Or perhaps Menand’s major contribution is just reminding us all that there are different education goals. That’s why we need a diverse variety of education options.

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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