In her Sunday post on pedagogy and U.S. intellectual history, Lauren linked to Louis Menand’s recent New Yorker piece on “why we have college,” and asked what we thought of it.
The Menand piece is thoughtful, interesting, and very much worth reading (like most of what Menand writes IMO). In the course of reviewing two books on the (eternal) Crisis in American Higher Education®–Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s Academically Adrift and Professor X’s In the Basement of the Ivory Tower–Menand considers some of the reasons we might (and do) give for why students ought to have a college education.
Menand considers three possible “theories”: 1) College courses are designed to distinguish the better students from the less good students in ways helpful to future employers hoping to hire the smartest workforce; 2) College courses are designed to teach students things about the world and themselves that they won’t discover anywhere else; 3) College courses are designed to pass on specialized information necessary to successfully pursue a career in today’s economy. Menand labels these views meritocratic, democratic, and vocational. He’s a proponent, incidentally, of Theory 2.
Menand’s article takes a slightly different approach from two other recent reviews of books on the higher-ed crisis–Peter Brooks’s March 29, 2011 New York Review of Books essay (which reviewed the Arum and Roksa book, among others) and Nicholas Dames’s April 13, 2011 n+1 essay (which reviewed Menand’s own Marketplace of Ideas, among other books)–that I blogged about in April (respectively here and here). The Brooks and Dames reviews are much more focused on what professors do and don’t do (and should and shouldn’t be doing). Menand’s essay focuses instead on what we–not only as professors but as a society–should expect post-secondary students to gain from their education.
But despite this very different focus, Menand shares a blind spot with Dames and Brooks. He largely ignores what I continue to feel is the most important factor in the current edition of the crisis in American higher education: the changing structure of the American economy and our often irrational hopes for higher education in relation to it (to be fair: Brooks mentions larger economic structures but doesn’t sufficiently grapple with their meanings for higher ed; Dames, like Menand, doesn’t deal with them).
Here’s some of what I wrote on this topic in my post on the Brooks essay:
Education is in a very strange place in this nation’s political culture today. On the one hand, with the very peculiar exception of the military, it is the only public institution whose efforts at improving individuals’ social status are seen as entirely legitimate. On the other hand, as a result, our educational system is being asked to substitute for our denuded social safety net and for policies that might be designed to alter the structure of income and wealth in our society. The fantasy is that, even in a winner-take-all society, if we are all educated well, we can all be winners. But when that fantasy inevitably fails, someone needs to blamed, or at least “held accountable.” And the most convenient targets are teachers and professors.
Unlike Menand, I don’t think Americans can simply be asked to choose among Theories 1, 2, and 3. We want our education simultaneously to reward merit, to be democratic, and to pass on specialized knowledge immediately helpful for young people entering the workforce. And we want these things especially fervently precisely because succeeding in today’s economy (let alone achieving the kind of intergenerational upward mobility that Americans expected in the mid-20th century) is so difficult.
|Source for Image: http://motherjones.com/politics/2011/02/income-inequality-in-america-chart-graph|
A recent study by Michael Norton of Harvard Business School and Dan Ariely of Duke surveyed a representative online panel of Americans regarding the actual distribution of wealth in America today and their ideal distribution of wealth in a society. The findings were striking: Americans believe that the distribution of wealth in our society is much more balanced than it actually is and would prefer it to be even more balanced still. As Norton and Ariely put it, most Americans would rather live in a society whose distribution of wealth looks like Sweden’s than like their own country’s. Of course, such a desire and the policies needed to achieve it are far beyond the fringes of our nation’s political debates.
In many ways, our arguments over education have been a very imperfect proxy for a serious discussion of the growing structural inequalities in our society….”very imperfect” because they rely on a fantasy that having everyone attend college can somehow transform–or at least overcome–that structure.
Just as common education is now often expected to substitute for the absence of welfare as we knew it, higher ed is now called upon to substitute for the much more democratically structured economy of the three decades immediately following the Great Depression.
And our discussions about higher education cannot reach serious or sensible conclusions unless we name the problem of the structure of our economic system and admit that higher education alone cannot produce a solution to it.