Menand’s Second Theory

My brother directed me to a recent article by Louis Menand (see here for a good video interview) in The New Yorker about college education in the States. Menand recalls an occasion that a student asked him: ‘Why did I have to buy this book?’ He outlines three possible responses, which are based on three theories about university education. Theory 1 is that a degree is one big examination that allows society to determine who its smartest people are:

[P]icking out the most intelligent person is difficult, because intelligence involves many attributes that can’t be captured in a one-time assessment, like an I.Q. test. There is no intellectual equivalent of the hundred-yard dash. An intelligent person is open-minded, an outside-the-box thinker, an effective communicator, is prudent, self-critical, consistent, and so on. These are not qualities readily subject to measurement.

Theory 3 is even more utilitarian. It states that modern society requires more people to have specialized skills, and so students need to study longer to gain the abilities and knowledge necessary to become a doctor or lawyer or engineer. So universities are for vocational training. This doesn’t offer a good answer to the question about buying books! Like Theory 1, however, Theory 3 describes aspects of education in general, as well as university teaching.

Menand’s second theory—and he calls himself ‘a theory 2 person’—is that education is democratic. The answer to the book-buying question is:

“You’re reading these books because they teach you things about the world and yourself that, if you do not learn them in college, you are unlikely to learn anywhere else.” This reflects a different theory of college, a theory that runs like this: In a society that encourages its members to pursue the career paths that promise the greatest personal or financial rewards, people will, given a choice, learn only what they need to know for success. They will have no incentive to acquire the knowledge and skills important for life as an informed citizen, or as a reflective and culturally literate human being. College exposes future citizens to material that enlightens and empowers them, whatever careers they end up choosing.

So education is a training for life, as well as for a future career. I’m also a ‘theory 2 person’ in that I’m a specialist in literature, and literary studies are particularly helpful for developing these skills.

I also believe that different subjects teach different types of aptitudes and sensibilities. Theories 1, 2 and 3 isolate different contributions that education makes to society. Each academic subject and specialty teaches an approach to the world, and how to contribute to society. There’s a need to train people for their careers, but a liberal society also produces talented individuals who are well-informed about our past, have a good understanding of a foreign culture, know how to analyze the written word, and so on. Literature only starts looking like a weak link once you start insisting that the vocational Theory 3 is the only theory that matters. Society as a whole benefits from having individuals trained to a high level in many different areas.

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