NewYorker2011WhyCollege - THE CRITICS A CR.ITIC AT LAR.GE...

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THE CRITICS A CR.ITIC AT LAR.GE LIVE AND LEARN Why we have college. BY LOUIS MENAND M y first job as a professor was at an Ivy League university. The stu- dents were happy to be taught, and we, their teachers, were happy to be teaching them. Whatever portion of their time and energy was being eaten up by social com- mitments-which may have been huge, but about which I was ignorant-they seemed earnestly and unproblematically engaged with the academic experience. If I was naive about this, they were gracious enough not to disabuse me. None of us ever questioned the importance of what we were doing. At a certain appointed hour, the uni- versity decided to make its way in the world without me, and we parted com- pany. I was assured that there were no hard feelings. I was fortunate to get a position in a public university system, at a college with an overworked faculty, an army of part- time instructors, and sixteen thousand stu- dents. Many of these students were the first in their families to attend college, and any distractions they had were not social. Many of them worked, and some had complicated family responsibilities. I didn't regard this as my business any more than I had the social lives of my Ivy League students. I assigned my new stu- dents the same readings I had assigned the old ones. I understood that the new stu- dents would not be as well prepared, but, out of faith or ego, I thought that I could tell them what they needed to know, and open up the texts for them. Soon after I started teaching there, someone raised his hand and asked, about a text I had assigned, ''Why did we have to buy this book?" 74 THE NEW YOI\KER, JUNE 6, 2011 I got question in that form only once, but I heard it a number of times in the unmonetized form of "Why did we have to read this book?" I could see that this was not only a perfectly legitimate question; it was a very interesting ques- tion. The students were asking me to jus- tifY the return on investment in a college education. I just had never been called upon to think about before. It wasn't part of my training. VVe took the value of the business we were in for granted. I could have said, "You are reading these books because youre in college, and these are the kinds of books that people in college read." If you hold a certain theory of education, that answer is not as circular as it sounds. The theory goes like this: In any group of people, it's easy to determine who is the fastest or the strongest or even the best-looking. But picking out the most intelligent person is difficult, because intel- ligence involves many attributes that can't be captured in a one-time assessment, like an lQ test. There is no intellectual equivalent of the hundred -yard dash. An intelligent person is open-minded, an out- side-the-box thinker, an effective commu- nicator, is prudent, self-critical, consistent, and so on, These are not qualities readily subject to measurement. Society needs a mechanism for sorting
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This note was uploaded on 12/07/2011 for the course HIST 2C taught by Professor Stokes during the Fall '07 term at UCSB.

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NewYorker2011WhyCollege - THE CRITICS A CR.ITIC AT LAR.GE...

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