What is College For? An Interview with The New Yorker’s Louis Menand

by Matt B. on May 1, 2012

Louis Menand is a Pulitzer Prize-winning professor of English at Harvard and a staff writer for the New Yorker. His most recent book, The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University, traces the rise of the modern university system and asks hard questions about whether higher education’s historical goals and structures are well-suited for today’s world.

In a June, 2011 New Yorker article, Menand expanded on Marketplace, laying out three theories that seek to answer the question: What is college for?

Theory 1 sees the university as a quality filter – a means of sorting young people according to their intelligence and capabilities and providing signals to society about the roles for which they might be well-suited.

Theory 2 is the classic liberal arts vision of the university – in Menand’s words, an opportunity to teach “the knowledge and skills important for life as an informed citizen, or as a reflective and culturally literate human being.”

Theory 3 is a more brass-tacks view: it sees the university as designed for professional or vocational preparation.

In this interview, Menand and I dig into Theory 2. What does an education designed to create “informed citizens” or “reflective and culturally literate human beings” actually look like? What books and pedagogical techniques might it include? How much will it seek to answer the ‘big questions’, and to what extent will it be content with simply asking them?

MATT BIEBER: What does a Theory 2 education actually look like in practice?             

LOUIS MENAND: It can be lots of different things. I don’t think of it as learning about great ideas particularly, but as students learning things about the world that they wouldn’t learn elsewhere. Some of this learning is historical, and some of it is philosophical or theoretical, and constitutes equipment for thinking in a more enlightened way about your own life and about your place in the world. But there’s also real knowledge that gives students some power over their circumstances – about science and technology, or the way the economy works. That’s not something that people can get a very sophisticated dose of in high school, and it’s not something that professional schools care about.

I also think that college is a form of socialization, because higher education trains people to observe general norms about how to reason and make judgments of taste and value. You pretty much have to learn to conform within certain parameters or you’re penalized. So college does make students more likeminded, and that’s probably a social good. You could regard it as a cost maybe, as well, a certain diminution of individuality, but I think it’s probably on balance a social good.

Finally, I do think that Theory 3 is relevant to everybody because as a social investment, higher education basically justifies itself by producing workers who can do high-tech kinds of work. I think that’s what the president is talking about when he talks about college for everybody.

MB: In the book, you argue for the benefits of a common cultural heritage that people can draw on and use – a common set of references, a common moral language, that kind of thing. As we get more and more internationalized, globalized, multi-cultural, do you think it’s important to retain a particular canon? In other words, how important is it that our common heritage look anything like the heritage that we’ve been accustomed to in this country? Or is the point just to have something in common?

LM: I’m agnostic about that. The argument that we have great books curricula or general education curricula to provide people with a common heritage was used to justify those kinds of curricula in the first half of the twentieth century. But I think the world is too plural for that rationale now to be very cogent.

There are protocols for inquiry that are important for people to understand and be able to adopt, and those protocols constitute a lingua franca, even if the language is principally methodological. The idea that there is a set canon is an anachronism now, and generally acknowledged as such.

MB: It’s interesting that you zero in on the protocols for inquiry or methodological skills that students learn in college. There are also, of course, particular questions, including the ‘big’ questions, the ‘eternal’ questions, about what it is to be a human being, what a good life might look like, and so forth.

LM: Yes.

MB: Should students be taught to engage those questions in a serious and systematic way in college? Or is content less important, to your way of thinking?

LM: I think that some courses in college, humanities courses in particular, help people decide what the important questions are. I don’t think that those courses provide answers to those questions. You can’t do science without making a decision about what things are important to find out about and why. Those are the questions that discourses like philosophy, literature, and religion try to answer. For students to have a feel for that, they have to have exposure to more than just scientific methods.

MB: My impulse is to say that if we can agree that the pursuit of certain sets of questions – methodological or moral or anthropological questions, say – ought to form at least a part of a serious college education, then the next question follows pretty fast. That is the question of whether some answers to those questions are better than others. Not final answers, necessarily, but answers that take fuller account of what we know from the sciences and anthropology and so forth. 

It sounds like your agnosticism begins around that point – that there might be certain questions that are perennially useful to confront, but that a good college education won’t necessarily even try to offer specific answers or push students in the direction of particular answers to those questions.

LM: Part of the ethos of the college experience is to introduce students to normative issues without being prescriptive. It’s just not what liberal education is about, to tell people what the answers are. It’s to introduce them to the questions, and to the way that people have thought about them. That introduction naturally presupposes a degree of selection. We don’t teach Scientology, but we do teach Plato. We’ve made a decision that reading Plato is going to generate more thought about the things that are important than Scientology is. To that extent, we’re prescriptive, but I think it’s not our job to tell people what to think. It’s just to help them think.

MB: I suppose I worry about the effect of exposing students to lots of different theories – including ethical theories – without asking them to try to formulate commitments in the process.

In doing so, it seems like there might be implicit suggestion that there really aren’t good answers to these questions. That all you can really do is expose yourself to the variety of what’s been thought, and that you’re not really obligated to go further and test these ideas against one another.

Do you worry about that at all? Is there a risk of inadvertently teaching students that nothing is at stake when we focus on exposing them to ideas without actually encouraging a more robust form of moral formation?

LM: I guess I don’t think there’s a danger, though I’m not quite sure why I think that. I wouldn’t trust ourselves to know what to tell people, is one thing.  We’re not really trained to answer the questions that we ask. The manner in which we pose the questions and pursue the arguments – even though it may be open-ended – does in itself communicate a certain kind of ethical practice or rational practice that has normative value. It teaches students not to make choices arbitrarily or self-interestedly or prejudicially. These are attitudes we try to enact in our work, our teaching and our research. I think not having answers is probably what’s valuable about what we’re doing, since out in the rest of the world, everybody seems to have an answer for everything.

MB: So one of the primary values of a liberal education becomes encouraging a kind of humility.

LM: We’re supposed to be disinterested, meaning that we’re not supposed to spin things to get desired outcomes. Everything else out there pretty much is spin. I think for students to experience what it’s like to think this way – to the extent that we’re decent models of it – is a good thing, because it gives them a little bit of detachment from the world in which they’ll be asked to take sides all the time.

MB: You co-chaired Harvard’s curriculum reform committee in 2006 as well. Part of that process involved thinking about the educational aims of the university, particularly given the range of backgrounds from which students come and the different cultural and moral presuppositions they bring with them.

It seems to me that the way you’re talking about liberal education functions on two levels. One way of seeing liberal education is that it’s about putting questions on the table without being prescriptive. But I imagine that perspective also functions pretty strategically in a university this diverse – it doesn’t scare people off ahead of time.

LM: You couldn’t get the faculties to agree on anything very specific or prescriptive about what students need to know or ought to know beyond saying there should be certain subject areas that they will be exposed to. General education is just one piece of what the college curriculum is – the required courses that everyone has to take. There has to be a rationale for you’re requiring people to take these courses, since otherwise they can take whatever they choose. You’re saying, “I don’t care if you’re interested or not; you have to take courses in these areas.” You need a rationale that’s not just, “because it adds breadth to your learning,” but that actually has some substance to it.

One of the difficulties with coming up with a general education curriculum is that professors aren’t trained to think that way. They’re trained to think about what you need to know to be an English professor, an economist, or a physicist, and when you ask them to think about what else people ought to know, they have fairly random answers, which often reflect simply on their own experience of college. Or they have impractical ideas about what we can actually teach. 

We’re not trained to think about it. We’re trained to plow our furrow.

The frustrating thing, which may be behind some of your questions, is that in a university that is organized on the principle of division of labor, if you reward people for specializing in one rather narrow part of the whole, you get a lot more expert knowledge. This works very well for, say, manufacturing cars where the person who does the brakes is really good with brakes, and the person who does the carburetors is good at that. At the end of the assembly line in a factory, you have a car. But there’s no place in the university where you see the car.  All you’re seeing are the pieces. The components are never put together anywhere.

MB: Yes.

LM: So general education is a stab at what it might look like if we actually put all the pieces together. But you’re fighting against the strong pull of specialization, which is how the system is organized and how people are rewarded.

MB: I think you’re helping me clarify what I worry about. In part because of the structures you’re describing, it seems like the university has a tough time articulating a vision about the type of person it hopes to help form, or the type of ethical and intellectual virtues that it hope to see its students gain. In other words, it’s both a model and the absence of a model.

LM: That’s true.

MB: That doesn’t seem like enough. This is going to sound trite, but to my mind, students who have the privilege of going to a place like this and gaining exposure to all these brilliant minds – I would hope that they would emerge with a desire to do something more meaningful than just going and making as much money as they can.

LM: Right.

MB: This is a larger cultural issue, of course, and I don’t just want to just lay it at the feet of the university or the faculty. But if that is one outcome of the educational process, I would hope the university might say to itself, “Well, gee, that’s not quite what we’re hoping for.”

LM: That’s the Theory 1 part, though. Theory 1 is that a place like Harvard exists to select out the most intelligent members of the cohort as it passes through college and then to hook those people up with the appropriate careers. And those tend to be careers that people do well in because they’re very smart. It can involve making a lot of money. It can also involve being the president of the United States. It’s not just about the money, but it is about success in pretty worldly terms, and that’s why people compete to get in and that’s partly why the university survives: because it performs this selection function. So, in this respect, society is not really interested in what’s good for everybody; it’s only interested in what’s good for the best.

MB: It feels like you’re describing ‘the best’ quite differently under Theories 1 and 2.

LM: Yes, they tend to be somewhat different, because Theory 2 is a theory that it’s a social good for people to have this experience together. Fundamentally, it’s not about a race to the top. That’s what Theory 2 people tend to think.

MB: My sense is that Theory 1 and Theory 2 actually relate pretty closely. That by going through a Theory 2-type experience, one might gain a larger or deeper vision, including a more sophisticated moral vision, and that the fruits of that learning could be used in very practical, Theory 1-oriented ways by society – so long as society is interested in bettering itself.

LM: Yes, but the Theory 1 people can do whatever they want with the advantage that they’ve gotten by going to school. I’m sure a lot of students come to a place like Harvard with either no idea or very vague ideas about what they intend to do with their lives, and they are converted to something while they’re here and they often do amazing things. Did you go to Harvard [as an undergraduate]?

MB: Princeton.

LM: Princeton, too. Some of these students do astonishing things, and you would not predict it when they came in. It’s just something happens while they are in college. So even if you have just 20% of your students decide to go off and save the world, even if the rest of them try to make money, you’ve done a good thing.

I don’t think the process is just a technocratic process.



{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Erica May 3, 2012 at 2:49 pm

Great post. I see college as an optional vehicle in learning though. If someone wants to teach, be a doctor, lawyer, or accounant- then college is very important. However, I do have a degree but I save from having more debt and financal bondage by continuing to read and learn beyond the dorm walls.

Erica May 3, 2012 at 2:51 pm

Please forgive my misspellings above, I am using a tablet to type the sentences.

Carol May 3, 2012 at 3:22 pm

In the United States, we’ve put a great deal of emphasis on the aspirational ideal of attending university. At the same time, we have

a) no real national standards for educational progress for what we call grade school through high school, and

b) no way of dealing with the fact that people have differing levels of academic ability and future vocational aptitude.

We do not account for the possibility that many – really most – people neither have the academic ability necessary to pursue a rigorous course of study at university, or that most American jobs do not inherently require university training. We’ve bet the entire farm on the myth that university is the ticket to a middle class lifestyle. Most US jobs seek workers with university degrees – and I include in this assessment jobs like manager of your local Gap or Starbucks branch, which certainly do not inherently require post-secondary training.

We would be far better off acknowledging the diversity of skill and aspiration, and not treat all students in secondary school as potential university students, which carries the unspoken but heavy assumption that students who ultimately do not attend university are failures. Rather, we should provide appropriate vocational training, plus a path to employment, to students who do not seek further education beyond the secondary years.

Matt May 4, 2012 at 10:54 pm

Amen – lots of really great ways to learn in this world. Thanks Erica!

James May 4, 2012 at 11:52 pm


It’s been apparent for some time that raw, computational intelligence is set fairly early on in life.

Your idea that we should all aspire to something more than physical labour and craftsmanship is a reflection of modern society’s tendency to idealize intelligence as somehow more meaningful a trait than imagination or artistic talent.

Education these days fails on two grounds: failing to achieve academically is viewed as somehow a failure as a person, rather than an indication that your strengths lie in other areas; the object of education is not for the talented to excel, but rather for everyone to achieve a base level of mediocrity.

Those incapable of even mediocrity (logically, half of the populace, depending on the definition of mediocrity) will never achieve it, regardless, and those who might have been excellent with support will only achieve mediocrity.

Intelligence is like any other trait — you have an underlying capacity set by the genetics that you’ve inherited, but if you don’t work it adequately you will never achieve its potential. That’s the case for an olympic sprinter, a rocket scientist or a master chef – (This is not a radical idea, folks!)

Today so much effort goes into trying to force children who are not capable to achieve some sort of pretense of average, and children who have the capacity to excel are left to squander their potential once they’ve achieved the minimum requirements. The tendency is, these days, to reset the bar lower so that even mediocrity is not assured, but 100% pass rates are.
We need to start valuing people as people, not as commodities, and not view people as merely suppliers of services. A medical Doctor is vital to a community, but so (in a different way) is a bin-man, or a car mechanic, or a check-out operator. The fact that fewer people have the underlying talent to be a Doctor than a bin-man is a market force, but people shouldn’t be commodities in a work-force market place.

Matt G. May 29, 2012 at 10:10 pm

The great curriculum debate is never ending.  If we decided to teach students everything that prepares them for a certain profession, as well as to expose them to the “eternal” questions, we would have undergraduate programs far exceeding 120 credits.  At some point, we have to draw a line at what is most pertinent and beneficial toward creating a civil society.

I agree with you, Matt, that while it important for students to understand all sides of an issue, if we don’t force students to make commitments we neglect to foster one of the most important skills of the 21st century- decision-making!

Great interview!

Matt May 31, 2012 at 11:00 am

Thanks Matt!  I think that is my focus as well – figuring out what intellectual and moral virtues are most useful for creating a good, decent, compassionate society, one in which people have the freedom and opportunity to develop themselves fully, both as individuals and in relationship with others.  Figuring out exactly what that mix a virtues is, however, is the tricky part.  And I agree with you –  just exposing students to lots of different ideas probably isn’t enough. I think we want to teach discernment as well, though I’m not exactly sure what I think that consists of.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: