More on the Value of a College Education

We recently covered students shifting attitudes towards higher education. In that debate comes Louis Menand, professor, journalist, and author (The Metaphysical Club) of a new book on reforming higher education in America — always an fun filled exercise that leads to entrepreneurial opportunities. The Marketplace of Ideas is reviewed by Wilfred M. McClay in the Bookshelf column of the WSJ.

I must admit I have not read any of Menand’s work (that I can recall), but it says, in the review, “Louis Menand, who is both a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine and a professor of English at Harvard—and an intelligent observer of American cultural life—would seem to be well positioned to provide such a rationale and to suggest the ways in which colleges can do a better job of, well, educating.”

Er, I guess? Professor of English at Harvard who publishes best sellers and writes for the New Yorker  is not that representative of higher education in America. For some he might represent the tip of the spear. That said, I am glad that he (or his editors or a focus group), choice to use the concept of the marketplace in the title as it highlights the notion of campus as marketplace that we discuss here often.

The book gets a solid review and it seems to be a worthy addition to the ever evolving  calls for reforming higher education. Check out the snippet below.

Mr. Menand also offers some interesting, if undeveloped, ideas about the reform of graduate education, noting that the path to a Ph.D. is too long (10 years or more for students in the humanities) and that it ends up “overtraining” students for the jobs that are available. Referring to doctoral candidates, who are often teaching assistants as well as students, he writes: “The argument that they need the training to be qualified to teach undergraduates is belied by the fact that they are already teaching undergraduates.” (And, one might add, doing so without any formal training in teaching.) In addition, Mr. Menand offers laudable, if slightly platitudinous, reflections on the academy and society: “It is the academic’s job in a free society to serve the public culture by asking questions the public doesn’t want to ask, investigating subjects it cannot or will not investigate, and accommodating voices it fails or refuses to accommodate.”

I get the notion of the eternal PhD, which represents working professionals earning PhD at night and on weekends, and the truth that a PhD is not necessary to successfully teach undergraduates.

BTW, I like how the reviewer ends the review:

Outside events could help to bring about change, however. Mr. Menand points to a little-noticed fact about the ideal of general education: that it has had its greatest appeal during times of war and times when the social fabric seemed threatened by socioeconomic diversity. The famous Columbia University general-ed courses, and their offspring at the University of Chicago and elsewhere, arose in response to World War I and the problems of assimilation in the wake of a half-century of high immigration. The Harvard Report of 1945, offering a different general-ed curriculum, reflected the experience of World War II and the challenges of the Cold War, as well as the need to create the “binding experience” of a common culture in an increasingly diverse society.

That said, if 9/11, Afghanistan, New Orleans, Iraq, etc. are not inciting incidents — can anything be an inciting incident in the age of the iPhone? Perhaps extended loss of iPhone/Internet in the West? Now I am just babbling.

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