What is college for?

By Christopher B. Daly 

imagesThe perennial question of what college is good for has been getting a burst of new attention lately, triggered by a loud lament from former Yale professor William Deresiewicz (cq?) in a July rant against the Ivy League in The New Republic (which has become the most-read item in the storied history of TNR). The article was a strategically astute pitch for Prof. D’s new book, Excellent Sheep, which argues that American higher ed is a mess because it culminates in elite schools where kids over-achieve for no reason and who end up going into careers in finance, again for no reason. [A bit of context, from Wikipedia: “He left academia in 2008, when he failed to receive tenure from Yale, to become a full-time writer.”]

The article and book have prompted a fair amount of pushback. One of the most thoughtful appears in TNR itself, written by Steven Pinker from a high perch in the elite schools. Pinker, who holds an endowed chair in psychology at Harvard, does a fine job of engaging Prof D’s many arguments. I was struck by Pinker’s admirable attempt to make a positive statement about the purpose of higher education. Thank you, Prof P. 

Here’s the essence (from Pinker’s article “The Trouble with Harvard,” TNR, 9/5/14):

It seems to me that educated people should know something about the 13-billion-year prehistory of our species and the basic laws governing the physical and living world, including our bodies and brains. They should grasp the timeline of human history from the dawn of agriculture to the present. They should be exposed to the diversity of human cultures, and the major systems of belief and value with which they have made sense of their lives. They should know about the formative events in human history, including the blunders we can hope not to repeat. They should understand the principles behind democratic governance and the rule of law. They should know how to appreciate works of fiction and art as sources of aesthetic pleasure and as impetuses to reflect on the human condition. 


On top of this knowledge, a liberal education should make certain habits of rationality second nature. Educated people should be able to express complex ideas in clear writing and speech. They should appreciate that objective knowledge is a precious commodity, and know how to distinguish vetted fact from superstition, rumor, and unexamined conventional wisdom. They should know how to reason logically and statistically, avoiding the fallacies and biases to which the untutored human mind is vulnerable. They should think causally rather than magically, and know what it takes to distinguish causation from correlation and coincidence. They should be acutely aware of human fallibility, most notably their own, and appreciate that people who disagree with them are not stupid or evil. Accordingly, they should appreciate the value of trying to change minds by persuasion rather than intimidation or demagoguery.

 If all of us who are involved in higher ed could achieve some, most, or all of these worthy goals, that would be ample justification. If some kids still go into finance, at least they’ll be discontented. 




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