But what does it teach you?

The New Yorker has a fantastic article on theories of education and how the reasons for why people go to college have changed over the years. The description sounds a bit dull but the article is really very good.

It tracks how the perception of what a college education should do, at least in the States, has changed and evolved over the years.

For example, selection by academic ability is a relatively new concept. Ivy League universities were largely considered as finishing schools for young men, and presumably, the occasional daring young woman who had the support of their family and felt there was more to life than getting up the duff (Americans: blessed with child).

In the mid 20th Century, the concept changed so college was considered a place to identify and shape the brightest members of society, while more recently it has become seen as a place to deliver needs-specific training.

The articles weaves in this story with modern ideas and preoccupations about whether students actually learn anything useful and whether education is being dumbed down, prettied up or sold out.

Link to New Yorker article.

6 thoughts on “But what does it teach you?”

  1. Perhaps in the process, the concept of “college professor” has changed as well. As an “older student” returning to school, I’m struck by how little really distinguishes the appearance and demeanor of the teachers now from the rest of the class, besides “age”. And it also seems like many of the professors these days are often just as narcissistic and self-absorbed as their students. For example I recently recall one Computer Science professor who always dressed like a “biker”, and took every opportunity to let us know how “cool” he was (re: his tastes in music, food, politics, motorcycles, etc.). The class was basically a captive audience & a source of “narcissistic supply” for his personality.

    1. On the subject of professors: One oddity of today’s education is that classes are increasingly being taught by grad students, or even by TA’s who are not grad students. We don’t know who to call “professor,” because many of our educators are our own age and simply filling in. Frequently, papers are corrected by someone with limited field knowledge. We cannot take for granted that the actual professor of any class will ever interact with us in person. It’s strange to call someone my own age, “Mr./Ms. *insert actual derp*” but we don’t start with ‘professor,’; because they usually aren’t one.

    2. Quoting slightly further down:

      “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.”

      Try starting college with these qualities and finishing sane. Virtually all class requirements are that you memorize whatever the person in front is saying and spit it back on demand; once. Then it is perfectly acceptable to forget said knowledge.

      Actual creative, analytical thinking about course materials is frowned upon. Discussion of materials between faculty and students is unheard of and entirely absent in the student body.

      I live in a college town. I never, ever, overhear students discussing course material except in the context of completion of assignment A. EVER.

  2. I’ll somewhat agree with Mat on appearance and demeanor, but didn’t experience narcissism or self-absorbedness. The teachers I have had cared.

    From the article: “Society wants to identify intelligent people early on so that it can funnel them into careers that maximize their talents. It wants to get the most out of its human resources. College is a process that is sufficiently multifaceted and fine-grained to do this.”

    Ok…someone hasn’t read the literature.

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