Thursday, June 09, 2011

Why do I have to read these books?

"You are reading these books because you're in college, and these are the kinds of books that people in college read." If you hold a certain theory of education, this 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 intelligence involves many attributes that can't be captured in a one-time assessment, like an IQ test. There is no intellectual equivalent of the hundred-yard dash. 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.

Society needs a mechanism for sorting out its more intelligent members from its less intelligent ones, just as a track team needs a mechanism (such as a stopwatch) for sorting out the faster athletes from the slower ones. 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.

College is, essentially, a four-year intelligence test. Students have to demonstrate intellectual ability over time and across a range of subjects. If they're sloppy or inflexible or obnoxious-no matter how smart they might be in the IQ sense-those negatives will get picked up in their grades. As an added service, college also sorts people according to aptitude. It separates the math types from the poetry types.. At the end of the process, graduates get a. score, the G.P.A., that professional schools and employers can trust as a measure of intellectual capacity and productive potential. It's important therefore, that everyone is taking more or less the same test.

I could have answered the question in a different way. I could have said, ''You're reading these books because they teach you things about the world and yourself that, if you do not learn them in college, you are unlikely to learn anywhere else." This reflects a different theory of college, a theory that runs like this: In a society that encourages its members to pursue the career paths that promise the greatest personal or financial rewards, people will, given a choice, learn only what they need to know for success. They will have no incentive to acquire the knowledge and skills important for life as an informed citizen, or as a reflective and culturally literate human being. College exposes future citizens to material that enlightens and empowers them, whatever careers they end up choosing.

excerpt from “Live and Learn – Why We Have College” by Louis Menand
New Yorker magazine, 6 June 2011, p.74

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