I am a liberal arts student and have no idea what I want to study or pursue as a career. Right now, my first semester of freshman year, I take this class, Latin, what is an american (a class on immigration), and extreme weather (a class that sounds cool but in reality it is about air pressure). All of these classes meet degree requirements so they are not pointless but the chances that I will retain anything about how a tornado forms after this semester ends are very slim. So what am I doing here?
Louis Menand, in his article Live and Learn, gives three theories as to why we go to college. Theory 1 states that college is a sorting mechanism, separating the elite from the masses, the the best from the average, and so on. Theory 2 states that higher education should be open to everyone and produce good, competent citizens. Finally theory 3 states that college is where people should be taught skills for a specific job. However from my experience so far college does not fit any of these.
I can’t argue that college isn’t a sorting mechanism to some degree. Not everyone can afford to pay roughly $50,000 out of state or $26,000 in state tuition here at the University of Michigan (College Board). And not everyone has the resume to get in here either. However now that we are here the class of 2018 isn’t all that different from each other. Yes some people will be at the top of the curve and others will barely get a passing grade, but a passing grade is a passing grade nonetheless. A 4.0 student and a 3.0 student get the same degree. So while we are sorted into schools and at them, when we leave with a degree everyone is the same. Graduates even leave in identical caps and gowns.
On theory 2 again I cannot disagree with it entirely. Virtually anyone can attend college and a rising number do and earn degrees. However I can’t say that means there are more competent citizens. For example Bernie Madoff, who graduated from Hofstra University in 1960, orchestrated a 50 million dollar ponzi scheme that went on for decades. His education helped this go undetected for decades as it gave him the foundation to become a “well versed and active member of the financial industry” (Business Insider). Additionally for some students, like those in this Harvard scandal, there is so much pressure to perform that they learn how to cheat and scheme rather than put in work to accomplish their goals.
Now for theory 3. This is definitely true for technical and vocational school. For traditional college though this is not always the case. What career does an English degree or a political science degree prepare you for? Rather it is graduate school that provides a career path. Take for example Hu Lee, a freshman here at the University of Michigan. Lee wants to be an oral surgeon. Right now he is majoring in biochemistry. When asked if the classes he is taking now will be useful to him as an oral surgeon he said, “No but they will help me get into dentistry school. That’s where I’ll learn about oral surgery.”
So what are we doing here? While Menand’s theories are valid in some cases I don’t think they answer the overall question. Yes we are sorted, yes it’s open to everyone, and yes it lends itself to some vocations, but is sorting, becoming competent, and finding a career the purpose of it? If he is right extreme weather, latin, what is an American, and this class should help me out someday. Hopefully then I will know what exactly I am doing here.