What are we doing here?

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

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.

University of Michigan commencement 2014

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.

2 thoughts on “What are we doing here?

  1. I think your blog post made a lot of good points. The only thing I would say is that when you argue that people who graduate in the bottom of their class and the top of their class get the same degree, I think that is half-right. Yes, you get the same basic degree from the University of Michigan, but people who finish at the top of their class usually have some distinguishing award that recognizes that. Furthermore, grad schools use GPAs to differentiate students who may be applying from the same colleges. I think that your logic is perfectly reasonable for two students who graduate the University of Michigan, one with a 2.0 and the other with a 4.0, and have no intentions of going to grad school (where I also agree that is often where you get the technical training to succeed at your profession), but if both these students planned on going to grad school, the 4.0 student has a far better shot. One of my english teachers in high school pointed out that many employers just look at college as a “sorting out” mechanism, which is in accordance with Menand’s beliefs, and that the degree is what counts. As long as you have the specific degree these employers are looking for, you’re good to go, but otherwise, there is a way to distinguish high-academic level students at U of M from the lower academic students.


  2. I loved reading this article because at the end of the day, I think every student in college is unsure as to what they want to be doing. Some students might seem like they have it all figured out as they are pre admits to Ross or are already taking classes to fulfill their major; but as 18 year olds upon coming into college, I cannot help but to wonder how colleges expect us to have our life figured out.
    Yes, people can argue that we do not need to declare our major until our sophomore year or even our junior year, but even then we are so young and have so much ahead of us that could potentially determine where we want to go and what we want to do.
    I really like how you related this back to the Menand reading because I think that has been the most relatable reading we have had. I agree with all of the points that you made.


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