Louis Menand is a Pulitzer Prize-winning professor of English at Harvard and a staff writer for the New Yorker. His most recent book, The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University, traces the rise of the modern university system and asks hard questions about whether higher education’s historical goals and structures are well-suited for today’s world.
In a June, 2011 New Yorker article, Menand expanded on Marketplace, laying out three theories that seek to answer the question: What is college for?
Theory 1 sees the university as a quality filter – a means of sorting young people according to their intelligence and capabilities and providing signals to society about the roles for which they might be well-suited.
Theory 2 is the classic liberal arts vision of the university – in Menand’s words, an opportunity to teach “the knowledge and skills important for life as an informed citizen, or as a reflective and culturally literate human being.”
Theory 3 is a more brass-tacks view: it sees the university as designed for professional or vocational preparation.
In this interview, Menand and I dig into Theory 2. What does an education designed to create “informed citizens” or “reflective and culturally literate human beings” actually look like? What books and pedagogical techniques might it include? How much will it seek to answer the ‘big questions’, and to what extent will it be content with simply asking them?