05/02/2012 11:40 am ET Updated Jul 02, 2012

What Is College For? An Interview With the New Yorker 's Louis Menand

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?

MATT BIEBER: What does a Theory 2 education actually look like in practice?

LOUIS MENAND: It can be lots of different things. I don't think of it as learning about great ideas particularly, but as students learning things about the world that they wouldn't learn elsewhere. Some of this learning is historical, and some of it is philosophical or theoretical, and constitutes equipment for thinking in a more enlightened way about your own life and about your place in the world. But there's also real information that gives students some power over their circumstances -- knowledge in science and technology, and the way the economy works. That's not something that people can get a very sophisticated dose of in high school and it's not something that professional schools care about.

I also think that college is a form of socialization, because higher education trains people to observe general norms about how to reason and make judgments of taste and value. You pretty much have to learn to conform to those within certain parameters or you're penalized. So college does make students more likeminded and that's probably a social good. You could regard it as a cost maybe as well, a certain diminution of individuality, but I think it's probably on balance a social good.

Finally, I do think that Theory 3 is relevant to everybody because as a social investment, higher education basically justifies itself by producing workers who can do high-tech kinds of work. I think that's what the president is talking about when he talks about college for everybody.

MB: In the book, you argue for the benefits of a common cultural heritage that people can draw on and use -- a common set of references, a common moral language, that kind of thing. As we get more and more internationalized, globalized, multi-cultural, do you think it's important to retain a particular canon? In other words, how important is it that our common heritage look anything like the heritage that we've been accustomed to in this country? Or is the point just to have something in common?

LM: I'm agnostic about that. The argument that we have great books curricula or general education curricula to provide people with a common heritage was used to justify those kinds of curricula in the first half of the 20th century. But I think the world is too plural for that rationale now to be very cogent.

There are protocols for inquiry that are important for people to understand and be able to adopt, and those protocols constitute a shared lingua franca, even if the language is principally methodological. The idea that there is a set canon is an anachronism now, and generally acknowledged as such.

MB: It's interesting that you zero in on the protocols for inquiry or methodological skills that students learn in college. There are also, of course, particular questions, including the 'big' questions, the 'eternal' questions, about what it is to be a human being, what a good life might look like, and so forth.

LM: Yes.

MB: Should students be taught to engage those questions in a serious and systematic way in college? Or is content less important, to your way of thinking?

LM: I think that some courses in college, humanities courses in particular, help people decide what the important questions are. I don't think that those courses provide answers to those questions. You can't do science without making a decision about what things are important to find out about and why. Those are the questions that discourses like philosophy, literature and religion try to answer. For students to have a feel for that, they have to have exposure to more than just scientific methods.

The full interview is available at The Wheat and Chaff.