Email Exchange With Reader on God and Man at Harvard

My post God and Man at Harvard generated a number of comments from people. One led to an email exchange which I have included below.

Reader Writes:

The days when college was a place to passively soak in the liberal arts, get Cs, then go off to work at your dad’s friend’s law firm went out with the advent of need-blind admissions and the general shift to merit — not social station — as the primary factor in college admission decisions.

The purpose of college has changed. It serves many different needs, and it can no longer be expected to explictly address only the concerns of a certain segment pining away for the “good ‘ole days.” It
seems the response to Baker’s article should be: if you want a strong liberal arts education, then take hard liberal arts courses. If you want more than anything to be a doctor, then take hard pre-med
courses. If you want to be a humor writer, go to Harvard and work your ass off to get on the Lampoon. If you want to do all three, then do all three. Just because no one is forcing a specific path, no one is
preventing on either.

College has been opened up to the masses, and in return, it demands that the masses take the initiative. It can longer force fit everyone into one model of education. The onus is now on the student. The student can no longer be passive. He must be proactive; use college as chance to shape a future — not a holding period before descending a pre-determined path.

My response:

I think you make some interesting points. A lot of people are telling college students (and high school students) just what you said – be proactive, take steps to shape your future, if you want to be X then you must do Y, etc. By junior year in high school, people are asking “what do you think you want to major in?” By senior year, it’s “what do you want to be when you grow up?” By college, if you’re not on the fast track for a successful, rich career, then something is wrong with you.

This troubles me and I think there are a number of consequences. First and foremost it means our education system will be churning out people who are very specialized and focused on their one area. Just as public intellectuals and academics now specialize in the most narrow areas imaginable, students are getting put on this track too. This may mean you can be successful at that one career, but what if it’s not a passion? What if it gets boring? Being successful doesn’t make you an interesting person who has knowledge in a wide range of areas and thus will only take you so far up the totem pole. I believe going to college should be about intellectual stimulation, not which hoop to jump through next.

A lot of high school/college students are asking themselves, What if I don’t know what I want to be? What if I don’t know what I’m interested in? Indeed, they should opt-in to a liberal arts curriculum that will offer broad exposure.

You would argue, and I agree, that our education system now offers schools that have different educational philosophies. Some that mandate a core curriculum forcing everyone to take Chemistry 101. Others have no academic requirements. You seem to be saying that it’s up to the student to go to a school that is a good match for them based on where they are in answering the question “What do I want to be/do in this world?” I agree.

My takeaway from the God and Man at Harvard piece was basically that since Harvard is the most visible educational institution in the country, it should set the standard and lead by example by mandating broad academic requirements before graduating.

7 Responses to Email Exchange With Reader on God and Man at Harvard

  1. Elena Butler says:

    Hi Ben,

    My dad heard about you somewhere, but I was unable to give him a satisfactory explanation of what your business does, so we resorted to Google. The search turned up this very impressive blog. So many interesting ideas and discussions! I especially like the “School” posts, probably because I’m most familiar with those topics (although I’m sorry to read that you’ve concluded that “high school ruins even the toughest girls”–are we really that bad? :) )

    Anyway, nice work. If you could send me the text of those two Harvard articles, I’d really appreciate it.

    Hope you’re having a nice break,

    Elena

  2. Pingback: Work(s) in Progress

  3. Cal Newport says:

    Ben,

    I think this discussion is interesting. I have been thinking about
    your response below, and I want to push back a little bit — I think a
    good-natured debate shakes out the most interesting insights!

    I agree with you that students should not be pressured into a
    particular track by outside sources. Instead, individuals should
    identify their own passions and then — here is the important part —
    pursue them voraciously. Almost without exception, everyone we
    respect or find interesting has followed this pattern — be it Michael
    Jordan, Steve Jobs, or Jackson Pollock.

    This is what I meant in my previous message when I described the
    modern college experience as a blank slate for use by proactive
    students. When you say things such as: “[Harvard] should set the
    standard and lead by example by mandating broad academic
    requirements before graduating” you are sending the message that we
    don’t *trust* college students to find their own way. If we don’t
    mandate what’s best for them, they will, by default, do something
    against their best interests.

    This type of thinking is very prevelant in modern society. I call it
    the “college survival mindset.” Go to the College Life section of
    Barnes & Nobles, then count what percentage of the books have the
    phrase “how to survive college” or “college survival guide” in their
    title. You will understand what I mean. Society sends college students
    a clear mesasge: “you don’t know what you’re doing yet, when you get
    to college try to hold on and survive the experience, then, after
    graduation, when you are older, you can start to get serious about
    life.” The problem about this concept is that it is out of synch with
    reality. If you go to college with only intent to survive or passively
    soak up a broad exposure to the liberal arts then you will soon find
    yourself surviving a job you don’t like. Once you are out in the real
    world, and college is behind you, it is much harder to jump into an
    ambitious, exciting path.

    My thought: get rid of this survival mentality. College survival
    guides should be replaced with College Success guides based on the
    books published in the business world. Instead of talking about using
    core cirriculums to force otherwise ignorant students to do what’s
    best for themselves, we should encourage freedom and hard work. A
    freshman arriving on campus should be given a simple message: “you
    have the next four years to shape whatever future your passions
    dictate — take advantage of this moment, go out, discover what moves
    you, then conquer it.”

    What do you think?

  4. Ben Casnocha says:

    Cal,

    I didn’t “say” that Harvard should set the standard etc. I said that’s what the article argued.

    I disagree with your hypothesis on several grounds because I just don’t believe that society is sending a “take it easy” message. In fact, quite the opposite. Good schools try to say what your ideal message is – some do it better than others. If they send the wrong message, I would argue it’s on the other end of the continuum – What do you want to be? Visit the career services office! Get an internship! Interview! Network! Climb the totem pole!.

    Thanks for thoughtful comments,

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