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.
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.
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.