Louis Menand, in his New Yorker article “Live and Learn,” tackles the question of the purpose of American college education. That’s easy, we might say, but when we are left to contemplate this question, something ostensibly self-evident turns out to veil an intricate issue. Menand himself proposes a “democratic” theory of the ideal college education — a sort of coming-of-age experience designed to, by socializing students, provide the template for thinking like an adult while simultaneously cultivating our independence and critical faculties. This conception of college is presented in contrast to the far less romanticized views of college as primarily a sorting hat intended to shuffle you onto the right career track or, alternatively, as a time chiefly to acquire a specific set of skills applicable in a certain profession. Menand’s favored theory is well-received by many of us, but it also leaves the question: For how many of us does it ring true?
A problem is that at institutions like Penn, its Ivy League peers and other often-proclaimed guiding stars of American higher education, the infatuation with success has a disadvantageous backside. As students, we are not only expected to succeed, but we are in a sense not even allowed to not succeed. Academically, professionally and socially we are surrounded by an overabundance of paths to reach “success.” Often this is not so much the kind of success as we would traditionally see it, but rather a passable illusion of success, where it’s not about the inherent worth of a commitment, but its face value, that ultimately counts. In the academic sphere of college life, grade inflation and mandatory attendance are just two examples of hand holding. If you do not have the discipline yourself, the reasoning goes, points for attendance will ensure you attend class. In the professional domain, if there isn’t an appropriate internship, you can be sure there is some opportunity to do something else which has a nice enough ring to it — no matter how little it may inherently benefit you. As long as success points can be gained, that is. Likewise, who needs social skills when you can fill up an entire week with social events funded by the university? “Success,” to many, is after all not only about your resume, but your social life as well. The crowning piece of this reality is inevitably the student culture which impels us to be content with this type of “success.” After all, both “hards” in “work hard, play hard” can be all about it.
Worse yet, perhaps, is that this child-safe environment impedes the very development of the independent adult we seek in the ideal college education. It should not be surprising that, in an environment where we can nearly sign up for success at any corner; where we, to a large extent, can avoid demands for diligent efforts; where risk-taking is often unnecessary and where situations in which we legitimately need to challenge ourselves are few; self-reliance is not exactly bred with staggering success. We are, to some degree, deprived of the normal mechanisms which compel us to challenge ourselves and grow as individuals, as we, to be hyperbolic, chase illusory success at a four-year summer camp.
Far from reiterating the sentiments like those of William Deresiewicz’s infamous New Republic article “Don’t Send your Kid to the Ivy League,” I do believe that students at institutions like Penn are doing incredible things in their academic, professional and social lives, and that we are not, in fact, sheep. The point that I am hoping to make, however, is that we are in a system which has become too much about comfort and safety, however desirable these may be, to the detriment of personal development and opportunities to challenge ourselves. Here I talk not of challenging ourselves in terms of having a heavy course load or balancing a commitment to a dozen of different activities and clubs, but rather that of having to think for yourself and being responsible. If I attempt to put it succinctly: I believe college should be less of a continuation of high school and more of a development opportunity towards adult life.
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