by Louis Menand May 21, 2007
On your first sleepover, your best friend’s mother asks if you would like a tuna-fish-salad sandwich. Your own mother gives you tuna-fish-salad sandwiches all the time, so you say, “Sure.” When you bite into the sandwich, though, you realize, too late, that your best friend’s mother’s tuna-fish salad tastes nothing like the tuna-fish salad your mother makes. You never dreamed that it was possible for there to be more than one way to prepare tuna-fish salad. And what’s with the bread? It’s brown, and appears to have tiny seeds in it. What is more unnerving is the fact that your best friend obviously considers his mother’s tuna-fish salad to be perfectly normal and has been eating it with enjoyment all his life. Later on, you discover that the pillows in your best friend’s house are filled with some kind of foam-rubber stuff instead of feathers. The toilet paper is pink. What kind of human beings are these? At two o’clock in the morning, you throw up, and your mother comes and takes you home.
College, from which some 1.5 million people will graduate this year, is, basically, a sleepover with grades. In college, it is not so cool to throw up or for your mother to come and take you home. But plenty of students do throw up, and undergo other forms of mental and bodily distress, and plenty take time off from school or drop out. Almost half the people who go to college never graduate. Except in the case of a few highfliers and a somewhat larger number of inveterate slackers, college is a stressful experience.
American colleges notoriously inflate grades, but they can never inflate them enough, because education in the United States has become hypercompetitive and every little difference matters. In 1960, Harvard College had around five thousand applicants and accepted roughly thirty per cent; this year, it had almost twenty-three thousand applicants and accepted nine per cent. And the narrower the funnel, the finer applicants grind themselves in order to squeeze through it. Perversely, though, the competitiveness is a sign that the system is doing what Americans want it to be doing. Americans want education to be two things, universal and meritocratic. They want everyone to have a slot who wants one, and they want the slots to be awarded according to merit. The system is not perfect: children from higher-income families enjoy an advantage in competing for the top slots. But there are lots of slots. There are more than four thousand institutions of higher education in the United States, enrolling more than seventeen million students. Can you name fifty colleges? Even if you could name a thousand, there would be three thousand you hadn’t heard of. Most of these schools accept virtually all qualified applicants.
What makes for the stress is meritocracy. Meritocratic systems are democratic (since, in theory, everyone gets a place at the starting line) and efficient (since resources are not wasted on the unqualified), but they are huge engines of anxiety. The more purely meritocratic the system—the more open, the more efficient, the fairer—the more anxiety it produces, because there is no haven from competition. Your mother can’t come over and help you out—that would be cheating! You’re on your own. Everything you do in a meritocratic society is some kind of test, and there is never a final exam. There is only another test. People seem to pick up on this earlier and earlier in their lives, and at some point it starts to get in the way of their becoming educated. You can’t learn when you’re afraid of being wrong.
The biggest undergraduate major by far in the United States today is business. Twenty-two per cent of bachelor’s degrees are awarded in that field. Eight per cent are awarded in education, five per cent in the health professions. By contrast, fewer than four per cent of college graduates major in English, and only two per cent major in history. There are more bachelor’s degrees awarded every year in Parks, Recreation, Leisure, and Fitness Studies than in all foreign languages and literatures combined. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, which classifies institutions of higher education, no longer uses the concept “liberal arts” in making its distinctions. This makes the obsession of some critics of American higher education with things like whether Shakespeare is being required of English majors beside the point. The question isn’t what the English majors aren’t taking; the question is what everyone else isn’t taking.
More than fifty per cent of Americans spend some time in college, and American higher education is the most expensive in the world. The average annual tuition at a four-year private college is more than twenty-two thousand dollars. What do we want from college, though? It is hard to imagine that there could be one answer that was right for each of the 1.5 million or so people graduating this year, one part of the college experience they all must have had. Any prescription that had to spread itself across that many institutions would not be very deep. One thing that might be hoped for, though, is that, somewhere along the way, every student had a moment of vertigo (without unpleasant side effects). In commencement speeches and the like, people say that education is all about opportunity and expanding your horizons. But some part of it is about shrinking people, about teaching them that they are not the measure of everything. College should give them the intellectual equivalent of their childhood sleepover experience. We want to give graduates confidence to face the world, but we also want to protect the world a little from their confidence. Humility is good. There is not enough of it these days. ♦