Beside training in professional (technical) skills, according to Louis Menand there are two major roles that higher education plays: meritocratic (Theory 1) and democratic (Theory 2).
Theory 1 goes like this:
In any group of people, picking out the most intelligent person is a difficult and has to be complicated. It is not like to determine who is the fastest or the strongest or even the best-looking, for intelligence involves many attributes that is more than just I.Q. An intelligent person is open-minded, an outside-the-box thinker, an effective communicator, is prudent, self-critical, consistent, and so on. These are not qualities readily subject to measurement.
Society needs a mechanism for sorting out its more intelligent members from its less intelligent ones so that it can funnel them into careers that maximize their talents and get the most out of its human resources.
College is essentially a four-year intelligence test. Students have to demonstrate intellectual ability over time and across a sufficiently multifaceted and fine-grained procedure and disciplines.
If they’re sloppy or inflexible or obnoxious—no matter how smart they might be in the I.Q. sense—those negatives will get picked up in their grades. Student are also sorted out according to their aptitude and strength. It separates the math types from the poetry types. Professional schools (such as medical, law, engineer, and divinity) and employers can trust as a measure of intellectual capacity and productive potential. It’s important, therefore, that everyone is taking more or less the same test.
Theory 2 is what we call the socialization (civil education) or humanization (holistic education):
In a society that encourages its members to pursue the career paths that promise the greatest personal or financial rewards, people will, given a choice, learn only what they need to know for success. They will have no incentive to acquire the knowledge and skills important for life as an informed citizen, or as a reflective and culturally literate human being. College exposes future citizens to material that enlightens and empowers them, whatever careers they end up choosing.
In performing this function, college also socializes. It takes people with disparate backgrounds and beliefs and brings them into line with mainstream norms of reason and taste. Independence of mind is tolerated in college, and even honored, but students have to master the accepted ways of doing things before they are permitted to deviate. Ideally, we want everyone to go to college, because college gets everyone on the same page. It’s a way of producing a society of like-minded grownups.
In the U.S., the élite private colleges like Harvard and Yale used to be committed only to holistic education (theory 2). They inherit the Greek and British tradition of training noble and knowledgeable human beings.
The situation, however, had to change with the emergence of public state colleges and rising needs of the developing society…. (read more)