ABOUT LOUIS MENAND
• Staff writer for The New Yorker and frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books.
• His book "The Metaphysical Club" won a Pulitzer in 2002.
• Professor of English and American literature and language at Harvard.
• Was a distinguished professor of English at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York before moving to Harvard in 2003.
• Completed his undergraduate work at Pomona and received his Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1980.
What every college graduate needs to know was the topic of Louis Menand's talk at Sewanee: The University of the South on Friday.
But if the more than 200 attendees thought the hourlong speech would provide an answer, they were wrong.
Instead, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, professor and critic offered historical background about the current higher education system in the United States, including the development of general education programs, which he said is essential to move forward.
"Answering the question is complicated because [the] history of higher education is complicated, that's the main point," he said. "Things happened 100 years ago we still live with that make it hard for us to answer the question."
Most disciplines were created about 100 years ago, and faculty have not been taught to think about what subjects every student needs to know about.
"What subjects are really important in the world today?" he asked. For every school it may be different, but there needs to be a conversation about it, he said.
The subject was timely for the faculty and students at Sewanee, which last year created a curriculum committee to take a look at what courses are required.
Jourdan Cooney entered Sewanee only with the goal of going to medical school afterward, but after she took a required course in philosophy of religion, she found she had a passion for religion and decided to major in it.
"A Sewanee education is allowing me to explore my passion for religion which I'm not going to be able to do later on," she said.
For her and classmate Will Stanley, also a religion major, Menand's comments put into words a lot of what students and faculty have been discussing at the school.
And while Stanley agrees things can change, he hopes in a place like Sewanee the goal of making students good writers, regardless of their major, remains.
Menand was the speaker at the Sewanee's "How, Then, Shall We Live?" lecture series, which brings guests to explore the issues and questions in life that should be part of the discussion.
Menand talked about the two theories about higher education in America.
Since 1945, he said, American higher education has been committed to a theory where college is basically an intelligence test as well as one where students have the opportunity to learn things they are not going to learn anywhere else.
For Jack Whiteman, a father of a 2004 Sewanee graduate and a doctor, it's still debatable whether a liberal arts education has a pragmatic value or not.
"I don't think it does, but I like it," he said after the talk.
"If you have enough talent, you'll make it no matter what," he said, referencing to figures such as Bill Gates, who didn't complete college.
His daughter became a nurse after graduating from Sewanee.
Making college a prerequisite for professional school was possibly the most important reform ever made in American higher education, said Menand. It raised the status of the professions, by making them harder to enter, and it saved the liberal arts college from withering away.
The No. 1 major in America is business, according to Menand, with 22 percent of bachelor's degrees awarded in that field. More than twice as many degrees are given out every year in parks, recreation, leisure and fitness studies as in philosophy and religion, he said.
Menand prompted colleges to look and revise their curriculum.
Colleges have to design programs that are meaningful to their students and with a faculty that can teach them, Menand said.
"Curriculum reform is best when it comes from inside," he added.