In Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, Reed College, my alma mater, gets some very bad publicity. An extremely smart student named Chris Langan chose Reed over the University of Chicago, which thirty years later he calls “a huge mistake.” While he was at Reed, his mom failed to fill out a form to renew his scholarship. Here’s what Langan told Gladwell:
At some point, it came to my attention that my scholarship had not been renewed. So I went to the office to ask why, and they told me, Well, no one sent us the financial statement, and we allocated all the scholarship money and it’s all gone, so I’m afraid you don’t have a scholarship anymore. That was the style of the place. They simply didn’t care. They didn’t give a shit about their students. There was no counseling, mo mentoring, nothing.
Losing his scholarship did Langan enormous damage. He never finished college. According to Gladwell, Langan is wrong.
Langan talks about dealing with Reed . . . as if [it] were some kind of vast and unyielding government bureaucracy. But colleges, particularly small liberal arts colleges like Reed, tend not to be rigid bureaucracies. [No examples given.] . . . Would [the physicist Robert] Oppenheimer [supposedly more persuasive than Langan] have lost his scholarship at Reed? . . . Of course not.
That is the myth of the small liberal arts college, yes. But how true is the myth — at least in the case of Reed?
About seven years ago, I returned to Reed to give a talk. I had some spare time so I decided to visit Reed’s best-known course, a survey of Western Civilization that is required of all freshman and sophomores. I hadn’t had to take it because I entered Reed as a junior. I wondered what it was about. I found it. The large lecture hall was almost empty. Maybe there were 15 students; the enrollment must have been about 400. A young professor was giving a staggeringly boring lecture about some Greek classic.
Later I asked a Reed student why attendance was so low. She said that in the very beginning, fall semester (it was now spring semester), attendance was high but the students quickly realized the lectures weren’t helpful and stopped coming. The lecturer, I realized, didn’t care about the students. He didn’t have tenure and was trying to impress an older professor I’d seen in the audience who might influence whether he got tenure.
I’ve told Reed professors this story. They did not explain why a required course, really the required course, supposedly the centerpiece of a Reed education, was/is so poorly taught.
I think Langan’s story and the Western Civ story are two examples of how most colleges, including small liberal arts colleges, are not run for the benefit of students. I imagine the Reed professors I spoke to understood this; but it was unspeakable. I think the result is a power-law distribution of damage: A large fraction of students suffer small bad things (such as a lecture that’s a waste of time and tuition) and a small fraction of students (such as Langan) suffer nightmarishly-bad treatment.