The Wilson Quarterly

The crisis in American education—prenatal to postdoctoral—may be the nation’s longest-running soap opera. It’s hard to remember a time when there wasn’t hand-wringing about what was going on at one educational level or another. An acronymed army of councils and commissions and such thrives on stoking our unease and risks anaesthetizing our attention. How bracing, then, to hear a single voice as literate and reasonable as Andrew Delbanco’s. His message in College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be may be little more encouraging in the end than that of the furrow-browed alarmists, but it’s delivered with the high civility and spacious reach of the educational ideal he ardently defends.

Delbanco, a much-lauded scholar and teacher of American literature and culture at Columbia University, makes no arguments that other clear-eyed observers of American higher education have not. What commends his book is its richness of reference and its willingness to charge colleges and universities with lapses that should sow insomnia among administrators. “One generalization, I think, applies across the board: There is a sense of drift,” he writes. And after describing the ethical knottiness of the more selective institutions’ admissions policies, he observes, “The stark fact is that America’s colleges … have lately been reinforcing more than ameliorating the disparity of wealth and opportunity in American society.”

To a remarkable extent in so slim a volume, Delbanco acknowledges, if only glancingly, the universe of possible contemporary realizations of the word “college,” including those that exist nowhere but in the ghost precincts of computer programs. His fondest association of the word is with the undergraduate education characteristic of the nation’s liberal arts institutions: four-year residential colleges that are not part of universities—a Carleton College or Wellesley College, for example, as distinct from Yale College or Harvard College—“where most students study subjects that are not narrowly vocational.”

Such institutions, “virtually unknown outside the Anglo-American world,” barely register on the numerical margin even in America, where they enroll some 100,000 students. Measure that number against community college enrollments exceeding six million and a total undergraduate population of about 18 million.

What alarms Delbanco is the increasing disappearance of the general humanistic education American colleges have offered from their Puritan beginnings down through centuries of curricular refinement and adjustment. (A fair criticism of the book is that it too often blurs the line between the humanistic education available at an independent college and that available at an institution such as Delbanco’s own university.) It’s an education heavily dependent on literature, philosophy, and history, and suffused with a fundamental moral and ethical dimension. It’s an education that’s communal and lateral—students (and faculty) learn from one another; for Delbanco, the importance of that practice cannot be overvalued. It’s an education that urges students to consider the great recurrent questions about their place in the world and their responsibilities to a larger community, an education that punctuates the words “How to live” first with a question mark and then with a period, and yet again, perhaps, with a question mark.

Alas, it’s not an education that answers overtly the question “How do I earn a living?”—and there the rub for the humanities and liberal arts has always been. No surprise, then, that “literature, history, philosophy, and the arts are becoming the stepchildren of our colleges.” Even at colleges embedded within elite universities, the number of humanities majors in graduating classes is shrinking. Between 1990 and 2009, for instance, the proportion of such majors dropped at Stanford from 20 percent to 15 percent, at Brown from 37 percent to 24 percent, and at Yale from 50 percent to 33 percent.

Education in the humanities is not antithetical to the sciences, which are to be embraced for their separate understanding of the natural world. But the humanities will never be the sciences, despite attempts to impose on them a scientific rigor. The humanities don’t generate new knowledge, as the sciences repeatedly do. They maintain and burnish the old knowledge, the truths about humanity that carry no date and every date, and they display that knowledge for discovery and contemplation and challenge by new generations.

When the humanities mimic the technical, they hope for—what, exactly? Delbanco cites (dismissively) a “literature lab” at Stanford “where teams of graduate students perform searches of digitized texts looking for patterns of recurrent words that signal shifts in theme or style over the long history of prose fiction.” There’s nothing new about the grim rigor; classical scholars once made entire careers of counting predigitized Greek particles (sweet that the word leads a double life in syntax and in science). May all the counters rest in unvisited tombs.

Few nonfiction book titles stand upright these days without the crutch of a subtitle, often of novella length, but Delbanco’s subtitle is almost as stark as his title. What college should be for Delbanco is in large measure what it has traditionally been, for at least a segment of colleges. What it will be is another matter, because the crises higher education faces today may be fatally destructive of precious traditions.

Delbanco worries that liberal arts education, even when suitably tweaked to meet contemporary circumstances, may not have a future. The passion of his advocacy is evident, but it’s leashed by a rueful recognition of today’s fiscal and demographic realities: the rise in tuition and other costs at colleges, and the decline in interest among matriculants. Still, he’s convinced that the current debate about what a college education should be — and for whom it should be — will benefit from the statement of “some fundamental principles that have been inherited from the past, are under radical challenge in the present, and, in my view, remain indispensable for the future.”

Delbanco sketches the evolution of the American college from its New England beginnings. He traces the emergence of the research university, in the latter part of the 19th century, as both a haven for liberal arts education — some of the most elite colleges in the country are within universities — and a threat to it, because too many university professors believe that the requirement to appear before undergraduates in a classroom is a distraction from their real work of research. He notes the changing character of student populations as colleges and universities have gradually altered their once exclusionary ways, though these ways may simply have taken new forms: “Need-blind admissions, for instance, is an admirable ideal, but it can be little more than a feel-good slogan if a college concentrates its recruiting in places like Scarsdale or Riyadh.”

He indicts the failure of colleges “to reconnect their students to the idea that good fortune confers a responsibility to live generously toward the less fortunate.” He urges that we increase the number of college teachers who are trained to teach and who welcome their time in the classroom — who believe, in short, that students are the point of college. He’s hopeful enough to wonder whether the technologies that are altering the educational landscape, often by making that landscape vanish, may also bring new opportunities for lateral learning. Might it be possible to tame the rampant technologies and harness them to a humanist’s will?

Above all, Delbanco insists that college be accessible and affordable, especially to lower-income students, for whom it may seem impossibly out of reach. He points out that the habits of mind honed by liberal arts education — a disposition to absorb, reflect, assess, argue, persuade — are prime resources of a healthy democracy. Will that lofty promise persuade students (or their parents) to incur a massive, lingering burden of debt for an education that seems a Prada purse when a canvas wallet will do? Delbanco’s suggestions to enhance affordability are feeble and familiar: “making additional expenditures for existing programs that serve low-income students, such as Pell grants and Perkins loans, and crediting some portion of college tuition as a tax deduction.”

James Morris is an editor at large of The Wilson Quarterly.

Reviewed: College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be by Andrew Delbanco, Princeton University Press, 229 pp. 

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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