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I’ve mentioned in a few recent posts that I read Andrew Delbanco’s College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be during our trip earlier this month to New York and Georgia. I’ve been meaning to say more, as I will do now.

Delbanco is a humanities professor at Columbia who writes on a broad range of issues for non-academic magazines. I’ve long enjoyed his pieces on education at The New York Review of Books. (He also was a college classmate of mine, though I didn’t know him.) When College, a short book, came out last year, I considered reading it. Delbanco’s Princeton counterpart (prominent humanist, prolific writer on many issues) Anthony Grafton reviewed it last May, writing:

As the commercialization of American higher education accelerates, more and more students are coming to college with the narrow aim of obtaining a preprofessional credential. The traditional four-year college experience–an exploratory time for students to discover their passions and test ideas and values with the help of teachers and peers–is in danger of becoming a thing of the past.

In College, prominent cultural critic Andrew Delbanco offers a trenchant defense of such an education, and warns that it is becoming a privilege reserved for the relatively rich. In arguing for what a true college education should be, he demonstrates why making it available to as many young people as possible remains central to America’s democratic promise.

In a brisk and vivid historical narrative, Delbanco explains how the idea of college arose in the colonial period from the Puritan idea of the gathered church, how it struggled to survive in the nineteenth century in the shadow of the new research universities, and how, in the twentieth century, it slowly opened its doors to women, minorities, and students from low-income families. He describes the unique strengths of America’s colleges in our era of globalization and, while recognizing the growing centrality of science, technology, and vocational subjects in the curriculum, he mounts a vigorous defense of a broadly humanistic education for all. Acknowledging the serious financial, intellectual, and ethical challenges that all colleges face today, Delbanco considers what is at stake in the urgent effort to protect these venerable institutions for future generations.

This resonated with me. But also, by the time I finished Grafton’s review, I figured I’d read enough and pursued Delbanco’s book no further.

Then, on the eve of our trip, I saw a link to a piece by Delbanco at the end of March in The New Republic on MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses. Reading it, I decided I should read College after all.

I should add that Delbanco’s MOOC article is worth reading in its own right. Here’s one passage near the end (and therefore out of context):

Back in the mid-twentieth century, the Ford Foundation report on “telecourses” asked the key question about technology and education: “How effective is this instruction?” When I came upon that sentence, it put me in mind of something Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote a long time ago. “Truly speaking,” he said, “it is not instruction, but provocation, that I can receive from another soul.”I first understood this distinction during my own student days, while struggling with the theologian Jonathan Edwards’s predestinarian view of life. Toward the end of the course, my teacher, the scholar of American religion Alan Heimert, looked me in the eye and asked: “What is it that bothers you about Edwards? Is it that he’s so hard on self- deception?” This was more than instruction; it was a true provocation. It came from a teacher who listened closely to his students and tried to grasp who they were and who they were trying to become. He knew the difference between knowledge and information. He understood education in the Socratic sense, as a quest for self-knowledge.


No matter how anxious today’s students may be about gaining this or that competence in a ferociously competitive world, many still crave the enlargement of heart as well as mind that is the gift of true education. It’s hard for me to believe that this kind of experience can happen without face-to-face teaching and the physical presence of other students.

Delbanco touches here–as he does in his book and as Grafton does in the quote above–on the question of whether one attends college for job training or some richer sort of educational experience. Closely related to this is the question of where humanities and the arts fit into a college education, since they sure aren’t likely to lead to jobs to the extent that study in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, math) does. Delbanco writes eloquently on this.

Science, moreover, tells us nothing about how to shape a life or how to face death, about the meaning of love, or the scope of responsibility. It not only fails to answer such questions; it cannot ask them. …

Meanwhile, literature, history, philosophy, and the arts are becoming the stepchildren of our colleges. This is a great loss because they are the legatees of religion in the sense that they provide a vocabulary for formulating ultimate questions of the sort that have always had special urgency for young people. … One of the ironies of contemporary academic life is that even as the humanities become marginal in our colleges, they are establishing themselves in medical, law, and business school, where interest is growing in the study of literature and the arts as a way to encourage self-critical reflection among future physicians, attorneys, and entrepreneurs … .


Certain books—old and not so old—speak to us in a subversive whisper that makes us wonder whether the idea of progress might be a sham. They tell us that the questions we face under the shadow of death are not new, and that no new technology will help answer them.

Delbanco discusses the history of American higher education going back to its origins with the founding of Harvard in the 1600s, looking at the role of religion in the founding of our first schools and as well at the limited social strata from which students came. Even as we’ve moved toward a more open, democratic, meritocratic system, Delbanco argues that something has been lost.

As I later understood when I came to read [Michael Young’s] The Rise of the Meritocracy, Young and Baltzell were talking about … the Anglo-American version of noblesse oblige—a conception that seems much attenuated now that “merit has become progressively more measurable.” In our era of social sorting by academic prowess, which Young placed in an imaginary future but which we know firsthand, the “new upper classes are no longer weakened by self-doubt and self-criticism,” and, all too often, subscribe to “the axiom of modern thought … that people are unequal, and … that they should be accorded a station in life related to their capacities.”

It is hard not to be fortified in this view as one goes through today’s college admissions process, which effectively begins in preschool, accelerates through childhood, consumes much of adolescence, and comes to a climax on the cusp of adulthood. This series of trials and rewards is well designed to convince the winners that they deserve their winnings. … “Today,” as [Young] put it with tart irony, “the eminent know that success is just reward for their own capacity, for their own efforts, and fortheir own undeniable achievement,” and “become so impressed with their own importance as to lose sympathy with the people whom they govern.”

Mitt, I think Delbanco and Young are talking about you.

And finally, here’s a passage that includes a centuries-old quote from leading Puritan clergyman John Cotton (A Treatise of the Covenant of Grace, in The Puritans in America, edited by Alan Heimert and Andrew Delbanco):

Our oldest colleges have abandoned the cardinal principle of the religion out of which they arose: the principle that no human being deserves anything based on his or her merit. In that view—too harsh, perhaps, for anyone except a saint to live by—when God announced to Abraham that he had chosen him for an exalted role in history, he did so “without any respect unto any goodness in Abraham,” but rather “freely of his grace … for it is nothing God seeth in Abraham, for which he doth reveal his justification to him.” Such a God was not impressed by any demonstration of meritorious behavior in any human being. To the extent that human beings are capable of worthy actions, they are unmerited gifts from a merciful God, and should be occasions for humility rather than pride.


Categories: Books, Education, Humanities
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