Book Review: College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be

College: What is was, Is, And Should BeCollege: What it Was, Is, and Should Be
by Andrew Delbanco
Princeton University Press, 2012
240 pages (Kindle)


Andrew Delbanco’s College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be nearly wore out the highlight feature of my Kindle. Delbanco, Director of American Studies at Columbia University, writes with a rare and welcomed literary breadth and strong awareness of the ills of the educational world.

There have been, especially since the publication of Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses in 2011, no shortages of criticisms against higher education and it is not hard to find claims of its impending demise. From questions over new delivery methods to the over-inflated costs of a degree that may or may not pay for itself, there are plenty of reasons for traditional educators to be concerned.

Delbanco shows us where things went awry and reminds us why higher education is worth saving. He challenges the idea that college is primarily about getting the job and reminds the reader that it is there we learn how to think and discover responsibility. “One of the insights at the core of the college idea— indeed of the idea of community itself— has always been that to serve others is to serve oneself by providing a sense of purpose, thereby countering the loneliness and aimlessness by which all people, young and old, can be afflicted.”

Beginning with an examination of the idealistic education of American Puritanism, he reminds us that “we tend not to remember, or perhaps half-deliberately to forget, that college was once conceived not as a road to wealth or as a screening service for a social club, but as a training ground for pastors, teachers, and, more broadly, public servants.”

College was imagined as a place for enriching the person, provoking self-awareness, and discovering and exploring wisdom and truth. As he recalls Judith Shapiro, former president of Barnard saying: “You want the inside of your head to be an interesting place to spend the rest of your life.” The desire (or survival instinct) to increase enrollment or the transition from the College to the University and research institution slowly erode this hope.

Delbanco provides a vigorous defense of a traditional education, one which eventually was opened to women and minorities, but is now increasingly becoming a place of the wealthy. As he sees it, while an education is necessary for making a living (and that should be taken seriously), it is absolutely essential for a vibrant and effective democracy.

If an old, and in many respects outmoded, religion [Puritanism] seems an improbable touchstone for thinking about education today, perhaps a more plausible one is democracy. Surely it is an offense against democracy to presume that education should be reserved for the wellborn and the well-off. As Emerson put it in his great Phi Beta Kappa oration in 1837, “colleges can only highly serve us when  .  .  .   they gather from far every ray of various genius [the “irreplicable spirit” of the individual] to their hospitable halls, and by the concentrated fires, set the hearts of their youth on flame.  .  .  .   Forget this, and our American colleges will recede in their public importance, whilst they grow richer every year.”

(Nothing solidifies just how much the citizenry needs the essential skills provided in a liberal arts education more than sitting through the 2012 election, complete with its the conspiracy theories, misinformation, and non sequiturs.)

As a professor who is thrust between two completely different forms of education, the traditional and online education, teaching students ranging from the liberal arts undergraduate to the graduate to the unaccredited certificate, I found myself nodding in agreement regularly with the concerns of Delbanco. In one sense, a cheaper route for delivering an education can be that of courses online. An online education even provides the opportunity to reach those who, unlike the wealthy, cannot afford to relocate. It has its benefits, but there is something about the community-centered learning of a traditional class that is hard to replicate (though I give it my all). Do we lose a chance to level the playing field for the sake of maintaining a classical ideal? Can an online education do for a democracy what a traditional setting can?

It is not just the classroom format or the type of student that has changed; the professor is no longer what he or she used to be. In fact, while many spend their best years earning a degree and amassing an enormous debt, the best they have to look forward to is part-time employment. Professors are often scrounging for scraps at the tables of multiple schools, barely eking out a living.

If most students no longer have anything like the “traditional” college experience, neither do the people who teach them. In 1975, nearly 60 percent of college professors were full-time faculty with tenure or on the “tenure track.” Today that fraction has declined to around 35 percent, which means that most students are being taught by part-time or contingent employees who have limited stake in the institution where they work.

The “limited stake” means that students have professors whose careers and attention are divided just to make the bills. The lack of investment in full-time professors may feel cost-effective (e.g., it allows schools to avoid providing affordable healthcare and other benefits) but it diminishes the return in the classroom. In the end, schools lose one of their most important reasons for students to attend.

Delbanco is skilled at finding the problems and College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be is strong on the diagnosis, even if lighter on the solutions. But this is fine and reminders are needed. He weaves a powerful narrative, producing a “messy mixture” of the jeremiad, elegy, and call to arms.College is a clear, witty, and compelling critique of the state of education and it is worth the read. What we have to lose is more than the ideals of the past, but the hope of a just society in the future.


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