College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be

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Overview

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.

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Editorial Reviews

New York Times Book Review
At a time when many are trying to reduce the college years to a training period for economic competition, Delbanco reminds readers of the ideal of democratic education. . . . The American college is too important 'to be permitted to give up on its own ideals,' Delbanco writes. He has underscored these ideals by tracing their history. Like a great teacher, he has inspired us to try to live up to them.
— Michael S. Roth
New York Times
The book does have a thesis, but it is not thesis-ridden. It seeks to persuade not by driving a stake into the opponent's position or even paying much attention to it, but by offering us examples of the experience it celebrates. Delbanco's is not an argument for, but a display of, the value of a liberal arts education.
— Stanley Fish
New York Review of Books
A lucid, fair, and well-informed account of the problems, and it offers a full-throated defense of the idea that you don't go to college just to get a job. Delbanco's brevity, wit, and curiosity about the past and its lessons for the present give his book a humanity all too rare in the literature on universities.
— Anthony Grafton
The Nation
[I]nsightful and rewarding. . . . Delbanco's evocation of these nineteenth-century precedents is of central importance, for they allow him to demonstrate that liberal education, far from being an elite indulgence, is inseparable from our nation's most cherished and deeply rooted democratic precepts. In the face of today's hyper-accelerated, ultra-competitive global society, the preservation of opportunities for self-development and autonomous reflection is a value we underestimate at our peril.
— Richard Wolin
Booklist
To renew higher education in an age of secular pluralism, Delbanco summons his colleagues to a defense of the university's role in fostering humane and democratic impulses. . . . Delbanco's agenda for reform—curricular, pedagogical, financial, and technological—will stimulate a much-needed national dialogue.
— Bryce Christensen
American Prospect
Delbanco explores American higher education in a manner befitting a scholar of Melville and the Puritans, with a humanist's belief in lessons from history and in asking what the right thing is to do. . . . College has always been a microcosm of society, so a book about it is also about how we're doing as a country.
— Clare Malone
Newark Star-Ledger
The 'Was' part is an illuminating reminder of the Puritan origin of early colleges, such as Harvard and Princeton, where only wealthy males needed apply and where religion, literature and philosophy dominated the curricula. The 'Is' section considers the prohibitive cost, the woefully underprepared applicants, the self-centered teachers and the dominance of research over instruction of undergraduates at today's colleges. Obviously the 'Should Be' is Delbanco's motive in this effort. . . . He dreams of the day when college teachers are back in the classrooms, working collaboratively to bring their youngsters into this new century.
— Kathleen Daley
Times Higher Education
[College] will give a lot of pleasure to anyone who cares about undergraduate education. It offers a fascinating history of the creation and growth of US colleges and universities, some sombre reflections on the tension between the desire of many universities to be known as great research institutions and the needs of their undergraduates, and some angry thoughts about the way in which elite education reinforces economic inequality. . . . Delbanco writes with the exasperated energy of a radical assistant professor half his age, and displays an unforced affection for undergraduate students that is deeply engaging and permeates the book with an infectious optimism about the possibilities of liberal education in spite of all the obstacles that he lists.
— Alan Ryan
Kansas City Star
Refreshingly, Delbanco's examination of what college was doesn't turn into a longing backward look. . . . This book is a result of what Delbanco says is two decades of visiting more than 100 colleges of all types, from community colleges to the undergraduate divisions of research universities. It is also the product of extensive reading: He seems to have digested every self-flagellating and self-congratulating essay, every cri de coeur and jeremiad about higher ed that has been produced since scholars sat down together in collegium.
— Sebastian Stockman
Commonweal
This is a brief, well-researched book, and an insightful account of the factors that shape the current higher educational landscape.
— Dennis O'Brien
Cleveland Plain Dealer
[An] eloquent book—a combination of jeremiad, elegy and call to arms.
— Alan Cate
Inside Higher Ed

In College, [Delbanco] looks to the lengthy and dynamic history of higher education in America as a lens through which to examine its current crises and unsettled future.
— Serena Golden
Spiked Review of Books
'Every year the teacher gets older while the students stay the same age.' This has always been true, but Delbanco's observation has a poignant weight today when college is always justified as being for something, whether for the economy, or for democracy, or for social mobility, and not as a place that exists as a community asking questions together, trying to unify knowledge to make sense of our lives—in short, as a place where we pursue the truth.
— Angus Kennedy
Newark Star Ledger

The 'Was' part is an illuminating reminder of the Puritan origin of early colleges, such as Harvard and Princeton, where only wealthy males needed apply and where religion, literature and philosophy dominated the curricula. The 'Is' section considers the prohibitive cost, the woefully underprepared applicants, the self-centered teachers and the dominance of research over instruction of undergraduates at today's colleges. Obviously the 'Should Be' is Delbanco's motive in this effort. . . . He dreams of the day when college teachers are back in the classrooms, working collaboratively to bring their youngsters into this new century.
— Kathleen Daley
Teachers College Record
Andrew Delbanco does a marvelous job tracing the evolution of one of the most treasured institutions in the United States, 'college,' in terms of the ideal of such an institution and the challenges it is facing. . . . Delbanco's book would be a great one for students and scholars in the fields of educational philosophy, history of education, educational policy, and other related fields. It would also be a good read for anyone who is interested in the development of higher education in the United States.
— Shouping Hu
Wilson Quarterly
What commends [t]his book is its richness of reference and its willingness to charge colleges and universities with lapses that should sow insomnia among administrators.
— James Morris
Weekly Standard
College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be gives a clear picture of all the forces, both within and outside the university, working against the liberal arts.
— Joseph Epstein
America magazine
Andrew Delbanco's recent book is to be praised, for it reminds us that college should be about character formation and not a surrender to a customer service mentality that inflates accomplishments to please future employers, placate doting parents and repair fragile egos. . . . Enlightening.
— Robert J. Parmach
Inside Higher Ed.
In College, [Delbanco] looks to the lengthy and dynamic history of higher education in America as a lens through which to examine its current crises and unsettled future.
— Serena Golden
Inside Higher Ed...
In College, [Delbanco] looks to the lengthy and dynamic history of higher education in America as a lens through which to examine its current crises and unsettled future.
— Serena Golden
New York Times Book Review - Michael S. Roth
At a time when many are trying to reduce the college years to a training period for economic competition, Delbanco reminds readers of the ideal of democratic education. . . . The American college is too important 'to be permitted to give up on its own ideals,' Delbanco writes. He has underscored these ideals by tracing their history. Like a great teacher, he has inspired us to try to live up to them.
New York Times - Stanley Fish
The book does have a thesis, but it is not thesis-ridden. It seeks to persuade not by driving a stake into the opponent's position or even paying much attention to it, but by offering us examples of the experience it celebrates. Delbanco's is not an argument for, but a display of, the value of a liberal arts education.
New York Review of Books - Anthony Grafton
A lucid, fair, and well-informed account of the problems, and it offers a full-throated defense of the idea that you don't go to college just to get a job. Delbanco's brevity, wit, and curiosity about the past and its lessons for the present give his book a humanity all too rare in the literature on universities.
The Nation - Richard Wolin
[I]nsightful and rewarding. . . . Delbanco's evocation of these nineteenth-century precedents is of central importance, for they allow him to demonstrate that liberal education, far from being an elite indulgence, is inseparable from our nation's most cherished and deeply rooted democratic precepts. In the face of today's hyper-accelerated, ultra-competitive global society, the preservation of opportunities for self-development and autonomous reflection is a value we underestimate at our peril.
Booklist - Bryce Christensen
To renew higher education in an age of secular pluralism, Delbanco summons his colleagues to a defense of the university's role in fostering humane and democratic impulses. . . . Delbanco's agenda for reform—curricular, pedagogical, financial, and technological—will stimulate a much-needed national dialogue.
American Prospect - Clare Malone
Delbanco explores American higher education in a manner befitting a scholar of Melville and the Puritans, with a humanist's belief in lessons from history and in asking what the right thing is to do. . . . College has always been a microcosm of society, so a book about it is also about how we're doing as a country.
Vox Magazine, Missourian - Kacie Flynn
A thoughtful and insightful look at American college's exceptionalism and pitfalls. . . . Whether you're in college, thinking about college or just paying for it, it's a good read to help better understand one of America's oldest and finest institutions. And if we want it to stay that way, we all better get schooled about it.
Newark Star Ledger - Kathleen Daley
The 'Was' part is an illuminating reminder of the Puritan origin of early colleges, such as Harvard and Princeton, where only wealthy males needed apply and where religion, literature and philosophy dominated the curricula. The 'Is' section considers the prohibitive cost, the woefully underprepared applicants, the self-centered teachers and the dominance of research over instruction of undergraduates at today's colleges. Obviously the 'Should Be' is Delbanco's motive in this effort. . . . He dreams of the day when college teachers are back in the classrooms, working collaboratively to bring their youngsters into this new century.
Times Higher Education - Alan Ryan
[College] will give a lot of pleasure to anyone who cares about undergraduate education. It offers a fascinating history of the creation and growth of US colleges and universities, some sombre reflections on the tension between the desire of many universities to be known as great research institutions and the needs of their undergraduates, and some angry thoughts about the way in which elite education reinforces economic inequality. . . . Delbanco writes with the exasperated energy of a radical assistant professor half his age, and displays an unforced affection for undergraduate students that is deeply engaging and permeates the book with an infectious optimism about the possibilities of liberal education in spite of all the obstacles that he lists.
Kansas City Star - Sebastian Stockman
Refreshingly, Delbanco's examination of what college was doesn't turn into a longing backward look. . . . This book is a result of what Delbanco says is two decades of visiting more than 100 colleges of all types, from community colleges to the undergraduate divisions of research universities. It is also the product of extensive reading: He seems to have digested every self-flagellating and self-congratulating essay, every cri de coeur and jeremiad about higher ed that has been produced since scholars sat down together in collegium.
Commonweal - Dennis O'Brien
This is a brief, well-researched book, and an insightful account of the factors that shape the current higher educational landscape.
Cleveland Plain Dealer - Alan Cate
[An] eloquent book—a combination of jeremiad, elegy and call to arms.
Inside Higher Ed - Serena Golden
In College, [Delbanco] looks to the lengthy and dynamic history of higher education in America as a lens through which to examine its current crises and unsettled future.
Spiked Review of Books - Angus Kennedy
'Every year the teacher gets older while the students stay the same age.' This has always been true, but Delbanco's observation has a poignant weight today when college is always justified as being for something, whether for the economy, or for democracy, or for social mobility, and not as a place that exists as a community asking questions together, trying to unify knowledge to make sense of our lives—in short, as a place where we pursue the truth.
Teachers College Record - Shouping Hu
Andrew Delbanco does a marvelous job tracing the evolution of one of the most treasured institutions in the United States, 'college,' in terms of the ideal of such an institution and the challenges it is facing. . . . Delbanco's book would be a great one for students and scholars in the fields of educational philosophy, history of education, educational policy, and other related fields. It would also be a good read for anyone who is interested in the development of higher education in the United States.
Wilson Quarterly - James Morris
What commends [t]his book is its richness of reference and its willingness to charge colleges and universities with lapses that should sow insomnia among administrators.
Weekly Standard - Joseph Epstein
College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be gives a clear picture of all the forces, both within and outside the university, working against the liberal arts.
America magazine - Robert J. Parmach
Andrew Delbanco's recent book is to be praised, for it reminds us that college should be about character formation and not a surrender to a customer service mentality that inflates accomplishments to please future employers, placate doting parents and repair fragile egos. . . . Enlightening.
Choice
Well researched, succinct, and eloquently written, this little book should be in every library in every institution of higher learning. It would be an appropriate book for all new faculty members so that they can quickly come to understand the professional situation they are now in. . . . Delbanco's intention is to avoid writing a jeremiad, elegy, funeral dirge, or call to arms. He has succeeded. His realistic account of the current state of affairs is indeed sobering.
New York Times

The book does have a thesis, but it is not thesis-ridden. It seeks to persuade not by driving a stake into the opponent's position or even paying much attention to it, but by offering us examples of the experience it celebrates. Delbanco's is not an argument for, but a display of, the value of a liberal arts education.
— Stanley Fish

Kansas City Star

Refreshingly, Delbanco's examination of what college was doesn't turn into a longing backward look. . . . This book is a result of what Delbanco says is two decades of visiting more than 100 colleges of all types, from community colleges to the undergraduate divisions of research universities. It is also the product of extensive reading: He seems to have digested every self-flagellating and self-congratulating essay, every cri de coeur and jeremiad about higher ed that has been produced since scholars sat down together in collegium.
— Sebastian Stockman

Commonweal

This is a brief, well-researched book, and an insightful account of the factors that shape the current higher educational landscape.
— Dennis O'Brien

The Nation

[I]nsightful and rewarding. . . . Delbanco's evocation of these nineteenth-century precedents is of central importance, for they allow him to demonstrate that liberal education, far from being an elite indulgence, is inseparable from our nation's most cherished and deeply rooted democratic precepts. In the face of today's hyper-accelerated, ultra-competitive global society, the preservation of opportunities for self-development and autonomous reflection is a value we underestimate at our peril.
— Richard Wolin

Booklist

To renew higher education in an age of secular pluralism, Delbanco summons his colleagues to a defense of the university's role in fostering humane and democratic impulses. . . . Delbanco's agenda for reform—curricular, pedagogical, financial, and technological—will stimulate a much-needed national dialogue.
— Bryce Christensen

Cleveland Plain Dealer

[An] eloquent book—a combination of jeremiad, elegy and call to arms.
— Alan Cate

Times Higher Education

[College] will give a lot of pleasure to anyone who cares about undergraduate education. It offers a fascinating history of the creation and growth of US colleges and universities, some sombre reflections on the tension between the desire of many universities to be known as great research institutions and the needs of their undergraduates, and some angry thoughts about the way in which elite education reinforces economic inequality. . . . Delbanco writes with the exasperated energy of a radical assistant professor half his age, and displays an unforced affection for undergraduate students that is deeply engaging and permeates the book with an infectious optimism about the possibilities of liberal education in spite of all the obstacles that he lists.
— Alan Ryan

New York Times Book Review

At a time when many are trying to reduce the college years to a training period for economic competition, Delbanco reminds readers of the ideal of democratic education. . . . The American college is too important 'to be permitted to give up on its own ideals,' Delbanco writes. He has underscored these ideals by tracing their history. Like a great teacher, he has inspired us to try to live up to them.
— Michael S. Roth

Newark Star-Ledger

The 'Was' part is an illuminating reminder of the Puritan origin of early colleges, such as Harvard and Princeton, where only wealthy males needed apply and where religion, literature and philosophy dominated the curricula. The 'Is' section considers the prohibitive cost, the woefully underprepared applicants, the self-centered teachers and the dominance of research over instruction of undergraduates at today's colleges. Obviously the 'Should Be' is Delbanco's motive in this effort. . . . He dreams of the day when college teachers are back in the classrooms, working collaboratively to bring their youngsters into this new century.
— Kathleen Daley

American Prospect

Delbanco explores American higher education in a manner befitting a scholar of Melville and the Puritans, with a humanist's belief in lessons from history and in asking what the right thing is to do. . . . College has always been a microcosm of society, so a book about it is also about how we're doing as a country.
— Clare Malone

New York Review of Books

A lucid, fair, and well-informed account of the problems, and it offers a full-throated defense of the idea that you don't go to college just to get a job. Delbanco's brevity, wit, and curiosity about the past and its lessons for the present give his book a humanity all too rare in the literature on universities.
— Anthony Grafton

Teachers College Record

Andrew Delbanco does a marvelous job tracing the evolution of one of the most treasured institutions in the United States, 'college,' in terms of the ideal of such an institution and the challenges it is facing. . . . Delbanco's book would be a great one for students and scholars in the fields of educational philosophy, history of education, educational policy, and other related fields. It would also be a good read for anyone who is interested in the development of higher education in the United States.
— Shouping Hu

Inside Higher Ed

In College, [Delbanco] looks to the lengthy and dynamic history of higher education in America as a lens through which to examine its current crises and unsettled future.
— Serena Golden

Spiked Review of Books

'Every year the teacher gets older while the students stay the same age.' This has always been true, but Delbanco's observation has a poignant weight today when college is always justified as being for something, whether for the economy, or for democracy, or for social mobility, and not as a place that exists as a community asking questions together, trying to unify knowledge to make sense of our lives—in short, as a place where we pursue the truth.
— Angus Kennedy

Library Journal
After more than 20 years of teaching, Delbanco (American studies & humanities, Columbia Univ.; Melville: His World and Work) believes Americans need to rethink the goals of university education and what kind of university can best achieve those goals. He emphasizes the importance of the undergraduate, residential experience, where students can develop their ethical as well as analytical intelligence. He criticizes the largest and most successful institutions for reducing the attention paid to undergraduates and engendering a sense of entitlement among students rather than social responsibility. He assigns blame broadly, pointing out that graduate training fails to teach future faculty about the importance of undergraduate education, while too many institutions have lost sight of the role of ethics and integrity in the curriculum. Delbanco recognizes the problems in contemporary higher education of high costs, limited access, low completion rates, and uncertain purpose, but he stresses the importance of staying focused on the core values of education while working to remedy the weaknesses. VERDICT Recommended for academic and general audiences as a thoughtful, literate, and gracefully written reminder of what higher education needs to be.—Elizabeth R. Hayford, Northwestern Univ., Evanston, IL
Kirkus Reviews
Has the democratic ideal of a classical education, open to rich and poor alike, become a thing of the past? That's the scenario proposed by esteemed literary scholar Delbanco (Humanities and American Studies/Columbia Univ.; Melville: His World and Work, 2005, etc.) in this engaging assessment of how American higher education has lost its way. He starts with the American ideal, dating back to the Puritans, of college as a place that trained the whole person, taught students "how to think and how to choose" and how to question received wisdom. The examined life, in essence; a process of "growing out of an embattled sense of self into a more generous view of life as continuous self-reflection in light of new experience, including the witnessed experience of others." In modern America, that focus has shifted: Now it's less about the eternal verities than chasing after dollars, more about filling seats than heads and more about science than the humanities. The research university is now regarded as "the most evolved species in the institutional chain of being." The greater purpose founders, while "literature, history, philosophy, and the arts are becoming the stepchildren of our colleges." Given his pedigree, Delbanco may sound like he's protecting his own turf, but he makes a strong case that the purely materialist approach to education assures that the disparity between rich and poor students only widens, with "merit-based" financial aid and scholarships all going disproportionately to students from families with money. Scholarship reform, a classical curriculum, more real teaching (and less lecturing to crowded halls) are all in order. Although stronger on diagnosis than cure, this is an impassioned call for a corrupt system to heal itself.
From the Publisher

"I strongly recommend this book if you are interested in a discussion of the history of undergraduate education in the United States."--Michael Joseph Brown, Teaching Technology and Religion

"Delbanco is lovely at historical context. . . . He makes a plea for the great intangibles of a college education."--Katharine Whittemore, Boston Globe

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691130736
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 3/20/2012
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 240
  • Product dimensions: 5.60 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author


Andrew Delbanco is the Mendelson Family Chair of American Studies and the Julian Clarence Levi Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University. His many books include "Melville: His World and Work" (Vintage), which won the Lionel Trilling Award and was a finalist for the "Los Angeles Times" book prize in biography. He is a recipient of the 2011 National Humanities Medal for his writing that spans the literature of Melville and Emerson to contemporary issues in higher education.
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Read an Excerpt

College

What It Was, Is, and Should Be


By Andrew Delbanco

PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS

Copyright © 2012 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4008-6614-4



CHAPTER 1

WHAT IS COLLEGE FOR?


One of the peculiarities of the teaching life is that every year the teacher gets older while the students stay the same age. Each fall when classes resume, I am reminded of the ancient Greek story of a kindly old couple who invite two strangers into their modest home for a meal. No matter how much the hosts drink, by some mysterious trick their goblets remain full even though no one pours more wine. Eventually, the guests reveal themselves as gods who have performed a little miracle to express their thanks. So it goes in college: every fall the teacher has aged by a year, but the class is replenished with students who stay forever young.

For this and many other reasons, the relation between teacher and student is a delicate one, perhaps not as fraught as that between parent and child, or between spouses or siblings, but sometimes as decisive. Henry James captured it beautifully in a story called "The Pupil," which is not about a college teacher but about a private tutor who has come to love the child whom he is trying to save from his parents:

When he tried to figure to himself the morning twilight of childhood, so as to deal with it safely, he perceived that it was never fixed, never arrested, that ignorance, at the instant one touched it, was already flushing faintly into knowledge, that there was nothing that at a given moment you could say a clever child didn't know. It seemed to him that he both knew too much to imagine [the child's] simplicity and too little to disembroil his tangle.


Embedded in this passage is the romantic idea that the student possesses latent knowledge of ultimate things, and that the teacher's task is to probe for the lever that releases knowledge into consciousness.

In trying to make it happen, even—perhaps especially—a good teacher can sometimes seem brutal. The famously demanding Joseph Schwab, for example, who taught for years in the "Biological Sequence" course at the University of Chicago, was known for "putting one student in the hot seat for a while ... working that person as thoroughly and creatively as possible before moving on to another." One Chicago alumnus, Lee Shulman, former president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, recalls that sitting in Schwab's class "fostered clammy hands, damp foreheads" and, to put it mildly, "an ever-attentive demeanor." This figure of the "tough love" teacher—think of Annie Sullivan in The Miracle Worker or Professor Kingsfield in The Paper Chase—has become a cliché of our culture, and like all clichés, it contains some truth, though doubtless simplified and unduly generalized. It also seems less and less pertinent to the present. At most colleges today, a student experiencing such anxiety would likely drop the class for fear of a poor grade (compulsory courses of the sort that Schwab taught have become rare), and the teacher would risk a poor score on the end-of-semester evaluations.

Whatever the style or technique, teaching at its best can be a generative act, one of the ways by which human beings try to cheat death—by giving witness to the next generation so that what we have learned in our own lives won't die with us. Consider what today we would call the original "mission statement" of America's oldest college. The first fund-raising appeal in our history, it was a frank request by the founders of Harvard for financial help from fellow Puritans who had stayed home in England rather than make the journey to New England. Despite their mercenary purpose, the words are still moving almost four hundred years after they were written:

After God had carried us safe to New England, and we had built our houses, provided necessaries for our livelihood, reared convenient places for God's worship, and settled the civil government, one of the next things we longed for and looked after was to advance learning and perpetuate it to posterity; dreading to leave an illiterate ministry to the churches, when our present ministers shall lie in the dust.


These mixed sentiments of faith and dread have always been at the heart of the college idea. They are evident at every college commencement in the eyes of parents who watch, through a screen of memories of their own receding youth, as their children advance into life. College is our American pastoral. We imagine it as a verdant world where the harshest sounds are the reciprocal thump of tennis balls or the clatter of cleats as young bodies trot up and down the fieldhouse steps. Yet bright with hope as it may be, every college is shadowed by the specter of mortality—a place where, in that uniquely American season of "fall and football weather and the new term," the air is redolent with the "Octoberish smell of cured leaves."

But what, exactly, is supposed to happen in this bittersweet place—beyond sunbathing and body-toning and the competitive exertions, athletic and otherwise, for which these are just the preliminaries? First of all, it should be said that the pastoral image of college has little to do with what most college students experience today. A few years ago, Michael S. McPherson, president of the Spencer Foundation and former president of Macalester College, and Morton O. Schapiro, former president of Williams College (now of Northwestern University), pointed out that "the nation's liberal arts college students would almost certainly fit easily inside a Big Ten football stadium: fewer than one hundred thousand students out of more than fourteen million."

Since then, the number of undergraduates has grown by nearly a third, to around eighteen million, while the number in liberal arts colleges—by which McPherson and Schapiro meant a four-year residential college that is not part of a big university, and where most students study subjects that are not narrowly vocational such as nursing or computer programming—remains about the same. Many college students today, of whom a growing number are older than traditional college age, attend commuter or online institutions focused mainly on vocational training. Often, they work and go to school at the same time, and take more than four years to complete their degree, if they complete it at all. Five years from now, undergraduate students in the United States are projected to exceed twenty million, and President Obama wants to accelerate the growth. But only a small fraction will attend college in anything like the traditional sense of the word.

Whatever the context, the question remains: what's the point? My colleague Mark Lilla put the matter well not long ago when he spoke to the freshmen of Columbia College near the end of their first college year. He was talking, of course, to students in a college commonly described as "elite." Divided roughly equally between young men and women, these students were more racially diverse than would have been the case even a few years ago. About one in ten was born abroad or has some other claim, such as a parent with a foreign passport, to be an "international" student; and, though it's hard to tell the financial means of the students from their universal uniform of tee shirts and jeans, roughly one in seven (a somewhat higher rate than at other Ivy League colleges) is eligible for a Pell grant, a form of federal financial aid that goes to children of low-income families.

As they filed into the lecture room, they gave each other the public hugs that signify new friendships, or, in some cases, the mutually averted eyes that tell of recent breakups. They seemed simultaneously fatigued and at ease. Once they had settled into their seats, out came the iPhones and laptops, some of which stayed aglow for the whole hour, though mostly they listened, rapt. And when Lilla made the following surmise about how and why they had come to college, they reacted with the kind of quiet laughter that meant they knew he was telling the truth:

You figured, correctly, that to be admitted you had to exude confidence about what Americans, and only Americans, call their "life goals"; and you had to demonstrate that you have a precise plan for achieving them. It was all bullshit; you know that, and I know that. The real reason you were excited about college was because you had questions, buckets of questions, not life plans and PowerPoint presentations. My students have convinced me that they are far less interested in getting what they want than in figuring out just what it is that's worth wanting.


No college teacher should presume to answer this question on behalf of the students, though, too often, he or she will try. (Requiring discipleship has always been a hazard of the teaching profession.) Instead, the job of the teacher and, collectively, of the college, is to help students in the arduous work of answering it for themselves.

To be sure, students at a college like mine have many advantages. Elite institutions confer on their students enormous benefits in the competition for positions of leadership in business, government, and higher education itself. As soon as they are admitted, even those without the prior advantage of money have already gotten a boost toward getting what they want—though not necessarily toward figuring out what's worth wanting. In fact, for some, the difficulty of that question rises in proportion to the number of choices they have. Many college students are away from their parents for the first time, although in our age of Facebook and Skype and Google Chat and the like, they are never really away. Their choices may seem limitless, but powerful forces constrain them, including what their parents want them to want. Students under financial pressure face special problems, but students from privileged families have problems too.

College is supposed to be a time when such differences recede if not vanish. The notion of shared self-discovery for all students is, of course, a staple of exhortations to freshmen just coming in and valedictions to seniors about to go out—an idea invoked so often that it, too, has become a cliché. In other cultures, however, it would be an oddity. The American college has always differed fundamentally from the European university, where students are expected to know what they want (and what they are capable of) before they arrive. That is true even at the ancient English colleges of Oxford and Cambridge, to which students apply around age seventeen to "read" this or that subject, and once arrived, rarely venture outside their chosen field of formal study. By contrast, in America—in part because of our prosperity, which still exceeds that of most of the rest of the world—we try to extend the time for second chances and to defer the day when determinative choices must be made. In 1850, when Herman Melville, whose formal schooling ended at age seventeen, wrote that "a whaleship was my Yale College and my Harvard," he used the word "college" as the name of the place where (to use our modern formulation) he "found himself."

A few years ago, I came across a manuscript diary—also, as it happens, from 1850—kept by a student at a small Methodist college, Emory and Henry, in southwest Virginia. One spring evening, after attending a sermon by the college president that left him troubled and apprehensive, he made the following entry in his journal: "Oh that the Lord would show me how to think and how to choose." That sentence, poised somewhere between a wish and a plea, sounds archaic today. For many if not most students, God is no longer the object of the plea; or if he is, they probably do not attend a college where everyone worships the same god in the same way. Many American colleges began as denominational institutions; but today religion is so much a matter of private conscience, and the number of punishable infractions so small (even rules against the academic sin of plagiarism are only loosely enforced), that few college presidents would presume to intervene in the private lives of students for purposes of doctrinal or moral correction. The era of spiritual authority belonging to college is long gone. And yet I have never encountered a better formulation—"show me how to think and how to choose"—of what a college should strive to be: an aid to reflection, a place and process whereby young people take stock of their talents and passions and begin to sort out their lives in a way that is true to themselves and responsible to others.


2

Many objections can be lodged against what I have just said. For one thing, all colleges, whatever their past or present religious orientation, now exist in a context of secular pluralism that properly puts inculcation at odds with education. Then there is the fact that students arrive in college already largely formed in their habits and attitudes, or, in the case of the increasing number of "nontraditional" (that is, older) students, preoccupied with the struggles of adulthood—finding or keeping a job, making or saving a marriage, doing right by one's children. Many college women, who now outnumber men, are already mothers, often single. And regardless of age or gender or social class, students experience college—in the limited sense of attending lectures, writing papers, taking exams—as a smaller part of daily life than did my generation, which came of age in the 1960s and 70s. They live now in an ocean of digital noise, logged on, online, booted up, as the phrase goes, 24/7, linked to one another through an arsenal of gadgets that are never "powered down."

Having just survived the travails of getting in, students in selective colleges find themselves under instant and constant pressure to prepare for competing with graduates of comparable colleges once they get out. Those in open-admissions colleges, many of whom must cope with deficits in their previous schooling, may not be able to compete at what we call the "same level," but they are likely to feel even more pressure to justify the cost of earning a credential in the hope that it will give them a fighting chance in postcollege life. In other words, college is less and less a respite from what my campus newspaper used to call "the real world." This is true of colleges of all types and ranks.

It may also be objected that there is nothing new about any of this—an objection with a good deal of merit. When the first administrators at Stanford (founded in 1891) wanted to know why the new freshman class had chosen to enroll, they heard mainly about the California climate, the prestige of the new university, and the (at that time) low living expenses. Twenty years later, the president of Western Reserve University, a clergyman with the wonderfully donnish name Charles Thwing, found that students were less interested in "hard reading and high thinking" than in acquiring the " 'touch' of college life" in order to impress prospective employers. Around the same time, at Penn State, an English professor complained of being pestered with a recurrent question about the value of what he was teaching: "Lissun, Prof, how is this dope going to help a guy get a job and pull down a good salary?" And fifty years after that, the eminent critic Lionel Trilling (who taught all his life at Columbia, except for visiting stints at Harvard and Oxford) had come to feel that his students regarded college "merely as a process of accreditation, with an economic-social end in view."


(Continues...)

Excerpted from College by Andrew Delbanco. Copyright © 2012 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Preface xi

Introduction 1

Chapter One: What Is College For? 9

Chapter Two: Origins 36

Chapter Three: From College to University 67

Chapter Four: Who Went? Who Goes? Who Pays? 102

Chapter Five: Brave New World 125

Chapter Six: What Is to Be Done? 150

Acknowledgments 179

Notes 183

Index 215

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