Michael S. Roth
College: What It Was, Is, and Should Beby Andrew Delbanco
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… See more details below
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.
Michael S. Roth
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.
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.
Robert J. Parmach
"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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What It Was, Is, and Should Be
By Andrew Delbanco
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2012 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
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.
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."
Excerpted from College by Andrew Delbanco. Copyright © 2012 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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