Dr. Paul Ranieri Recommends “College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be” by Andrew Delbanco

In the latest installment of our Recommended Reads series, Dr. Paul Ranieri recommends College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be by Andrew Delbanco.

Andrew Delbanco does not want College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be (Princeton UP, 2012) to be seen as another one of those “jeremiads” about contemporary higher education, liberal education, and the humanities: “I have been reluctant . . . to join the hue and cry that the condition of our colleges is dire” (4), he notes early in his “Introduction.”  Writing from the perspective of three decades as a college teacher, most recently at Columbia University, Delbanco draws a sharp historical distinction between the “college” (“about transmitting knowledge of and from the past to undergraduate students so they may draw upon it as a living resource in the future”) and the “university” (“mainly an array of research activities conducted by faculty and graduate students with the aim of creating new knowledge in order to supersede the past”) (2), lamenting the effect of the latter on the former, as one by one colleges have been “bitten by the bug of university aspiration” (81).

Delbanco reviews in three chapters the history of such changes on the traditional colleges and the parallel changes in the student population over the same period.  However, his heart clearly lies in his analysis of what college used to and should be for, and his discussion of what the experience of higher education has become and what our response now might be.

His argument centers on this sentence: “”Missing from both tellings [i.e., whether changes from “college” to “university” should be characterized as “modernization” or “disintegration”] is the fact that relatively little of this story has been driven by reflective consideration of what’s best for college students” (85).  The contemporary university, he feels, must strive for both “specialized expert training” (102) and the “qualities of mind and heart requisite for reflective citizenship” (3), though American higher education has “struggled to maintain this dialectic” (103).

Delbanco acknowledges that the era of spiritual authority belonging to colleges is long gone, but that does not absolve contemporary higher education from showing students “how to think and how to choose” (15).  College should 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” (15-16).  Such learning, however, now runs counter to the “progressive power of science . . . one of the astonishing achievements of human civilization” (94).  Unfortunately, because science values knowledge that is incremental and accretive, it can “demonstrate progress—an ability of inestimable value in a culture that has always been more forward-looking than retrospective” (94).  And, demonstrating progress means that it competes better for resources, can show a connection to technological advances, and thus exhibit a “’return’ on public and private investment in higher education” (95).   “This way of evaluating the worth of knowledge . . . poses a severe challenge to the humanities—at least to the extent that humanists remain concerned with preserving truth by rearticulating it rather than advancing truth by discarding the old in favor of the new” (94-95).

On a deeper level, Delbanco regrets the unintended effect, what he calls the “dark side,” of meritocracy (139).  Contemporary leadership no longer counts “self-doubt and self-criticism among the virtues of a genuinely educated person” (134).  That loss of humility and the rise in a sense of their own importance leads educated leaders today to a loss of “sympathy with the people they govern” (134).

These two factors—the expansive power of scientific thinking and the loss of self-doubt and humility among leaders—combined with problems of scale and the “explosion of specialized knowledge’ (89) severely strain any dialectic between the competing demands of the “university” and the “college.”

For Delbanco, “If good things are going to happen to students, faculty must care, not only because this is the precondition of good teaching, but because, with a few minor exceptions such as teaching awards or, occasionally, supplementary pay for teaching certain required courses, the proffered rewards of academic life—promotions, raises, leaves—have nothing to do with demonstrated concern for students” (166).

I wish Delbanco had pursued specifically how this teaching of caring and questioning, of thinking and choosing, runs counter to a “university” culture of accumulating knowledge, science, and demonstrable progress.

For me, such teaching begins with a student’s mind confronting the world, a confrontation teachers cannot “teach,” “lecture,” or “assess” into existence.  Teachers can model, mentor, and guide, usually by discussing with, listening to, and reading what their students express, but ultimately such learning can only be known in the way students live their lives.  Institutions of higher education do little to support, seek to understand, or even elicit respect for such learning.  Delbanco’s “dialectic” can be revived only by acknowledging that sober fact.

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