College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be

Alan Ryan learns what the liberal-arts ideals of the US academy's founders can teach us today

April 12, 2012

This is a very American book, but one that 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. However, anger is not the dominant note.

The book is more nearly a conversation with the founding fathers of American liberal education about which of their ideals make sense in the 21st century, and how we - teachers and administrators, boards of trustees, legislators and governments, parents and students - might transform the lives and characters of the students entrusted to us as we say we hope to do. Anyone actively engaged in teaching is likely to finish the book determined to make their classes more interesting and their students more passionate about the life of the mind.

The bare facts of Andrew Delbanco's career give a misleading impression. He is a distinguished literary and cultural historian, the author of a much-admired biography of Herman Melville and the recipient of a National Humanities Medal for his writings on higher education and social criticism, as well as innumerable awards for teaching and contributions to public debates about the place of great American literature in our cultural life.

He has been teaching at Columbia University for some 30 years. If that conjures up an image of an elderly, tweed-jacketed, ruminative figure bemoaning the uncultivated condition of today's young people, think again. 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.

College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be is not short of complaints, but they are directed against professors who dislike teaching; graduate programmes that don't teach students how to teach; plus the economic and educational inequalities that mean that children from families in the bottom quarter are so much less likely than the better off to get any higher education at all (supposing they graduate from high school in the first place) - and if they do, so much more likely to get it in community colleges or for-profit institutions than anywhere offering an education in the liberal arts.

UK readers who are constantly told that US higher education is the best in the world - something that Americans are decreasingly convinced of - may need to remind themselves that the "great research university" is by no means all there is. Within the great research universities there exists "the undergraduate college"; outside the great research universities there are innumerable liberal-arts colleges, many tiny, none large (Williams, Swarthmore and Amherst colleges and the Claremont colleges in California are among the largest, and they barely exceed 2,000 students). The "undergraduate colleges" at institutions such as the universities of Harvard, Yale, Princeton or Columbia tend to be modestly sized, with enrolments of 6,000 at the large end. Enormous state universities that want to provide a liberal-arts education often carve out an "honors college" for a few hundred students, as at the University of Michigan and the University of Texas at Austin.

Delbanco focuses on what a liberal-arts education was supposed to do for those who got it, what it does nowadays, what threats it faces and what can be done about them. An enjoyable feature of the book is his surprise at finding himself so moved by the aspirations of the narrow-minded, intolerant and in many ways rebarbative persons who established Harvard College in 1636, the College of William & Mary in 1693, and then the places that turned into Yale, Columbia, Princeton and the rest. Taking it for granted that most of his readers will be sceptics and agnostics like himself, Delbanco reminds us that Harvard was founded by people who were desperate not to have "an illiterate clergy".

Planted among the savage heathen of the American wilderness, they had a very particular view of the learning their clergy needed; they were to preach the word of God in ways that stirred the heart rather than the intellect, but they were to be genuinely learned. Other colonies had different religious leanings and set about creating their own colleges: for example, the College of New Jersey that eventually turned into Princeton University began as a tiny seminary in rural Pennsylvania, derisively known as "Log College". His self-chosen epitaph suggests that Thomas Jefferson was prouder of establishing a publicly funded non-denominational university in Charlottesville (the University of Virginia) than serving two terms as president and doubling the size of the US.

Delbanco takes his readers on a brisk tour of the 19th-century expansion and transformation of US higher education, reminding them that if the American college was inspired by a mixture of Oxbridge colleges, Scottish universities and dissenting academies, Germany begat the modern research university. Only in 1874 with the creation of Johns Hopkins University was it possible to acquire a home-grown PhD on US soil. The more characteristic American achievement was the agricultural and technical colleges that turned in due course into the state universities, the so-called "land grant" colleges funded by the gift of federally owned territory beginning with the Morrill Act of 1862.

But the present state of undergraduate education distresses Delbanco. His unhappiness is not that of US conservatives complaining about the low productivity of overpaid professors. Nor is it easily pigeonholed: his image of a successful undergraduate education is in many ways conservative - and none the worse for it; but he wants the benefits of "the best that has been thought and said" to be extended to everyone and is distressed by how inaccessible it is to most of the population. As he points out, this was Matthew Arnold's aspiration too. What are these benefits? One is instilling in us a proper humility in the face of intellectual and moral excellences that we cannot emulate, but might hope to be inspired by. That is not what the students at elite schools are taught; they are incessantly told how wonderful they are, and are inclined to complain bitterly if their grade-point average is threatened. They are fiercely competitive, extremely anxious and destined for immense success in financial services and the law.

Another is getting close intellectual attention from teachers, something that is threatened twice over - by the bias towards rewarding research rather than teaching, and by the reliance on adjunct professors, "scholar gypsies" who must teach at anything up to half a dozen institutions to make a living and have no time to pay the attention that students need. Delbanco says that only some 3 per cent of students at the top 500 US colleges and universities come from the lowest income quintile, which is another way of saying that those who most need careful and attentive teaching are the least likely to get it. As to the possibilities of change for the better, he is cautious. We could all try to teach better; we could be imaginative about using technology to improve feedback and make education more genuinely dialogical; and so on. Doing much more will surely take political and cultural changes that seem unlikely to happen any time soon.

The Author

Andrew Delbanco, named America's Best Social Critic by Time magazine in 2001, was born in New York City and studied English and American literature at Harvard University.

His parents hailed from Germany, but his mother resolved to leave the country soon after reading Hitler's Mein Kampf, and they moved to London in 1936.

When Delbanco recounted that story to the literary scholar Alan Heimert, his Harvard mentor, Heimert replied: "No wonder you take texts seriously."

Delbanco's two elder brothers were born in London, and he says: "Since I am considerably younger, I was known in the family as 'the American afterthought'. My parents always said that with a smile."

He met his wife while they were students at Harvard and he stayed on at the institution to teach until 1985, when he moved to Columbia University, having "received the proverbial offer I could not refuse". He took up the post of director of American studies at Columbia in 2005.

He says he tries never to travel out of town to give a lecture without first stocking up on dark chocolate with almonds from Mondel Chocolates, a Manhattan institution. "With all due respect to Lindt, Godiva, Cadbury and the rest, I regard it as the best chocolate in the world."

College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be

By Andrew Delbanco

Princeton University Press 240pp, £16.95

ISBN 9780691130736 and 9781400841578 (e-book)

Published 4 April 2012

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