College: What It Was, Is, And Should Be

Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is often loosely cited to support even looser claims that America is declining. But Gibbon’s observation that in ancient Rome “a cloud of critics, compilers, of commentators, darkened the face of learning” does resonate with something that’s gone wrong in American liberal-arts education. In his telling, Rome’s loss of its republican virtues had left its later writers and orators in “very unequal competition with those bold ancients” who had expressed “their genuine feelings in their native tongue” and, “living under a popular government, wrote with the same freedom as they acted.”

For nearly a decade Andrew Delbanco, a professor of English at Columbia, has been following our own dark cloud of jeremiads, elegies, manifestos, analyses, and investigations concerning universities. His review-essays, each prompted by other people’s books, have appeared in The New York Review of Books under headlines such as Colleges: An Endangered Species?, The Endangered University, Scandals of Higher Education, and The Universities in Trouble.

In 2005, Delbanco decided that, for all the noise and number-crunching, the essential “question of what an undergraduate education should be all about is almost taboo.” So now he has written his own book, College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be, to answer that question.

Traditional liberal-arts colleges are buffeted by swift cultural, scientific, economic, and ideological currents that at least one old Roman, Gibbon’s “sublime Longinus,” would have recognized as hastening “the degeneracy of his contemporaries, which debased their sentiments, enervated their courage, and depressed their talents.” Unfortunately, College itself is far from sublime; nearly every page recycles a sentence or anecdote from one of Delbanco’s reviews of 2005, 2007, and 2009. These read like set-pieces woven into an essay whose obvious decency is seldom carried with passion.

A survivor of his English department’s venomous culture wars of the 1980s and ’90s, Delbanco hides too often behind forgotten pedagogues’ bromides: “About a hundred years ago, a professor of moral philosophy at Oxford, John Alexander Smith, got to the nub of the matter. ‘Gentlemen,’ he said to the incoming class (the students were all men in those days) … if you work hard and intelligently you should be able to detect when a man is talking rot, and that, in my view, is the main, if not the sole purpose of education.’” Again and again we see Delbanco in unequal competition with bold ancients who wrote with genuine feeling and freedom.

What saves the book from “degeneracy” is that — somewhat like Jerome Karabel’s gripping, monumental The Chosen, and like Martha Nussbaum’s authoritative Not for Profit — it does comprehend the standards of those bold ancients and their American equivalents, the Puritan founders of our earliest institutions of higher education, well enough to discredit the negativity and vapidity of most other critiques of liberal-arts colleges.

Delbanco’s most important claims are, first, that liberal education’s capacity to challenge the young to find themselves in more than the pursuit of narrow self-interest isn’t enhanced by the scientific “research” paradigms and market-driven measures of educational “productivity” that many critics employ to assess what’s wrong with our colleges. He argues that a liberal education should stimulate reckonings much deeper than its defenders’ most common standby, its development of “critical thinking.”

Second, Delbanco warns that educators who do become too research- or market-obsessed lose their inclination and ability to attune the young to liberal education’s enduring rewards. Instead they reinforce narrower notions of “merit” and forget “the cardinal principle … that no human being deserves anything based on his or her merit [and]… that courage and selflessness are democratically distributed virtues,” not rewards of a meritocracy that only helps us to deceive ourselves and others about our true weaknesses and strengths.

As a scholar of the Puritan origins and ethos of early American colleges, Delbanco knows why evangelical and orthodox believers are virulent critics of the old colleges’ abandonment “of the religion out of which they arose.” He warns that even if most colleges can’t and shouldn’t re-embrace their Puritan and sectarian origins, they’re weaker for lacking any faith or language strong enough to help students defer immediate self-interest and pragmatic rewards and to meet more lasting challenges to politics and the human spirit.

Delbanco probably won’t impress you as a critic who has found such a faith himself, but his awareness that its missing prompts a few felicitous passages: “Science… tells us nothing about how to shape a life or how to face death, about the meaning of love or the scope of responsibility. It not only fails to answer such questions; it cannot ask them. As much as the questions posed by science, these are hard and serious questions, and should be part of every college education … Such questions do not admit of verifiable or replicable answers because the experiment to which we must subject them is the experiment of our own lives.”

Delbanco tells many other, more familiar truths:  cultivating shared citizenship matters more than indulging the racial and sexual identity politics that preoccupy many young people; college presidents who serve on big-business boards for big bucks tend to lose sight of their mission; that faculty super-stars of research are often poor teachers; absent a pervasive moral or professional code on campus, cheating is common; treating students as customers often means consigning lower-income youths, who might find liberal arts liberating, to narrowly vocational, online courses, and excusing higher-income students from coursework that might impress upon them “the idea that good fortune confers a responsibility to live generously toward the less fortunate.”

He offers a spate of worthy recommendations: make college more affordable (he surveys several well-known proposals); improve faculty-administration communication and governance; deepen pedagogy to enhance mentorship, structured group study, and research apprenticeships; stop touting semesters abroad that merely imitate earlier elites’ “grand tours;” explore, cautiously, what digitalization can do for education; teach graduate students how to teach and tie professors’ promotions, raises, and leaves to “a demonstrated concern for students.”

The challenge unanswered by this book is that having intimations like Delbanco’s of what liberal education is for isn’t the same as having inspirations. He serves up his truths parboiled, like vegetables that would have been more nourishing if they hadn’t been steamed so long. Truism follows truism: “The best reason to care about college – who goes and what happens to them when they get there – is not what it does for society in economic terms but what it can do for individuals, in both calculable and incalculable ways.”

An irony that I wish he had explored, or at least acknowledged, is that liberal education, like Christianity and free markets, has more noisy celebrants than it has true friends. Some Vulcan conservatives and neoconservatives, vowing to rescue liberal education from feckless liberals, are introducing lavishly funded centers and institutes on several of the prestigious campuses that are Delbanco’s special concern. These tend to teach texts like Thucydides’ The History of the Peloponnesian War as guides for future Davos men, grand strategists, and military commanders. The “bold ancients” are back, but mainly to ensure loyal crews and tight rigging for commercial and military cruises. Delbanco says nothing about this development.

Liberal arts colleges struggling to nurture citizens of a republic have always tried to balance students’ career preparation with deeper challenges to politics and the human spirit. Allan Bloom considered that the colleges’ raison d’etre and their great glory. The bold ancients and Puritan founders of America’s first colleges would have agreed. After reading Delbanco’s well-intentioned book, we’re still waiting, with Gibbon, for a pedagogical voice compelling enough to renew that mission, not just call for it.


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