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College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be
by Andrew Delbanco
Princeton, 240 pages, $24.95

Books warning of the imminent demise of college education are becoming almost as common as those predicting the demise of the printed book. In College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be, Andrew Delbanco adds his thoughtful voice to the humanists alarmed that the sort of collegiate experience they had a generation ago and which they perpetuate in their own classes is beleaguered on many sides. Delbanco teaches at Columbia University, where he directs the university’s American studies program, and is known for his fine historical studies of American literature and culture.

His ideal collegiate experience is a residential one that fosters a sense of a community of learning and in which appreciation of the humanities plays a prominent role. Those who benefit from this experience, especially young people making the transition to adulthood, should come away with critical self-understanding and the qualities of heart and mind that make for good citizenship. These qualities include a critical discontent with the present in the light of the past, the ability to relate disparate phenomena and to imagine perspectives that differ from one’s own, an appreciation of nature informed by science and art, and a sense of ethical responsibility.

The threats to this ideal are familiar. University education has become a commodity (Delbanco mentions a half-dozen recent books whose titles suggest such themes). Parents and students want to get something tangible—usually training for a job—for their money, especially since the most recent economic downturn, but often the highest rewards for professors come from specialized research and publication, not teaching. Meanwhile costs keep going up as schools compete for students and present themselves as though they were luxury resorts.

Promiscuity, sexual and curricular, is so pervasive that not only do colleges not tell students what to think, “most are unwilling even to tell them what’s worth thinking about.” Delbanco cites a remark of the former director of the immense University of Phoenix (five times larger than Ohio State): “I’m happy that there are places in the world where people sit down and think. We need that. But that’s very expensive. And not everybody can do that. So for the vast majority of folks who don’t get that privilege, then I think it’s a business.”

Delbanco is well aware, of course, of the problems of the exclusiveness of earlier American college education on the basis of religion, race, sex, ethnicity, and social class. But he steps past the usual critiques to ask what we can learn about the common humanity of earlier Americans.

He is particularly open to finding value in religious concerns not his own. So, for instance, he draws an analogy between the Puritan experience of mysterious and undeserved grace and the transforming illumination that might take place in a young person’s classroom experience. Delbanco, who describes himself as a nonobservant Jew, likewise expresses appreciation for contemporary Christian sensibilities, as in an Evangelical Veritas Forum in which he participated at Columbia, or in his visits to schools such as Wheaton, Geneva, Valparaiso, and Baylor.

He also admires the nineteenth-century Harvard students honored on the walls of Memorial Hall for their sacrifices for others in the Civil War. He is even generous toward the much-maligned gentlemen’s-club elite colleges of the early twentieth century. He finds there evidence of the survival of a healthy doctrine of grace as expressed in the motto “There but for the grace of God go I,” which inspired some to lives of service.

Such generous sensibilities regarding earlier exclusive education seem all the more remarkable because a major part of what is distinctive about Delbanco’s contribution is his sustained analysis of the problems of equity in access to higher education. In fact, that sense of continuing injustice is consistent with his premise that the beneficiaries of elite education should regard themselves as recipients of grace and hence should be serving the less fortunate by maximizing educational opportunities.

The opening and diversification of higher education over the past generation was, as he depicts it, far from a triumphant success. Some old prejudices may have been eliminated, but new obstacles to equity, especially those based on economic differences, persist. He would urge that governments do more to make college affordable for all.

“Meritocracy”—a term invented in 1958 by an English social critic, Michael Young, not as an ideal but as the basis of a projected dystopian twenty-first-century future in which everything would be decided by testing—has been a paradox and illusion. The current meritocracy does not often create a sense of noblesse oblige, but typically legitimates a sense that we are only getting what we merit or deserve.

However, Delbanco’s solutions only begin to touch the problems he identifies. Part of the problem is that he is addressing two sorts of problems that are only tangentially related. Although he describes with persuasiveness what college “should be,” what it should be resembles what he enjoyed at Harvard circa 1970, an experience becoming rare even at Harvard and Columbia.

One wonders whether even the best prescriptions for those institutions would have any impact on the vast majority of undergraduate education that goes on around the country. In order to make his book cohere, he tends to call all of undergraduate education “college,” but when he writes the history, it is of elite institutions. Those are a long way from most undergraduate experiences.

As Delbanco himself points out, today almost two-thirds of white high school graduates enroll in higher education, and about a third of those never finish. Of those who do eventually graduate, about one-quarter “cannot comprehend a moderately sophisticated magazine article, or estimate if there’s enough gas in the car to reach the next gas station.”

It is probably still possible to find life-transforming, humane courses at most schools. But that is seldom what students are motivated to seek, and even those who have superior intellectual capabilities often lack direction. So even if access to education is made more equitable, the sort of ideal collegiate experience that Delbanco holds up is still going to be available only to the precious few.

In Delbanco’s accounting for the beleaguered role of the humanities, one surprising omission is any reflection on the intellectual changes that have contributed to that decline in the past generation. In his own field of literary studies, dwindling numbers of younger scholars are being taught to approach the history of literature the way he does, looking for moral exemplars from whom we can learn. Rather, the history of literature is often taught as a subversive discipline in which competing critical theories become the focal points of interest. In the humanities, scholars emphasize the moral failings of past generations in race, class, gender, or colonialism, but lack the generosity Delbanco displays in learning from our predecessors despite their faults.

This and similar books signal a moment of opportunity for religiously oriented colleges and universities. These schools often have very strong liberal arts faculties concerned with undergraduate teaching. There is a good argument that they are among the very best places for a residential college experience that exemplifies what many people think college should be about. Under economic pressures, they need to resist trends toward commodification and job training and learn from the “best practices” Delbanco identifies.

Any lasting solution, though, requires more than a well-structured curriculum and rarefied communal environment. Ultimately, graduates must come to appreciate the doctrine of grace as well as Delbanco does and recognize whatever privileges they have are undeserved, so that when they see others less blessed they would instinctively say, “There but for the grace of God go I.”

George M. Marsden is the Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Notre Dame and the author of The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship.

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