On College and On Colleges – DelBanco’s Ideal

Andrew DelBanco is a smart and accomplished man. Director of Columbia University’s American Studies program, he is an award-winning scholar, prolific critic, and critically acclaimed author and editor of many books. His works on Melville are outstanding. DelBanco would be at the top of any short-list of prominent American scholars of arts and letters, particularly if one were looking for a historical perspective. He writes with informed lucidity and wit.

In College, What It Was, Is, and Should Be, DelBanco takes a peek over the hedge at contemporary higher education. He applies his impressive intellect to lead the reader through an extended journey of what college was in American history. Drawing on a rich array of sources, DelBanco provides a rich and complex picture of the values and practices embodied in American higher education from the colonial era on. He is most at home in the nineteenth century, when gentlemen were gentlemen and the values of a college education emerged over a lifetime.

The challenge is that knowing what college was and what it did is important for the long view. Changes since World War II in American higher education have been tremendous – and they are not central to DelBanco’s thinking. In fact, the selective jump of the narrative bypasses most of the twentieth century. It is impossible to understand higher education today without a clear grounding in policy, economics and practice of the last thirty years.  And this material is not in DelBanco’s mind map of college.  As he confesses in the opening, those broader questions of policy and practice have not been part of his professional focus.

Driving DelBanco’s book is a fear of loss. He sees a broad abandonment of the powerful community and character building effects of the traditional liberal arts education. That ideal we know well: a small, productive and dedicated full-time faculty, a student body consisting of bright and inquisitive minds, and curricula and practice by which professionals and neophytes sit around tables and argue, ponder, question and grow. It is a lovely model.  And while it may still be taking place in American higher education, DelBanco worries that it is a rare phenomenon, threatened by all too many factors, and under appreciated in the commercialization of academia. It is a fair point, one that many who enjoyed such an education raise.

The history of higher education in the United States the past fifty years has one broad theme: access. College, or a college education, has different meanings today for different kinds of college students. The traditional academic environment that DelBanco elevates is not possible for working parents, for struggling veterans, for first generation students who advance through a community college, or for adults in their 30s or 40s who find that they need a degree and training to find or regain employment. The value and use of a college education is great and increasing. In fact, the non-traditional college education is today the norm. This does not negate the value of his argument. Traditional college education can have a powerful effect molding young minds. But college in the twenty-first century is and has to be much more.

My frustration with DelBanco’s book is not his enthusiasm for college. I respect college and share his appreciation. However, he is looking through the wrong end of the microscope. The key question for America to answer is not what we can do to protect residential liberal arts colleges for middle class and wealthy teenagers. It is what we can do to take the best of that experience and make it available to all who want and need a college degree. I am very confident that smart and moderately well-off young people will be able, regardless of trends, to find and secure solid college educations for the foreseeable future. What I worry about is the kind of education for the many bright minds who lack finances, who attend inadequate secondary schools, whose options are limited.

DelBanco pays slight service to more aid, more support, more opportunities. His thinking is not grounded in contemporary economics or politics. He demonstrates scant familiarity with academic practice in the broad middle of American higher education: the state colleges and universities, the smaller independents, and the thousands of community colleges. He seems unaware of or indifferent to the work of organizations like the AAC&U or AASCU. In brief, he book is a lovely reflection of his background and environment: Harvard for his BA, PhD and tenure at Columbia.  DelBanco could have done more. And with his intellects and talents, a broader perspective and new ideas would have been welcome.

David Potash

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