College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be, by Andrew Delbanco

A review written for Light and Truth, the magazine of Yale’s Conservative Party. It appeared on campus, but only on paper.

My heart goes out to Andrew Delbanco.

In the course of writing College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be, he encountered the same paradox I will if I try to apply my time at Yale to any debate on the state of higher education.

Along with my friends at Columbia, Middlebury, and the University of Chicago, I enjoy the public ideal of “college life”: Frisbees, ping-pong and five-person seminars.

Statistically, though, my friends and I are very unusual. Private, four-year colleges (most of which you’ve never heard of) enroll about 20% of America’s post-secondary students. Two hundred and fifty thousand people take classes at the University of Phoenix—more than twice the undergrad population of the Ivy League and U.S. News’ top 20 liberal arts colleges combined.

But this book wasn’t written by Mark DeFusco, former director of the University of Phoenix. In fact, he is  quoted only once, asserting that most students attend college mostly for financial reasons. Delbanco, a Harvard graduate and 27-year veteran professor at Columbia, calls Defusco’s (probably true) statement “a surrender of America’s democratic promise.”

The rest of College reflects this kind of thinking; though the author went out of his way to visit colleges of every variety in the course of his research, his book is undeniably the product of the world he inhabits—a world where undergraduates with 99th-percentile SATs read Homer and take summer-long unpaid internships they can afford thanks to personal wealth or grants from billion-dollar endowments. Delbanco quotes multiple Harvard presidents, as well as Benjamin Franklin and Harriet Beecher Stowe—but not a single 23-year-old business major who got exactly what she wanted out of a quick, cheap, and efficient post-secondary education.

Still, for someone covering 300 years of higher education in 175 pages, Delbanco does an excellent job covering both the history of college as an idea and the long struggle to make that idea—diverse, liberal education for all who desire it—an American reality. Reading College as a descriptive work, one comes away with solid answers to the questions presented in the introduction: “How did we get here? What now?”

“Descriptive” is the key term here: strong as a summary, the book falters somewhat when Delbanco tackles prescriptive solutions to the problems he finds. He lacks the space to consider opposing views—and perhaps in consequence, knowing it wouldn’t be fair, makes few assertions strong (or controversial) enough to warrant opposition. If his target readers are adults well out of their college years, or academics lost in their narrow fields of expertise, College will bring them up to speed on the major post-secondary debates of our time.

However, while I enjoyed Delbanco’s anecdotes and massive collection of footnotes (nearly two per page), I didn’t hear any substantive arguments in favor of the humanities that I couldn’t get from Charles Hill or Harold Bloom or Yale Daily News op-eds. According to the introduction, Delbanco’s “unabashed aim” is to “articulate what a college—any college—should seek to do for its students.” He certainly articulates the “should”, but he never quite settles upon “how”; even if that word wasn’t part of the mission statement, its absence is sharply felt by the final pages.

* * * * *

The book’s title makes an implicit assumption: that what college “should be” differs somehow from its present “is”. But what’s wrong with college curricula today? Are they failing to teach something that every student should pay to learn? I’m not about to argue that high school in its present form, especially in vo-tech-shy America, is enough education for more than a small percentage of 18-year-olds. Still, I wonder whether Delbanco’s perception of college really centers on what’s important for the most typical kind of student—someone from a middle-class household who hopes to earn enough to support a family of her own, without incurring significant debt in the process.

Admittedly, his list of expectations for what colleges ought to teach is admirable:

  1. “A skeptical discontent of the present, informed by a sense of the past”
  2. “The ability to make connections among seemingly disparate phenomena”
  3. “Appreciation of the natural world, enhanced by knowledge of science and the arts”
  4. “A willingness to imagine experience from perspectives other than one’s own”
  5. “A sense of ethical responsibility”

These are fantastic goals, and though I fear he overvalues (1) while placing less weight on (2) and (3), that’s his prerogative as a humanities professor with a lifetime of experience in academia. However, he then makes a trickier proposal: that college, in the words of fellow Columbia prof Mark Lilla, should be a place where students “figure out just what it is that’s worth wanting.”

Before this notion can take on the feel of a true thesis, Delbanco undercuts himself, discussing objections to the concept of college self-discovery ranging from the idea’s religious origins to its potential irrelevance among older “nontraditional” students who enroll mainly for credentials. In the next few pages, he presents a potpourri of potential purposes for higher education. It gives you a built-in bullshit detector! It helps you bond through the shared learning of certain humanistic ideas! (Especially if you’re one of his Columbia students, for whom a humanities-heavy list of “Core” classes is mandatory). In my favorite proposal, Delbanco quotes ex-Barnard president Judith Shapiro: “You want the inside of your head to be an interesting place to spend the rest of your life.”

Having so little space in which to present so many cool ideas leaves Delbanco little time to defend them with rigor; when he entertains opposing views, he tends to slip away into the shades of gray that populate any discussion of such abstract concepts. A liberal education is for everyone; well, at least most people; true, most people can’t afford it; well, let’s put more money into colleges; but money’s tight these days… still, a liberal education is for everyone.

It’s good writing, and I’d love to get him alone during office hours, but the book jacket has it right: “Acknowledging the serious financial, intellectual, and ethical challenges that all colleges face today, Delbanco considers what is at stake in the urgent effort to protect these venerable institutions for future generations.” Consider is the operative term; one must wait for the conclusion to hear any concrete proposals for staving off destruction.

* * * * *

While we wait, however, we are at least entertained, learning exactly how colleges came to face their modern existential peril. (Delbanco’s history of higher education is necessarily incomplete, with an obvious focus on the Ivy League, but to be fair, the League seems to have taken the lead on most college trends. Harvard and Yale have twice as much history as most state schools). From sixteenth-century Cambridge to the aforementioned University of Phoenix, Delbanco covers the religious schisms that created many of the earliest colleges, the foundation of what we now call “the liberal arts”, the rise of universities in the wake of the Civil War, the fight for student diversity, and finally the tensions between teaching and research, tradition and technology, universal truth and the almighty dollar, which threaten to tear apart our established system of cash-deprived state schools and tuition-inflated private colleges. Just writing that sentence was tiring, but this isn’t the time for a timeline; no summary could encompass the pleasures of exploring the past alongside Delbanco.

I will, however, mention a few of my favorite anecdotes:

  • Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 20th Harvard reunion, which he described as “yellow, bald, and toothless” (“men aged more quickly in those days”).
  • The University of Georgia’s athlete-heavy “Coaching Principles and Strategies of Basketball” exam, whose final asked “How many halves are in a basketball game?”
  • The walls of Cambridge, which keep the public out today but were built to keep the students in.
  • The prohibition, oft-broken by those same Cambridge students, against keeping “fierce birds” in one’s dorm room.

These tiny gems make the middle sections a pleasure to read, but when Delbanco turns from history to prod at his various theses, his logic feels ridden with holes. Yes, Harvard taught a diverse collection of subjects in the early 19th century—but since then, the notion of learning all there is to know has become ridiculous. Who gets to choose what a “core” of knowledge really ought to entail, and what gets left out?

Delbanco refers here to Yale professor Anthony Kronman’s list of ideas any would-be BA should understand, including: “The ideals of individual freedom and toleration […] a reliance on markets as a mechanism for the organization of human life […] an acceptance of the truths of modern science and the ubiquitous employment of its technological products.”

It’s an excellent summary, but he weakens its potency by surrounding it with references to Directed Studies and Columbia’s Core curriculum, which are weak on STEM, social science, computing, and just about everything seen, heard or thought after 1950. Why should my suitemate, a genius engineer with a passion for military history, have to endure Don Quixote and Descartes? Wouldn’t pre-med students learn more from the doctors of Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down (published in 1998) than Thucydides’ stories of the Plague of Athens? Classical wisdom does an excellent job considering certain problems, but when Delbanco proposes no specific core of his own, I wonder: whither psychology? Cyber-philosophy? Serious consideration of what separates our world from Plato’s Athens or the thirteen colonies of the Founding Fathers?

* * * * *

Delbanco puts special emphasis on the humanities’ tendency to “reinvent the wheel”, giving each new generation of students the chance to engage in the same thought process. This is helpful where ethics are concerned, but I’m not sure it deals effectively with the process he seeks to effect: undergraduates’ finding their earthly purpose in our modern, ever-shifting world.

Can’t self-discovery come just as easily from computer science as western literature? Should students prioritize rehashing old debates—democracy vs. oligarchy, Kant vs. Mill—over acquiring the skills they’ll need to find employment (and the very real happiness that comes with economic stability)? What if their goal is to alleviate the suffering of those whose problems are more physical than philosophical? Maybe we can cram it all into one curriculum—but at what cost?

Fortunately, Delbanco’s concluding section, “What Is To Be Done?”, deals with some easier problems, using a collection of commonsense suggestions and hopeful anecdotes.

Chief among these is his urging for professors to trade in some of their research obligations for time with undergraduates. He draws an interesting analogy between medicine and academia; any prospective doctor spends years as a resident, but teaching assistants are thrown into classrooms with little preparation, and scholars who become teachers often fail to succeed in the latter endeavor—though it’s often the more important of the two. Delbanco stops short of prescribing a definite solution, but if the National Research Council heeds his proposal to rank doctoral programs based on the teaching skills they impart, future students might just learn to love introductory classes with the help of skillful TAs and junior faculty.

A few of the author’s final words, however, bring us full circle, to the initial problems of his mission. When he calls on colleges to improve remedial classes and reach out to low-income high-schoolers, he sensibly sidelines the question of how to improve K-12 education, but still makes me wonder where the money will come from. In an earlier chapter, he wonders whether legislators will “cast the right vote” when choosing to fund colleges or Medicaid; whose “right” are we discussing? (And shouldn’t we be allocating resources to pre-college education, when minds are more plastic and tuition can’t be raised to meet funding gaps?)

* * * * *

Delbanco’s prescient conclusion cites the difficulty in explaining the benefits of a liberal-arts curriculum to those who haven’t experienced it, and College, while a fine beginning, won’t bridge the gap between Columbia and America’s 375,000 newly-graduated business majors (who outnumber any other BA subject at least three to one). Even if the latter have time to study the history of Western thought, Delbanco provides no advice as to how they can catch up to students with the luxury to spend years on subjects that come without a career attached, or how the colleges responsible for most of our nation’s degrees can improve teaching quality and reduce student-loan debt without bankrupting themselves.

I’m firmly on Delbanco’s side when it comes to the value of holistic learning, and though he can’t explain how to guarantee all students a tour through history’s greatest ideas, College convinced me that everyone deserves the opportunity—if not a mandate—to take a few humanities classes, even if they aren’t part of the private, four-year minority. I hope he writes another, longer book to delve deeper into political persuasion (and his thoughts on the danger of generalizing modern colleges as on the decline, and how experts who study the same classics come to opposite conclusions, and what could replace our numbing meritocratic test-based admissions process… this is a dense little book).

Until then, read this introductory work, explore the footnotes, and take every opportunity you can to discuss these issues with people from every tier of the education system—the most reliable resource on America’s need, or lack thereof, for the liberal arts.


For a first-person take on the problem with liberal-arts education, I can’t recommend highly enough the marvelous Atlantic piece “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower.” It makes a point I wish Delbanco had considered more seriously—that not everyone is prepared to (or needs to) tackle these millennia of thought, especially if they want to be, say,  nurses or police officers.

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