America’s four-year liberal arts colleges are—in a good sense—a peculiar institution. Since their inauspicious origins in the seventeenth century as, in essence, gentlemen’s clubs with a profoundly Protestant mission, they have undergone a number of significant and far-reaching metamorphoses. For a long time it was a cultural commonplace that the doctrines of Protestant humanism provided the essential elements for higher learning and that moral education, grounded in the study of Scripture, was one of higher education’s central goals, uniquely useful for shaping character, training ministers and producing upstanding civic leaders. But when the modern research university emerged in the United States during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the college system struggled to preserve its mission. Of what merit was general education amid a pulsating scientific-industrial civilization that increasingly prized the values of professionalism and narrow expertise?
The new educational gospel was that unimpeded scientific inquiry, if properly nurtured, could provide the moral compass that many people sorely needed after Charles Darwin’s writings about evolution aroused serious doubts about religion. But instead of establishing true north, the intellectual specialization of the modern research university seemed only to accelerate the fragmentation of knowledge, and as expectations of moral renewal through “value free” scientific inquiry receded—although science is a rich source of information about the formal properties of objects, it is for the most part agnostic about which values or ideals we should esteem and why—the idea of a liberal arts education was resuscitated. It began to flourish during the interwar period, when farsighted educators—“New Humanists” such as Harvard’s Irving Babbitt and Columbia’s John Erskine, along with University of Chicago president Robert Maynard Hutchins—became convinced that a humanistic education could fill the moral and spiritual void created by Darwinism and modern science.
Yet the liberal arts are still burdened with the suspicion that, unlike engineering and the natural sciences, the type of knowledge they purvey—routinely belittled as an airy and wide-ranging familiarity with dead languages, canonical texts and pointless erudition—fails to contribute tangibly to the nation’s material good. The persistence of such wariness notwithstanding, America’s universities remain the country’s most widely admired and emulated cultural achievements. In 2005 an international study ranked seventeen US educational institutions among the top twenty worldwide. In a recent national poll, 93 percent of the respondents said they viewed universities as one of the country’s most valuable assets. As Andrew Delbanco remarks appositely at the outset of his insightful and rewarding study, College: “Imagine a list of American innovations that would convey some sense of our nation’s distinctiveness in the world. Depending on the list-maker’s mood, it might include the atom bomb, jazz, the constitutional rights of criminal defendants, abstract expressionism, baseball, the thirty-year fixed rate mortgage, and fast food. Everyone would have a different version; but unless it included the American college, it would be glaringly incomplete.”
Yet cheerful poll results and “best of” lists can be misleading. Universities face many difficulties today, the most disturbing being the defunding of public education. During the past three decades, as tuition rates have soared, federal and state support for higher education has been drastically curtailed, resulting in a series of nettlesome choices for a growing number of middle- and lower-middle-class youth. According to a recent survey from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, since the mid-1990s the United States has consistently ranked last among the thirty OECD countries in gains in college participation rates.
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In retrospect, the GI Bill, as the 1944 Servicemen’s Readjustment Act is called, was one of the greatest democratizing forces in American history. Delbanco rightly remarks that the bill “brought onto campuses throughout the nation—including the most elite—students whose fathers would have once set foot there only as janitors.” Of 15 million returning veterans, just over half took advantage of the bill’s generous incentives and provisions in order to satisfy their aspirations for self-cultivation and professional advancement. By 1948 veterans counted for nearly 50 percent of all college students, thus fulfilling the promise of the land-grant public university system, mandated by Congress with the Morrill Act in 1862. Thereafter, both university life and American society were transformed by a seemingly irreversible process of democratic inclusion and upward social mobility. Most colleges and universities ceased being bastions of privilege, the exclusive preserve of a moneyed, Protestant elite. For the first time, men and women of diverse social backgrounds were afforded the opportunity to cultivate the knowledge and self-understanding necessary to surmount the oppressive constraints of class, race and gender.
The postwar project of democratic expansion is steadily being reversed, to the point where today, as Delbanco convincingly demonstrates, the college admissions process serves to reinforce the prerogatives of class and economic privilege rather than diminish them. Many qualified and aspiring students are deterred from attending college, fail to complete their degree in a timely manner, if at all, or must assume onerous levels of debt to meet the spiraling costs of an education. Among the current crop of college students, about two-thirds will be forced to borrow money for tuition, and upon graduation will owe on average nearly $34,000—twice as much as the average debt ten years ago. Americans now owe more in student loans than they do on credit cards.
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Delbanco is a professor of American Studies at Columbia University and a noted authority on the work of Herman Melville. Although the “savage inequalities” of American higher education are not the primary focus of College, he confronts them head-on in the book’s opening pages. He notes that whereas the child of a family earning at least $90,000 a year stands a 50 percent chance of receiving a BA by the time he or she turns 24, for a child whose annual family income is in the range of $60,000 to $90,000, the odds diminish to one in four. For someone from a household with an annual income of $35,000 or less, they plummet to one in seventeen. These disparities also have ramifications after graduation: Over a lifetime, someone with a bachelor’s degree will earn an average of $2.1 million, nearly twice as much as someone with only a high school diploma.
Delbanco explains further that the children of affluent families are four times more likely to be admitted to a prestigious, highly selective university than students with comparable grades and test scores from families of more modest means. And because elite colleges and universities function as conduits to high-ranking positions in government, business and other walks of life, it becomes impossible to deny that top universities perpetuate the perquisites of privilege rather than ameliorate them in a democratic manner. As Delbanco asserts, “An American college is only true to itself when it opens its doors to all—rich, middling, and poor—who have the capacity to embrace the precious chance to think and reflect before life engulfs them. If we are serious about democracy, that means everyone.” Because in most other OECD nations higher education is largely government subsidized, the persistence of structural inequities of access to higher education has become a distinctly American badge of shame.
Delbanco performs an invaluable public service by deftly dissecting the notion of “meritocracy,” which he aptly characterizes as the reigning ideology of class privilege. The idea of meritocracy suggests that those who have acceded to positions of prominence have arrived there by their own talents and abilities—they have bested their peers on a level playing field and are therefore entitled to success. But with what justification can one speak of a “level playing field” when wealthy parents spend exorbitant sums on SAT prep courses and college admissions gurus? Compounding the problem is the practice at elite colleges and universities of setting aside a considerable number of places in an incoming class for recruited athletes, the children of faculty and “legacies” (the children of alumni), leaving fewer available places for the general applicant pool. “It is a pipe dream to imagine that every student can have the sort of experience that our richest colleges, at their best, provide,” Delbanco observes. “But it is a nightmare society that affords the chance to learn and grow only to the wealthy, brilliant, or lucky few.” To judge by all the evidence available, American higher education today more closely approximates the dystopian image of the “nightmare society” than it does the egalitarian “pipe dream” that would be more in keeping with the democratic aspirations of our founding.
An even more worrisome trend in higher education is the increasing inability of administrators and professors to resist the seductions and encroachments of the profit motive. The university is discussed and justified on economic lines as a “cost center” or business enterprise, with leading educators proclaiming that the best way to advance the university’s standing is by adjusting its pedagogical mission to conform to the commercial and technological imperatives of the global economic order. Under the new, survival-of-the-fittest ethos, if universities don’t transform themselves into self-sufficient funding engines, they will slip further behind their predatory competitors. It is this mentality that has led elite universities to establish branch campuses in far-flung outposts with questionable human rights records, as New York University has done in Abu Dhabi and Yale in Singapore. The Yale Corporation’s actions, undertaken without faculty consultation, have recently spawned a major protest among the university’s professors.
To judge by dwindling enrollments and curricular marginalization, the liberal arts have suffered under the prevailing obsession with “productive knowledge” and profitability. As Harvard University president Drew Gilpin Faust noted in a recent article, the number of liberal arts majors has declined precipitously since the 1970s, while the number of students pursuing pre-professional degrees has dramatically increased. Business has become the most popular major, with at least twice as many students receiving degrees in the field as in any other area of specialization. Given current economic pressures, such trends are only likely to intensify. Foreign language programs are being phased out on many campuses, and fields of “dubious practical value,” such as philosophy and classics, are being excluded from distribution requirements and thereby administratively sidelined. Yet as Delbanco shows, the nature of the returns these fields have to offer and the types of rewards they seek to bestow defy simple quantification. His point is that by subjecting the ends of higher education to a series of extraneous criteria derived from the marketplace, we risk distorting the very purpose and meaning of the college experience: to provide young people with the capacities of critical thought and the requisite material knowledge to transform themselves into mature individuals and engaged, cosmopolitan citizens.
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Delbanco’s main objective in College is to redeem the meaning and value of a liberal arts education in the face of superordinate cultural trends—the commodification of knowledge, globalization, the communicative distractions of digital technology and social media—that have compromised the existence of the meditative space necessary for robust character formation and the cultivation of individual autonomy. As Delbanco points out, contemporary students are drowning “in an ocean of digital noise, logged on, online, booted up, as the phrase goes, 24/7, linked to one another through an arsenal of gadgets that are never ‘powered down.’” Nearly a century ago, the poet and philosopher Paul Valéry lamented that the denizens of the modern world had lost the ability to be bored. What he meant was that by becoming so enamored of fleeting sensations and cheap amusements, people had forfeited their capacity for solitude and their appreciation of the virtues of sustained contemplation. Delbanco’s point is that we with our iThings are at risk of becoming, in the words of Valéry’s contemporary, the Austrian writer Robert Musil, men and women “without qualities.”
In his effort to reinvigorate the college ideal, Delbanco surveys several traditional accounts of the liberal arts mission. According to one inherited view, the unique value of the college experience is that it affords a hiatus between adolescence and vocational life to pursue the ends of self-exploration and self-discovery—to “become who we are,” to employ Nietzsche’s adage. In an American context, this noble striving for self-realization corresponded to an indigenous translation of the German philosophical ideal of Bildung, or individual self-cultivation. In the nineteenth century its most prominent exponents were Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman. As Delbanco shows, by the 1830s Emerson was dissenting from the conventions of American higher education, lamenting its heightened insularity, its linguistic turgidity, its disconnectedness from the purposes and goals of “life.” It was, conversely, the visionary Whitman who astutely perceived the interrelationship between individual self-realization and democracy; like no other previous system of government, democracy, by virtue of its endemic aversion to dogmatic authority and gratuitous hierarchy, created a political space for individuals to explore their variegated and rich inner natures. Whitman gave voice to the pivotal idea that democracy is not merely a technique of government or an equitable mechanism of dispute resolution but equally a paradigm of individual self-fulfillment.
Delbanco’s evocation of these nineteenth-century precedents is of central importance, for they allow him to demonstrate that liberal education, far from being an elite indulgence, is inseparable from our nation’s most cherished and deeply rooted democratic precepts. In the face of today’s hyper-accelerated, ultra-competitive global society, the preservation of opportunities for self-development and autonomous reflection is a value we underestimate at our peril. As Delbanco, invoking the nineteenth-century American educator John Henry Newman, explains: “In today’s America, at every kind of institution…this kind of education is at risk. Students are pressured and programmed, trained to live from task to task, relentlessly rehearsed and tested until winners are culled from the rest. They scarcely have time for what Newman calls contemplation, and too many colleges do too little to save them from the debilitating frenzy that makes liberal education marginal or merely ornamental.”
America’s most prominent philosopher of democracy, John Dewey, devoted a considerable portion of his oeuvre to reflecting on the methods and goals of public education. Dewey feared that an excessively antiquarian and ethereal approach to higher learning risked neglecting the indispensable practical components of democratic character-formation. As a result, he emphasized a hands-on, participatory approach to the acquisition of knowledge: learning-as-experience, learning-as-doing. Yet Dewey’s educational credo was hardly aphilosophical. In his view, the pedagogical key to cultivating the virtues of active citizenship lay with the antiauthoritarian, dialogic approach of the Socratic method. Dewey believed that democratic education, instead of acquiescing to the mind-numbing requirements of rote instruction, should focus on honing critical thinking, thereby nurturing autonomy. He was firmly convinced that the experience of participatory learning was the best apprenticeship for the practice of democratic citizenship.
The world has changed drastically since Dewey’s day, and the challenges of reconstructing the core precepts of liberal education have multiplied accordingly. As Delbanco points out, whereas formerly there existed a shared consensus concerning the basic constituents of liberal study, in the 1960s it began to unravel. The irony is that although contemporary educators might agree about the indispensable value of liberal learning, if directly challenged to define its content and purport, they become stricken with paralysis. (Of course, there are important exceptions—such as Delbanco’s Columbia, where since 1919 all incoming freshmen and sophomores have been offered a two-year “Core Curriculum” sequence.) The end result has been the confused intellectual smorgasbord that defines undergraduate study today. Regrettably, one of the major casualties of the restructuring of undergraduate education along vocational and pre-professional lines has been Dewey’s ideal of liberal study as training for democratic citizenship.
Many of our standard assumptions about the Western tradition, rationality and science have been steadily undermined, not all of them justly. The twentieth century will be remembered as an epoch of industrialized mass murder, confuting the Enlightenment assumption that science and the improvement of humanity go hand in hand. Moreover, the most heinous atrocities radiated from the heart of Europe, casting serious doubt upon the West’s self-proclaimed moral and cultural superiority. Still, the fashionable postmodern rejection of reason risks depriving us of the only means we have at our disposal to think through the problems and dilemmas of the present age. As the Frankfurt School philosopher Theodor Adorno observed about debates concerning the legacy of Western reason: only the hand that inflicted the wound can cure the disease. Hannah Arendt arrived at a similar conclusion when she alleged that “thoughtlessness”—the incapacity for sustained critical reflection—had become one of the defining features our times. In many respects, today our culture suffers from a dearth of rationality rather than a surfeit.
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Classic treatises on education, such as Plato’s Republic and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Émile, stress that education should not merely seek to impart a narrow set of practical skills. After all, the latter might just as well be obtained through apprenticeship. Instead, they were firmly convinced that education should address a more fundamental set of moral and ethical questions linked to our core values: who we are and what kind of persons we would ultimately like to become. One of the central problems of undergraduate education today is that it increasingly reinforces the “instrumentalist” view that the major decisions in life concern the efficient selection of means rather than a reflection on ends. It would not be an exaggeration to claim that higher education has been degraded to the status of an enfeebled auxiliary to reigning social and economic interests. In a society such as ours, which, as Alexis de Tocqueville noted, perpetually inclines toward majoritarian tyranny, a liberal arts education must promote training in nonconformity.
These educational ideals are hardly ethereal precepts devoid of moral and institutional standing in the contemporary world. Article 26 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights stipulates that education should have three aims: “the full development of the human personality”; “the strengthening of respect for human rights”; and the promotion of “understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups.” In a parallel vein, a recent Human Development Index report underlines the importance of viewing development in noneconomic terms, which would entail “creating an environment in which people can develop their full potential and lead productive, creative lives in accord with their needs and interests…. Development is thus about expanding the choices people have to lead lives that they value.” As concerned citizens we must make it our goal to remind educators and legislators to set their sights high. What is at stake, in addition to credits and degrees, is nothing less than the basis for informed democratic citizenship.