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.