The strengths and failures of the American college, and why liberal education still matters
- Apr 18, 2023
- 5.25 x 8 in.
- Apr 18, 2023
- 5.25 x 8 in.
As the commercialization of American higher education accelerates, more and more students are coming to college with the narrow aim of obtaining a preprofessional credential. The traditional four-year college experience—an exploratory time for students to discover their passions and test ideas and values with the help of teachers and peers—is in danger of becoming a thing of the past.
In College, prominent cultural critic Andrew Delbanco offers a trenchant defense of such an education, and warns that it is becoming a privilege reserved for the relatively rich. In describing what a true college education should be, he demonstrates why making it available to as many young people as possible remains central to America’s democratic promise.
In a brisk and vivid historical narrative, Delbanco explains how the idea of college arose in the colonial period from the Puritan idea of the gathered church, how it struggled to survive in the nineteenth century in the shadow of the new research universities, and how, in the twentieth century, it slowly opened its doors to women, minorities, and students from low-income families. He describes the unique strengths of America’s colleges in our era of globalization and, while recognizing the growing centrality of science, technology, and vocational subjects in the curriculum, he mounts a vigorous defense of a broadly humanistic education for all. 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.
Andrew Delbanco is the Alexander Hamilton Professor of American Studies at Columbia University and president of the Teagle Foundation. His books include Melville: His World and Work and The War before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War. In 2011, he was awarded a National Humanities Medal by President Barack Obama. In 2022, he was named the Jefferson Lecturer in the Humanities, the highest honor conferred by the federal government for intellectual achievement in the humanities.
"At a time when many are trying to reduce the college years to a training period for economic competition, Delbanco reminds readers of the ideal of democratic education. . . . The American college is too important 'to be permitted to give up on its own ideals,' Delbanco writes. He has underscored these ideals by tracing their history. Like a great teacher, he has inspired us to try to live up to them."—Michael S. Roth, New York Times Book Review
"The book does have a thesis, but it is not thesis-ridden. It seeks to persuade not by driving a stake into the opponent's position or even paying much attention to it, but by offering us examples of the experience it celebrates. Delbanco's is not an argument for, but a display of, the value of a liberal arts education."—Stanley Fish, New York Times
"A lucid, fair, and well-informed account of the problems, and it offers a full-throated defense of the idea that you don't go to college just to get a job. Delbanco's brevity, wit, and curiosity about the past and its lessons for the present give his book a humanity all too rare in the literature on universities."—Anthony Grafton, New York Review of Books
"[I]nsightful and rewarding. . . . 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."—Richard Wolin, The Nation
"Has the democratic ideal of a classical education, open to rich and poor alike, become a thing of the past? That's the scenario proposed by esteemed literary scholar Delbanco in this engaging assessment of how American higher education has lost its way. . . . He makes a strong case that the purely materialist approach to education assures that the disparity between rich and poor students only widens, with 'merit-based' financial aid and scholarships all going disproportionately to students from families with money. . . . This is an impassioned call for a corrupt system to heal itself."—Kirkus Reviews
"To renew higher education in an age of secular pluralism, Delbanco summons his colleagues to a defense of the university's role in fostering humane and democratic impulses. . . . Delbanco's agenda for reform—curricular, pedagogical, financial, and technological—will stimulate a much-needed national dialogue."—Bryce Christensen, Booklist
"Delbanco explores American higher education in a manner befitting a scholar of Melville and the Puritans, with a humanist's belief in lessons from history and in asking what the right thing is to do. . . . College has always been a microcosm of society, so a book about it is also about how we're doing as a country."—Clare Malone, American Prospect
"A thoughtful and insightful look at American college's exceptionalism and pitfalls. . . . Whether you're in college, thinking about college or just paying for it, it's a good read to help better understand one of America's oldest and finest institutions. And if we want it to stay that way, we all better get schooled about it."—Kacie Flynn, Vox Magazine, Missourian
"The 'Was' part is an illuminating reminder of the Puritan origin of early colleges, such as Harvard and Princeton, where only wealthy males needed apply and where religion, literature and philosophy dominated the curricula. The 'Is' section considers the prohibitive cost, the woefully underprepared applicants, the self-centered teachers and the dominance of research over instruction of undergraduates at today's colleges. Obviously the 'Should Be' is Delbanco's motive in this effort. . . . He dreams of the day when college teachers are back in the classrooms, working collaboratively to bring their youngsters into this new century."—Kathleen Daley, Newark Star Ledger
"Recommended for academic and general audiences as a thoughtful, literate, and gracefully written reminder of what higher education needs to be."—Elizabeth R. Hayford, Library Journal
"[College] will give a lot of pleasure to anyone who cares about undergraduate education. It offers a fascinating history of the creation and growth of US colleges and universities, some sombre reflections on the tension between the desire of many universities to be known as great research institutions and the needs of their undergraduates, and some angry thoughts about the way in which elite education reinforces economic inequality. . . . Delbanco writes with the exasperated energy of a radical assistant professor half his age, and displays an unforced affection for undergraduate students that is deeply engaging and permeates the book with an infectious optimism about the possibilities of liberal education in spite of all the obstacles that he lists."—Alan Ryan, Times Higher Education
"Refreshingly, Delbanco's examination of what college was doesn't turn into a longing backward look. . . . This book is a result of what Delbanco says is two decades of visiting more than 100 colleges of all types, from community colleges to the undergraduate divisions of research universities. It is also the product of extensive reading: He seems to have digested every self-flagellating and self-congratulating essay, every cri de coeur and jeremiad about higher ed that has been produced since scholars sat down together in collegium."—Sebastian Stockman, Kansas City Star
"This is a brief, well-researched book, and an insightful account of the factors that shape the current higher educational landscape."—Dennis O'Brien, Commonweal
"[An] eloquent book—a combination of jeremiad, elegy and call to arms."—Alan Cate, Cleveland Plain Dealer
"In College, [Delbanco] looks to the lengthy and dynamic history of higher education in America as a lens through which to examine its current crises and unsettled future."—Serena Golden, Inside Higher Ed
"'Every year the teacher gets older while the students stay the same age.' This has always been true, but Delbanco's observation has a poignant weight today when college is always justified as being for something, whether for the economy, or for democracy, or for social mobility, and not as a place that exists as a community asking questions together, trying to unify knowledge to make sense of our lives—in short, as a place where we pursue the truth."—Angus Kennedy, Spiked Review of Books
"Andrew Delbanco does a marvelous job tracing the evolution of one of the most treasured institutions in the United States, 'college,' in terms of the ideal of such an institution and the challenges it is facing. . . . Delbanco's book would be a great one for students and scholars in the fields of educational philosophy, history of education, educational policy, and other related fields. It would also be a good read for anyone who is interested in the development of higher education in the United States."—Shouping Hu, Teachers College Record
"What commends [t]his book is its richness of reference and its willingness to charge colleges and universities with lapses that should sow insomnia among administrators."—James Morris, Wilson Quarterly
"College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be gives a clear picture of all the forces, both within and outside the university, working against the liberal arts."—Joseph Epstein, Weekly Standard
"Andrew Delbanco's recent book is to be praised, for it reminds us that college should be about character formation and not a surrender to a customer service mentality that inflates accomplishments to please future employers, placate doting parents and repair fragile egos. . . . Enlightening."—Robert J. Parmach, America magazine
"Well researched, succinct, and eloquently written, this little book should be in every library in every institution of higher learning. It would be an appropriate book for all new faculty members so that they can quickly come to understand the professional situation they are now in. . . . Delbanco's intention is to avoid writing a jeremiad, elegy, funeral dirge, or call to arms. He has succeeded. His realistic account of the current state of affairs is indeed sobering."—Choice
"Delbanco provides a fresh historical argument for why it's important to keep liberal learning in the picture for as many students as possible, and he offers some suggestions for how colleges might do that."—Mary Taylor Huber, Change
"This isn't just a plea for the humanities to keep its place at the table, though College is certainly that. Nor is Delbanco exactly making an argument for the liberal arts as the medium through which new, socially critical ideas can take hold and be propagated, a la Dewey—despite his clear belief that an education that has not produced an accountable, critical mind has failed. Rather, he's concerned about the deeply anti-democratic implications of what is happening—the undoing of Emerson's vision of scholarship and serious discussion coming down from the ivory tower and joining the fray, rather than polishing the manners of a happy few. . . . Delbanco does a fine job at making his case for liberal education as a public good that should be preserved and fostered; his concern about how social inequality undermines democratic cultural values strikes me as utterly justified."—Scott McLemee, Democracy
"[T]he book reaches its objectives. Its research base is impeccable, as is its expository form. It deserves a place in every college and university library, and not just in the U.S."—William Bruneau, CAUT Bulletin
"College offers much valuable analysis, as when Delbanco lays out three common understandings of the purposes of college today. . . . [T]his fine-grained, literate argument for why teaching students 'how to think and how to choose' ought to be at the heart of a college education deserves careful thought and consideration, on and off campus."—Ben Wildavsky, Strategy Matters
"Andrew Delbanco offers an eloquent and persuasive argument for the importance of a liberal arts education. At a time when others are challenging the so-called economic viability of a college diploma . . . Delbanco seeks to remind us of the enduring existential value of higher education; of its ability to enrich experience, deepen intellectual ability, and enhance one's own humanity."—Robin Tatu, Prism
"Andrew Delbanco has given us a first rate account of the history and present state of the American college. . . . He comes across as a fine teacher, one of the best. I have recommended his classes, solely on the basis of this book, to a young man starting soon at Columbia. And I recommend this book to all who have been to any college or will go someday. This is a fine book."—Geoffrey M. Vaughan, Society
"I strongly recommend this book if you are interested in a discussion of the history of undergraduate education in the United States."—Michael Joseph Brown, Teaching Technology and Religion
"Delbanco is lovely at historical context. . . . He makes a plea for the great intangibles of a college education."—Katharine Whittemore, Boston Globe
COURSE USE ENDORSEMENT: "We were the first to use College in a first year writing program. The book has been widely successful and served as a wonderful platform for classroom discussions about why students are in school, what do they want to learn, and who they think they want to become. Great praise to Andy Delbanco for writing such a compact book containing both history and wisdom."—Eli C. Goldblatt, Director of First-Year Writing and a professor of English at Temple University
COURSE USE ENDORSEMENT: "Andrew Delbanco's College offers first year undergraduates multiple perspectives onto an experience that each one of them is encountering for the very first time. It is a sophisticated but accessible text that speaks in multiple registers, challenging faculty, professional staff, graduate students, and undergraduates of all ages to think about the past, present, and future of the institution in which they work and live. As a common reading, College provides a framework for the question that every freshman in some way is asking throughout the year—what should college be? That very big question is at the center of a book that asks undergraduates to confront the ethical dilemmas posed by the increasing costs of a higher education that ever fewer people can afford. It also challenges students who will be our future leaders to consider what such inequality might portend for an American democracy whose vitality requires an educated majority citizenry."—Frank Wcislo, Dean of The Ingram Commons, Associate Professor of History and European Studies, Vanderbilt University
COURSE USE ENDORSEMENT: "I have been using the book in a freshman seminar in which we are exploring college. Most of the texts we are using are academic satire novels, but we are using Delbanco's book to help us talk about the place of college in American culture. Although some of the students are not as interested in the historical background, they do find his discussion of the current state of college to be interesting and informative. For example, nearly all of my students are on some form of financial aid, and when they read Delbanco's examination of the costs of college, they seem to wake up intellectually. For them, Delbanco's critique speaks directly to their own experiences and frustrations, and they appreciate learning the contexts. More to the point, they deeply appreciate seeing their anxieties about the costs of college are taken seriously enough to warrant such careful attention by Delbanco. My students also found Delbanco's analysis of teaching and learning methods interesting and informative. They have their own opinions about what creates a good classroom experience, but they had never before seen someone examine different classroom methods in a systematic fashion. Delbanco's discussion of "lateral learning" seemed to provoke the most interesting discussion, and we spent almost an entire class session talking about why that might work in some classes but not others and why they liked and disliked that method of classroom management. Delbanco also spoke at one of our campus colloquia, where he was well received. In the question and answer after his talk, one of my students asked a question, and he was impressed by how seriously Delbanco took his question and how carefully he answered. Delbanco's serious response highlights what my students most appreciated in his book. He takes the entire concept of education seriously and demonstrates a deep understanding of not just the state of the university as it applies to faculty and administrators but also the way it affects the largest—and most important—constituency: the students. It was a revelation to my students that someone in Delbanco's position would take the trouble to think about what it means to be a student."—Richard M. Magee, Ph.D., Associate Professor of English, Director of the Thomas More Honors Living and Learning Community, Sacred Heart University
"Those who love traditional colleges and universities, but also recognize the imperative of reducing inequalities in income and opportunity, confront a profound moral and intellectual challenge. Andrew Delbanco, one of our most humane and rigorous scholars, has turned his energies to this conundrum in his elegant and eloquent book. He writes that 'it is an offense against democracy to presume that education should be reserved for the wellborn and the well-off.' That is where all of our debates must start."—E. J. Dionne Jr., author of Our Divided Political Heart
"The special quality of this book stems from its firm grounding in the history of higher education. The result is a work that leads us to look with suspicion on claims that our colleges are deteriorating, challenges us to think anew about other trends that are often viewed as progress, and reminds us of the subtler aims achieved by teaching at its best."—Derek Bok, former president of Harvard University
"An intelligent, nonbombastic look at the state of higher education, College is a hugely useful primer for present and future faculty members, and their students. It should be read by every provost and dean, and by anyone responsible for maintaining a flourishing democracy. Delbanco's pen is neither dipped in the nostalgia for the golden days that never were, nor brushed with the cynicism that embitters those who have accepted the culture of universal commodification. This is a lively, engaging, and important book."—Mary P. McPherson, president emeritus of Bryn Mawr College and executive officer of the American Philosophical Society
"As a defense of liberal education, the humanities, and elite residential colleges, this book offers a more balanced and articulate argument than recent works on higher education and the professoriate. An easy read that is clear, varied, literate, and interesting, this book makes the reader think."—James Axtell, College of William & Mary
"This terrific book is wonderfully direct and engaging, and full of well-chosen historical examples and relevant quotations. Delbanco's love of learning comes through clearly. He eloquently articulates and defends a certain ideal conception of the undergraduate experience and rightly makes us worry about the prospects for preserving it."—Michael McPherson, The Spencer Foundation