This article was originally published in the Fall 2012 edition of the Continuing Higher Education Review.

College: What It Was, Is, And Should Be was the 2013 recipient of the UPCEA Phillip E. Frandson Award for Literature in the Field of Professional, Continuing, and Online Education.

Andrew Delbanco has written a small book that deserves to be widely read. Much has been produced about the state or the crisis of higher education in recent years, some of it informative, stimulating, or useful, but too much of it, as Delbanco notes, has taken the forms of of “jeremiad,” elegy,” or “calls to arms.” His, instead, is a quiet book: a brief, lucid, learned, fair-minded account of “how we got here” together with some suggestions and speculations on “what now?” At the book’s center is a deep commitment to what the liberal arts, at their best, can do for students, and a passionate plea that, in our rush to solve real and perceived educational challenges of many kinds, we not neglect the liberal arts, but rather determine to extend their benefits to as many students as possible.

The book begins with a definition that may seem innocuous but is crucial to his argument: “College…is about transmitting knowledge of and from the past to undergraduate students so that they may draw upon it as a living resource in the future.” The past as a “living resource in the future”? Education policymakers, as well as many students and parents, may scratch their heads at that one. Isn’t it all about jobs, jobs, jobs? Or getting into the best graduate and professional schools? Or, on a larger scale, about national competitiveness? Delbanco reminds us that there are other significant aims of education beyond the economic: education for democratic citizenship—which requires more than a civics lesson or two—and for the wider enjoyment of life, the “pursuit of happiness” that is, and should be the aim of all our institutions, educational and otherwise.

Next to this definition comes a brief list of the interconnected “qualities of mind and heart” that a college education should help to develop:

A skeptical discontent with the present, informed by a sense of the past; the ability to make connections among seemingly disparate phenomena; appreciation of the natural world, enhanced by knowledge of science and the arts; a willingness to imagine experience from perspectives other than one’s own; a sense of ethical responsibility.”

Much of the ensuing book consists of a practical demonstration of what the past, as presented and interpreted by a mind possessing such qualities, can teach us. Delbanco is a distinguished scholar of American literature and history who has worked and taught at Columbia University since 1985, where he is both the Mendelson Family Chair in American Studies, and director of the American Studies program, as well as Julian Clarence Levi Professor in the Humanities, and where he has won major awards for both teaching and scholarship. It comes then as no surprise that the historical elements in the book (roughly three-quarters of the whole) are truly superb, an elegant condensation and analysis of the history of higher education in America. Along the way, he tells several familiar stories: the development of our colleges on the English model and directed to professional training of the clergy; the post-Civil War transformation or re-positioning of many colleges within research-oriented universities on the German model; the post- World War II democratization and expansion, together with the rise of the “meritocracy.” And he tells these stories uncommonly well, always with a fine eye for the memorable quotation and the fresh or neglected example. So we hear of a mid-19th century student who prayed to learn “how to think and how to choose”—summing up in a few words the perennial aspiration of all those making their way to maturity. Or the classic debate between Eliot of Harvard, advocate for maximum student choice in course of study, and McCosh of Princeton, defending the wisdom of faculty guidance and control—a debate still very much with us.

One benefit of having a sense of the past is that it helps one keep one’s head when others are crying “crisis.” As Delbanco repeatedly demonstrates, American higher education has always been in a crisis of one sort or another: students, not quite adults, have never quite behaved as adults; faculty have long been accused of inadequate teaching or inadequate attention to teaching; and of course the older generation is never completely happy with the changes occurring since they were students themselves. And his “skeptical discontent with the present” produces some provocative reflections on, for example, the loss of a sense of the public purposes of education, and the public obligations of the educated, that departed with the old seminary/ college model. Or even more striking, the loss of humility attending the new meritocracy: the older privileged class knew they had benefited from undeserved good fortune, while the new privileged are prone to imagine they’ve earned it all themselves.

Satisfying and memorable as the book is on “how we got here,” it’s much briefer, and a bit scattered, on the “what now.” One part of the problem may be Delbanco’s focus on traditional undergraduates. So, for example, he too easily accepts the often-heard complaint that because of rising costs, “too many worthy students are unable to continue their education beyond high school.” Those working in community colleges and in continuing education divisions of colleges and universities would see it rather differently. Yes, a few worthy students are missing out, but seldom because of money—indeed the business model of the for-profit institutions depends on the reality that subsidies of several sorts have made some form of higher education available to all (even to those not specially “worthy”). Rather, it is poor parenting, poor schools, poor teaching and advising, that are the real remaining barriers to access and achievement.

It would of course be unfair, as well as ungrateful, to expect Professor Delbanco to solve all of higher education’s problems, some of which are probably better conceived as “situations to be managed.” The final chapter glances at a few promising experiments under way at various colleges and universities, but some more sustained analysis of some of the larger questions confronting us would also be welcome. Though Delbanco cites Clark Kerr on the “cruel paradox” that the better the research faculty, the less attention paid to teaching, and laments the domination of the humanities by the sciences, these and other forces and imperatives undermining what “college” should be are mentioned more often than they are really addressed. What, for example, can be done about the always accelerating arms race for prestige among the major universities? And the less happy consequences of that race: overfunding and overproduction of graduate students whom the academy cannot absorb and for whose laboriously acquired research skills there are no clear social needs or benefits? And the frenetic competition to recruit wealthy undergraduates—with the elaborate rebuilding of campuses to provide the amenities they expect? Or what of the defunding of the major public universities, and the loss of a collective sense of what a “public” university was for in the first place? This is perhaps simply to wish that another similarly wise and incisive book (University?) will follow this one.

What remains of distinctive value is Delbanco’s firm conviction and vividly related experience that all students—even those facing pressing practical concerns—need and benefit from a liberal education and the habits and attitudes it inculcates. We all live in world increasingly defined by our choices rather than our circumstances. Not all of us of course, but more of us every day and more of us all over the world. This is a cultural imperative that began centuries ago—one sees it in Shakespeare—and is still expanding: the democratization of choice and of the dignity—and the challenge—of living a life defined by our choices. To make those choices wisely, for ourselves, our communities, and for the world community, will require that as many of us as possible experience a generously conceived education that helps us not just get to the next stage—job, graduate school, affluence, or whatever—but also enables us to live a whole life, and in the company of our fellows, past, present, and future. To the possible, and necessary, achievement of that humane project, this little book makes a valuable contribution.


(c) 2012 Robert Wiltenberg, Dean, University College, Washington University, St. Louis, MO

This article was originally published in the Fall 2012 edition of the Continuing Higher Education Review.