Andrew Delbanco–What are the virtues of a college education?

I’ve begun reading Andrew Delbanco’s latest book, College, What It Was, Is, and Should Be, impressed by an essay in the Chronicle Review derived from the book.  I’ve only made my way through the first chapter, but there are a several things to note immediately.

First, Delbanco dances a little bit with question of what college was. He  shows how all of our current debates and lamentations about college life–students are too often debauched, professors teach too little and too poorly, and the college curriculum isn’t focused well enough on getting students jobs–are all of very long-standing, common to our public discourse as equally in 1776 as in 1976 and on to today.  At the same time he shows how in some very real ways colleges have already abandoned and are ever more quickly fleeing from ideals that they once embodied, however imperfectly.

For Delbanco, the genius of college–as opposed to the professionally oriented university–is primarily to be found in an ethical imperative rather than an economic motive.  It’s main value is to establish a kind of personhood that is necessary for citizenship.  It’s qualities include the following:

1. A skeptical discontent with 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 habits of thought and feeling are hard to attain and harder to sustain. They cannot be derived from exclusive study of the humanities, the natural sciences, or the social sciences, and they cannot be fully developed solely by academic study, no matter how well “distributed” or “rounded.” It is absurd to imagine them as commodities to be purchased by and delivered to student consumers. Ultimately they make themselves known not in grades or examinations but in the way we live our lives.

Delbanco, Andrew (2012-03-22). College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be (Kindle Locations 138-148). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.

For Delbanco, these qualities are essential to the functioning of a healthy democracy.  He puts this most succinctly and eloquently, I thought, in his adaptation for the Chronicle Review, referencing Matthew Arnold and saying, “Knowledge of the past, in other words, helps citizens develop the capacity to think critically about the present–an indispensable attribute of a healthy democracy.”  Amen and a mane.

The problem, and Delbanco is, of course, aware of it, is that what college is, and is fast exclusively becoming, is a commodity that is purchased by and delivered to student customers.  The economic metaphors for college life are triumphant, and no more clearly so than in our discourse about whether a college education is “worth it.”  The question of whether a college education is “worth it” is posed and answered these days in almost exclusively monetary terms.  How much does it cost, and how much will you get for the investment?

Over and against this rather ruthless bottom line, Delbanco’s descriptions seem noble, but I’m a little afraid that it is so much tilting at windmills (I reserve judgement until I’ve actually finished the book).  Only today I was discussing these matters with several of my faculty who are going to be attending the conference at Wake Forest, Rethinking Success:  From the liberal arts to careers in the 21st century.  Our career development director described to me parents who come to her asking for job statistics for their children as they chose between our small Christian college and other more well-known universities.  The fundamental decisions are not related so much to the the quality of education we could provide, not the kind of transformative potential that her child might realize in an environment at Messiah College devoted to the development and integration of an intellectual, spiritual and ethical life, but whether in fact our graduates get jobs as readily and whether those jobs pay as much as her child’s other options.  The difficulty for a College less well known than the Ivies Delbanco focuses on, is to find a rhetoric and an educational program that holds up the flame of the education Delbanco imagines, while also speaking frankly and less idealistically to the ways in which that education can pay off in material ways.

It’s not that these are poor questions for parents to be asking;  its just that these questions are unrelated to the kinds of things Delbanco is saying College is for and that many of us have believed that it is for.  Delbanco, of course, is trying to intervene in useful way to alter the national discourse about what college ought to be about.  Without a shift in that discourse, its impossible to imagine College being for what Delbanco says it should be for, except somewhere in the hidden and secret recesses of the academic heart.

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2 thoughts on “Andrew Delbanco–What are the virtues of a college education?

  1. Pingback: What College Should Be: Andrew Delbanco’s Errand in to the Wilderness | Read, Write, Now

  2. Pingback: Interview with Andrew Delbanco: Students, you have saved others, now save yourselves | Read, Write, Now

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