Book Review: Delbanco, Andrew. 2012. College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be. Princeton University Press. Kindle e-book version.
What is college? What are the historical roots of the very idea of "going to college"? What should we expect from a good college education? What, ultimately, is the point of sending legions and legions of young people to college year in and year out?
These are some of the questions that Andrew Delbanco, Director of American Studies at Columbia University, tackles in his book College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be. Using a good dose of history--and plenty of references and allusions to some great works in literature--Delbanco explores the historical and philosophical roots of today's colleges, how they have changed over the ensuing years, and what we should hope for them in the future.
Delbanco sets up his case in the introduction. The point of the book is to highlight the fundamental principles of college that that have been "inherited from the past, are being challenged in the present, and should be indispensable in the future" (Loc 168).* His goal is to clearly articulate what college should do for students, above all else.
College is, according to Delbanco, one of the great innovations to come from the United States. But one issue here is that many people often conflate the idea of college with that of the university. There is an important distinction to be made, and Delbanco makes sure we get it. Colleges, he explains, are places where knowledge is transmitted to undergraduates so they expand upon it, draw from it, and use it for the future. Universities, on the other hand, are places where faculty and graduate students are focused on the goal of creating new knowledge. Sometimes the primary goals of colleges and universities align, and sometimes they clash in maddening ways.
Delbanco challenges us to think critically about what's at stake here. College, he argues, is a place where young people navigate the tricky waters between adolescence and adulthood. It is supposed to be a place that helps students on their path to knowledge about themselves and the world around them. Lastly, college should play the vital role of instilling "certain qualities of mind and heart requisite for reflective citizenship" (Loc 124). Those qualities include: a healthy skepticism of the present that is deeply contextualized by knowledge of the past; the ability to connect phenomena that seem disparate; a scientifically- and artistically-informed understanding of the natural world; a willingness to imagine the world from the perspective of another; and finally a sense of ethical responsibility. Those qualities, Delbanco reminds us, are not commodities. They are not to be produced and then bought and sold. Importantly, they cannot be developed by the limited study of either science or the humanities, but instead require a well-rounded education. Finally, he implores us to understand that such qualities cannot be revealed by grades and exams, but instead only through "the way we live our lives" (Loc 134).
Delbanco approaches these issues with a measure of calm, often using historical and literary examples to remind us that our current crisis is not necessarily as new as we sometimes assume. This is a good reminder for those of us who get wrapped up in current debates. But he quickly rebounds to warn us that the wolf is indeed at the door, since we are undoubtedly going through a period of "wrenching change" in our colleges and universities. One of the biggest problems, he says, is a serious lack of consensus about what students should learn in college.
Chapter one begins with a focus on the relationship between student and teacher. The dynamic between the two is a fundamental--and difficult to measure--aspect of the learning process. Teaching is a generative act, says Delbanco, in which the knowledge of one generation is passed down to the next. Through the act of teaching, everything that we learn in our lives will not be lost.
This is undoubtedly a romantic if not idealistic view of the learning process. Delbanco is the first to admit that college is, for many, a kind of "American pastoral" that is romantically linked to our ideals about learning, science, and the "traditional" college experience.
But he interrupts this pleasant story by reminding us, sharply, that this romantic view has very little to do with the actual experience of most college students today. For many, this idea of college is a rumor, or maybe a distant dream at best. While the number of undergrads has grown over the last several decades, the number of students enrolled in liberal arts programs has not. More and more students these days are experiencing college in commuter or online institutions that focus primarily on vocational training. Delbanco explains that we can expect something along the lines of 20 million undergraduates in the coming years, but only a small fraction of them will actually attend college in the traditional sense.
So this means we have fewer and fewer students going down this path every year. And what's missing? What's being lost when less students go to college and learn in that traditional sense? Delbanco tells us that what college is really all about is helping students figure out not only what matters, but what's worth wanting. Another way to put this: college is about instilling a certain set of values in students, and if less are going through this system, well, we can all wonder about what this means for society as a whole. Ideally, Delbanco explains, college is supposed to be a place where students receive critical guidance as they learn how to start asking and answering questions for themselves. It's a place where people learn what they are all about, and starting figuring out who they are and want to become.
But many of today's students show up to college with a range of habits, ideas, and behaviors firmly set in place. A lot of them are deeply concerned about how they stack up with their peers. College is an incredibly competitive place these days, and that competition takes a variety of forms. And as Delbanco makes quite clear, there is ever more pressure to justify the costs of getting a degree, and that means that college is less and less an escape from "the real world."
In some fundamental ways, college (in a broad sense of the word) has changed very little in the past couple thousand years. Delbanco points out that our methods of teaching have remained remarkably unchanged for some 2400 years, since the days of Socrates. And students have always been looking for purpose, for something to care about. Past and present, he says, students have been bored, confused, and unsure what, exactly, they are supposed to get from the college experience. This is the purpose of college. It is supposed to be a place of "learning in the broad and deep meaning of that word" (Loc 425), not just some place to build social contacts and networks.
All things considered, Delbanco sees this as a time for some serious self-reflection about where things are heading with our nation's colleges. He outlines three primary answers to anyone who happens to ask about the purpose of college: 1) college is supposed to improve the economic health of the nation while also fortifying the economic competitiveness of individual citizens; 2) it's supposed to be about the education of "the whole person," in part to foster a viable and robust democratic system. A key part of this aspect of the college education, explains Delbanco, is the development of what he calls the "bullshit meter"; and finally, 3) college is supposed to provide a liberal, general, open, and inclusive education--and this is the part that Delbanco sees as the most threatened.
The next chapter looks at the historical and philosophical roots of college. Delbanco (who often writes about religious history) explains that the idea of college goes back to 17th century Protestants who made their way to New England. The earliest colleges in the US were modeled after the great European institutions like Cambridge and Oxford. In essence, those first American colleges were places of retreat for what Delbanco calls "scholars of divinity" (Loc 601). The general public, for its part, was strictly kept out of these institutions.
In the words of Samuel Eliot Morrison, one of the founding principles of these places of study and learning was to "develop the whole man" (Loc 644). Students studied scripture, but that wasn't all they focused on. They also studied history and natural philosophy, which were fundamental aspects of system of learning in which various branches of knowledge were deeply interconnected. Delbanco's point here is to highlight the integrated nature of learning in these institutions, whose goal was to build and foster the inner character of students. The foundation in religious institutions is significant for Delbanco's overall argument. "College was once conceived not as a road to wealth or as a screening service for a social club," he writes," but as a training ground for pastors, teachers, and, more broadly, public servants" (Loc 1021).
Chapter three covers the changes that took place after universities arose on the scene. Colleges were, in the early days, relatively small institutions--very different from the large universities of today. Research universities, he explains, arose in the years after the American Civil War. It was during this time that the word "university" came to refer to an "institution whose mission encompassed research and professional training alongside the teaching of 'undergraduates'" (Loc 1210). Universities were created, in part, to advance specific disciplines, whether math, chemistry, law, or other fields. They represented a shift in authority in American education away from the purview of the church and into the hands of newly created academic associations. Faculties, for their part, were transformed into highly certified professionals who were ranked and ordered by accreditation standards and a peer review system (Loc 1229).
There was a clear shift in the power dynamic in American education, and one aspect of this was the fact that universities became the source for all new faculty once the PhD. rose to prominence as the dominant degree in academia. Colleges and universities were rivals, but, as Delbanco explains, universities undeniably had the upper hand. One side effect of this unbalanced rivalry was the slow devaluation of undergraduate teaching in the educational milieu. This led to many debates about the place of undergraduates in higher education. Delbanco points out that universities came to be seen as the "most evolved" on the institutional chain, and this resulted in serious conflicts between the original mission of American colleges and the new demands and interests of their competitors in the universities.
All of this boils down to a battle over funding, resources, and who gets priority. Despite all of the rhetoric coming from major universities today, it's pretty clear that undergraduate education ranks fairly low on the scale. This is not a recent trend, even if what we are seeing today is more pronounced than conditions in the past.
Competition for resources is one issue that Delbanco highlights. Growth is another. In the university, the growing college ranks encourage more and more specialization. As the student body grows, there is a tendency to break education down into more specialized compartments (i.e. departments). Growth is also fueled by the need to increase tuition revenue, which is vital for supporting research, funding financial aid, and creating an alumni base. (This is basic math: more students equals more money). In the 20th century, college and university ranks also grew because of the rise of co-education in all male institutions (which often refused to decrease the number of males when they accepted women, thereby increasing overall student population). In the 21st century, the growing student body is increasingly composed of international enrollments.
The problem with growth, argues Delbanco, is that it's a threat to the "collegiate ideal" (Loc 1342). Mostly because rising student populations quickly outpace the supply of faculty who can teach them in an efficient--and meaningful--way. Basically, as colleges and universities have transformed into enrollment-seeking money farms, education has suffered (my words, not Delbanco's). It has been a serious challenge to keep mandatory or core courses small enough to encourage effective teaching. Many institutions, Delbanco explains, completely avoid this challenge altogether.
What all of this means is that college today is a slim reflection of what it once was--and what it could be. I remember one of my undergrad professors who made this very point in one of his lectures, basically telling his class packed with 60 something students that we had "no idea" what college education was really like. He told us about the days in the 1960s and 70s when undergraduate classes were small, dynamic, and completely different from the over-packed, crowded education that is the norm today.  As Delbanco makes quite clear, the "community" aspect of many of our colleges and universities is gone--and has been for some time. Learning seems to be another casualty.
His last point in this chapter focuses on the importance of science in the university. Science is, he says, the central foundation in the growth of the modern university. This is partly because of the cumulative nature of science, which leads to an undeniable accumulation of knowledge over time (Thomas Kuhn might have something to say about that though). This is one reason why anything associated with "science" has an advantage when it comes to garnering resources. Science is also linked with technological innovations that are widely available and appreciated by the general public. In short, science results in a fairly direct return on public investment, as opposed to disciplines in the humanities, which operate with very different underlying ideals and goals. The point of science is to seek truth by replacing old ideas and information with the new, while truth in the humanities is more about the examination, reconsideration, and "rearticulation" of truth over time (Loc 1454).
Despite all of the debates about the limits of progress, it's pretty safe to say that many people still associate science with the idea of progress in one form or another. And Delbanco points out, rightly, that notions of progress, especially the kinds that are optimistically linked with science, certainly have their shortcomings (World Wars I and II are examples he brings up--Germany, after all, had some of the finest scientist and universities of the 20th century). Still, he tells us, many colleges strive to teach their students to "think scientifically," a powerful trend that has led numerous humanities programs to mimic scientific narratives, practices, and discourses (Delbanco mentions "scientific history" as one result of this kind of mimicry). All of this has led to the devaluation of literature, history, philosophy, and other fields, making them into little more than the lowly "stepchildren" of higher education (Loc 1522).
For Delbanco, this is a serious loss, since these fields of study are what give us a "vocabulary" for our most important questions. He writes, "In fact, the humanities may have the most to offer to students who do not know that they need them--which is one reason it is scandalous to withhold them" (Loc 1526). Science, he argues, tells us nothing about "how to shape a life or how to face death, about the meaning of love, or the scope of responsibility." The humanities, he continues, help students (and the rest of society) question our assumptions of today through a critical understanding of the past. His end point of this chapter is this: Many of the problems we face today, when viewed in the light of history, are not all that new. And technology, let alone science, cannot solve all of those problems. So maybe we need to rethink a few things. History is a good place to start. Well, if there are any history departments left, that is.
Delbanco moves on to discuss who goes to college, and who pays for it. He explains that the opening of the university was a slow process. College was once a place for rich, male, predominantly white students. In earlier days, elitism, prejudice, sexism, and outright racism plagued many college campuses. And that's why we have every reason to be critical of the past practices of our best institutions (this critical view of the past is one decisive way to cut through the romantic glow we sometimes cast upon history). Today, however, a lot has changed. Whereas colleges and universities of the past were all about preserving social uniformity, diversity is the mantra of today. Thanks to the founding of women's colleges, the breakdown of racial barriers, the GI Bill after World War II, and the creation of community colleges (among other changes), higher ed is much more diverse--and democratic--than it once was.
However, Delbanco is quick to challenge this narrative of social progress we like to tell ourselves. Despite the real advancements that have been made, he argues, racial discrimination and socio-economic inequality have not been vanquished from our colleges. Low income students, for example, still face tremendous challenges when trying to attend elite schools, let alone just getting to and through college. Our story of progress has slowed--or maybe it has stalled completely. Why?
The primary reason, according to Delbanco, is the massive disinvestment in higher education. In order to make up for this shortfall, tuition rates have continued to rise. Now that the funds have run out, many colleges seem more worried about getting enrollments than anything. They seem to be completely preoccupied with recruiting, marketing, and maintaining prestige than taking a critical look at what, exactly, they're really doing. Education seems to have fallen by the wayside.
As available funds continue to evaporate, the pressure continues to increase. Colleges across the country are undoubtedly under tremendous pressure, especially after the economic crash of 2008. There are various practices that only add to this pressure, and the national ranking system is one of the most prominent. Prestige is everything in this game. It is often maintained, mind you, by trying to build up an air of "selectivity" in the admissions process (this refers to the amount of applicants who apply versus the amount who are actually accepted--the higher this ratio the more "selective" a college appears, and this is one of the primary categories in the national ranking system). The pressure to keep recruiting and maintain a high national ranking has led to many problems with what Delbanco refers to as our "admissions culture." This includes, ultimately, an increase in what he calls "deceptive" practices. The problem with the selectivity game in our colleges is that "the quality of the educational experience is confused with how many applicants [they] turn away" (Loc 1793).
And then there's the problem with test scores. Or, rather, the "obsessive concern" with test scores, as Delbanco phrases it. Despite evidence that standardized tests (SATs, GREs, and so on) are questionable predictors of student potential, they are an integral part of the whole university/college dynamic. You can't get anywhere, it seems, without taking one test or another. Delbanco points out that we should be at least a little wary of the value of standardized tests, since higher test scores can often be linked to households with more money and resources. If greater access to money and resources lead to higher test scores, then we need to rethink not only our attachment to those tests, but also the role they play in our national admissions culture. We also need to question what those tests really measure. If money can buy higher test scores, then ultimately what this means is that it's also buying admission into select colleges--through a seemingly legitimate--and fair--process.
Coming up with a laundry list of inequities is easy, Delbanco tell us. And it allows us to stand on the sidelines and hurl condemnations and complaints at our colleges and universities. But he wants to remind us that these kinds of issues are, in the end, deeply ethical questions--just the kind that should be part of a good college education (Loc 1819). What does he mean by this? Well, he's talking about the ethics and politics of college admission processes--the decisions about who gets in and who doesn't. How many parents, for example, are going to tell their kids they will not use family money to help them prep for tests? "And while it's natural to feel resentment when other people's children enjoy advantages denied to our own," writes Delbanco, "for centuries very few people objected to what amounted to affirmative action for whites" (Loc 1822).
Delbanco's point here is that we face some serious ethical issues, and they need to be discussed and confronted. There are no simple answers, he says. But one thing is clear: many of the college admission processes are "heavily weighted in favor of students from families with means" (Loc 1850). The truth we have right in front of us is that today's colleges do a lot more to reinforce rather than challenge wealth disparities in the US. And while the exclusionary practices of today may be less overt than those of the past, they are, Delbanco says, more insidious (Loc 1887). Even more alarming, he writes, is that there seems to be "much less indignation about the present than the past," in part because the haves and the have-nots know less and less about one another.
This leads us to the 1958 book The Rise of the Meritocracy, by Michael Young, which Delbanco uses to make a couple of critical points. The word "meritocracy" is often used in positive terms today to refer to a system in which people who work hard obtain well-deserved results. But Young's book was written as a satirical warning of what could happen if we go too far down a certain path, Delbanco reminds us. The book is, Delbanco explains, an "amazingly astute description of what we have become--a society dedicated to the one overriding purpose of economic expansion," in which "people are judged according to the single test of how much they increase production" (Loc 2047). Here Delbanco lays out a few more of the key problems: 1) colleges are too close to the world of money and finance; 2) faculty is underpaid and overworked; and finally, 3) among students, the gap is widening between the majority and a select few...and colleges continue to focus on marketing and selling their programs through amenities, rather than focusing on improving how they educate their students. It is difficult to name just one problem, he says. But one there is one issue that seems to underlie much of what we are talking about. Delbanco sums it up as a widespread sense of "drift" (Loc 2241).
College and university used to be places where a person could go to improve their lives, to learn more, and to find the right path in life. But, Delbanco explains, many of our assumptions about what leads to a good, successful life are being called into question--if not radically challenged (especially as student loan debt continues to rise). Delbanco's argument is that far too many colleges aren't doing enough to help students through these difficult times. They are, he writes, failing to "reconnect their students to the idea that good fortune confers a responsibility to live generously toward the less fortunate." The idea of "community" as a core principle of college has been lost. So what can be done?
The last chapter in the book tries to tackle that very question--although it's more of a series of meditations about possibilities than a programmatic discussion about the steps we need to take to "fix" college. Delbanco begins by telling us that much of the current writing about college belongs in a special literary genre: the funeral dirge. Many assume that college as we know it is a dying species...like some doomed elephant making its way along the graveyard path. But Delbanco isn't quite so morose, despite his critical views about colleges, universities, and higher ed in general. He reminds us, again, that a good understanding of the past can help us realize that doomsday prophecies are more often wrong than right.
However, he admits, many of the predictions have already come to pass (at least in some respects). College as a community of learning is already an anachronism for many of today's students. Millions of college-aged Americans never step foot on a college campus at all. Delbanco gives us some of the hard facts: For young people who are stuck in the lowest income quartile, the chance of making it to college is about 20 percent (1 in 5). By the age of 26, less than two-thirds of white high school grads are enrolled in college. And the figures for minorities are much lower: a little more than 50 percent for blacks, and even less for Hispanics. Even when students do manage to enroll, less than 60 percent finish in six years, and about 30 percent don't finish at all (Loc 2284). That "traditional" college experience that permeates our national culture, it seems, is often little more than a dream. And an unrealistic one at that.
And if students aren't exactly getting the mythical college experience, Delbanco continues, neither are the teachers. In 1975, about 60 percent of professors were full-time and on the tenure track. Today, that number has dropped to about 35 percent. What this means is that most students today are taught by part-time employees "who have a limited stake in the institution where they work" (Loc 2315). Cutting tenure and hiring a workforce or temporary laborers makes perfect sense, Delbanco argues, in a system dominated by marketplace rules and ideologies. However, by the measures of educational value that he extols in this book, they make no sense at all.
His argument is that there is far too much discussion about things like "cost" and "access," and not enough about what is happening on campuses once students actually get there. Delbanco still thinks that the ideal of college has tremendous power for motivating and inspiring today's students. He delves into examples of some of the "best practices" out there, and expresses his agreement with the idea that online education does indeed have plenty of potential to reduce some of the equity gaps that plague the college system. Technology can, of course, be a part of the solution. But, he says, we need to look into "low tech" solutions that are working right now while we wait for the high tech university of the future (after all, it may never arrive).
And this is where Delbanco makes his stand. His most passionate argument is about the importance of teaching--and teachers who care about what they do. "The proffered rewards of academic life," he explains, "have nothing to do with demonstrated concern for students" (Loc 2509). Often, teaching is a reward in and of itself--and not much more. So what this means for Delbanco is this: we need to try to "produce more teachers who care about teaching." How can that be accomplished?
He sees a problem with trying to make "research" the bogeyman in this equation, and implores readers to think about things differently. There's really no reason why teaching and research have to be thought of in oppositional terms. They can be complementary, in fact. But this doesn't mean that good researchers are automatically good teachers. In fact, that's not the case at all. A little luck is necessary to get both qualities in one person. The ability to teach, Delbanco writes, can't really be measured or granted by some advanced degree. It just doesn't work that way. And one problem is that higher education can, and often does, completely kill the "zeal for teaching" that individuals have in earlier stages of their career. Talk about a Catch-22. We have a serious problem if the process of "professionalization" actually drives teachers away from teaching.
The problem isn't research. Delbanco really drives that point home. The problem, he says, is that universities use colleges (which are there to recruit and educate undergraduates) as a way to subsidize research--and the training of future researchers. So the real issue here is the relationship between universities and colleges--and between the twin goals of teaching and research. This problematic relationship is instilled in graduate school, where teaching is often seen as either a requirement or a burden. Few graduate programs make an effort to distinguish between good researchers and those who "show promise for the classroom." Teaching is often treated as something that students do along the way to the real goal of becoming professional researchers. This translates on down the line throughout the institutional culture.
In Delbanco's view, the failure to integrate teaching into grad programs is no less than "astonishing," but, as he points out, this situation is basically a non-issue throughout much of academia. It simply doesn't matter. Few pay attention or seem to care. Yet, year after year, new PhDs are released into the educational system, and many of them spend a great deal of their time seeking employment--as teachers. Delbanco brings up an apt analogy here: This would be akin to medical schools granting MDs to students who haven't completed their clinical rotations. Skipping over this requirement might make sense for those who are destined to be lab or bench scientists, but "the notion of sending a young physician to a patient's beside without serious apprenticeship and mentoring is--as it should be--out of the question" (Loc 2545).
But this is exactly what we have going on in many graduate programs.  Here Delbanco quotes Robert Maynard Hutchins, who said this leads us into a "vicious circle... in which the products of a bad system grow up to be the operators and perpetuators of it" (Loc 2553). The only way to break this cycle, according to Delbanco, is to fight to provide "student-centered" doctoral education that prepares scholars to be researchers and teachers.
Delbanco closes his case by saying that the American college is too important to simply give up on. Despite all of the challenges, ethical conflicts, and politics that colleges face, he does not think they should be "permitted to give up on [their] own ideals." He reaches back to his historical argument to remind us that one of the core ideals of college has always been to reject social rankings like wealth and position and evaluate people based upon their inward character (or soul). We need to come to terms with those early ideals, especially the notion that all students deserve--and are worthy of--education.
In the end, Delbanco brings together his ideas about community, equity, and the value of education to implore his readers to protect the college institution. Ultimately, he says, "Democracy depends on it."
Overall, Andrew Delbanco's book is a thorough, wide-ranging, critical, and often passionate look at the histories and current travails of American colleges. Interestingly, Delbanco's writing is a fascinating combination of romanticism and critical, pragmatic realism. He has a recurrent tendency to introduce idealistic notions and then rapidly knock them down with a dose of (sometimes harsh) realism. But for all of his criticisms, Delbanco is, in the end, still very optimistic about the future of college...and he adamantly argues that we all need to stand up, pay attention, and give a damn right alongside him.
It's a compelling argument, and the book was a valuable read for someone (me) who has been mired in the college/university system for the past 10 years--as a student. Sometimes it's easy to get a little lost in the details, the bureaucracies, and the personal struggles of "the system," and lose sight of not only what can be done, but why one ended up in such a system in the first place. In moments like these, sometimes a good dose of historical context with a layer of conviction is just what's needed. And Delbanco's a good guide along the way. I agree with him too--that college is something worth trying to salvage. What that means, though, is that we need to be ready to turn all of that "critical analysis" into something more than just another published page in another journal article that nobody reads. We might actually have to put down the books, and the rhetoric, and do something.
UPDATE: Minor edits for clarity on 1/18/13.
*Note: All citations listed according to locations in the Kindle e-book version.
*Note: All citations listed according to locations in the Kindle e-book version.
**Another note: Yes, this review is ridiculously over the word limit. I apologize retroactively and hope to bury this truth deep in a random note that nobody will ever find.
 A minor quibble, but it may have been nice if more of Delbanco's examples were drawn from real cases rather than literary examples.
 Delbanco uses elite colleges as the primary examples for his discussion.
 I should point out that Delbanco makes it quite clear that many of these changes have not been felt as strongly, if at all, in many of the elite universities that have access to more funding and resources.
 Giving graduate students a few classes to teach is not the same as placing greater emphasis on the value and importance of teaching.
 He does acknowledge the prejudicial, often intolerant views of many of the clerics who founded the early college institutions. But his point here is to pay attention to deeper underlying ideals and beliefs about humanity.