Luther Spoehr: Review of Andrew Delbanco's "College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be" (Princeton University Press, 2012)


Luther Spoehr, an HNN Book Editor, teaches courses on the history of American higher education at Brown University.

Andrew Delbanco, an award-winning humanities scholar at Columbia University, is the latest in a long, distinguished, and, alas, largely unsuccessful line of writers who for over a century have opposed the relentless march toward utility at the expense of liberal education on American campuses.  His book is intended for “anyone concerned with what it means, and what it takes, to educate citizens in our republic.”

Delbanco knows how hard it is to communicate liberal education’s “value to anyone…who has not personally experienced it.”  And while he says he doesn’t want to write a jeremiad, an elegy, or a call to arms, he admits that he’s probably produced “a messy mixture of them all.”  But it’s no polemic -- more a reasoned cri de coeur.

Readers seeking an overview of the history and current status of American higher education will find a clear, concise one here. But whether they will be persuaded that liberal education is vital to both personal development and American democracy depends on how willing they are to be counter-cultural.

Delbanco is pushing against the zeitgeist. Even at elite colleges that still claim to emphasize the liberal arts, the students, painfully aware of the price tag on their educations, almost inevitably think of “college” in instrumental terms, as primarily a customs house for stamping passports to an economically viable future. How, in an age that commodifies everything, could they think otherwise? Meanwhile, faculty and administrators alike pursue lucrative grants from government, foundations, and private donors like hounds obsessively sniffing after truffles. Teaching, to put it gently, is secondary.

There have been many eloquent critics of this trend (for example, Robert Hutchins), and Delbanco quotes them often, to good effect. His colleague Mark Lilla even reports that his own students are “far less interested in getting what they want than in figuring out just what it is that’s worth wanting.” That’s what liberal education is supposed to be about. It would be nice to think that Lilla’s students are the vanguard of a new trend. But I’m not holding my breath.

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