What College Should Be: Andrew Delbanco’s Errand in to the Wilderness

I finished up Andrew Delbanco’s College:  What it Was, Is, and Should Be last night, swiping to the last location on my Kindle app just as I was finishing up my nightly effort to subdue the flesh on an exercise bike at the Y.  As you know, I’ve blogged a bit about about Delbanco and his investigations of college life a couple of times recently,  here, and here, and here.  Last one, I promise, but since I have actually finished the book I thought I ought to at least make a couple of summary comments.

First,  Delbanco is very good on analyzing and representing the ideal values of the college education as it existed in the past.  Especially, Delbano points out that our current discursive emphasis on an education for jobs–a rhetorical and imaginative virus that affects our president and our Tea Partiers alike–is a new phenomenon.  Or rather, what is new is that a concern with jobs and economic well-being was always leavened by and even tertiary to other values.  Colleges existed to create and shape a certain kind of person, not a certain kind of employee, and so their function was essentially moral and ethical.  Colleges further existed to create public servants, not individual entrepreneurs, people whose goals was fundamentally the service of the public good rather than pursuit of private enterprise.

For Delbanco, these emphases within College life have been all but excised , at least in the rhetoric of their public rationale.  I think he’s right about this in large degree.  My own experience at such colleges gives me some hope that all is not lost:  Messiah College where I work defines its mission as educating men and women toward maturity of intellect character and Christian faith for lives of service, leadership and reconciliation in church and society.  That is the robust language of human transformation and public service that Delbanco eulogizes, and I think by and large we put our money where our mouth in our programming.  At the same time, here as everywhere, prospective students and their parents often choose between us and other colleges on the basis of what they learn from our career center, and students have certainly been choosing majors primarily on the basis of their perceived job prospects rather than on the perception that college life is about the kinds of transformation that can occur.  It is much the same at most faith based institutions that I know of, and Delbanco does a good job of showing how the rhetoric of economic gain rather than public service or  personal transformation has come to dominate even our elite national liberal arts institutions.

Secondly, I think Delbanco does a good job of showing how the actual life of institutions–as opposed to their rhetoric–has never been one of realized pastoral ideals.  In relation to the conflict between the quest for economic gain and the search for personal transformation, Delbanco points out that this has been a long standing conflict in American higher education.

One way of coming at this question was suggested around a century ago by Max Weber, who, not long before Sinclair Lewis invented “Winnemac,” proposed a distinction between two “polar opposites of types of education.” The types he had in mind correspond closely to the terms “college” and “university” as I have been using them. The first, associated with religion, is “to aid the novice to acquire a ‘new soul’  .  .  .   and hence, to be reborn.” The second, associated with the bureaucratic structures of modern life, is to impart the kind of “specialized expert training” required for “administrative purposes— in the organization of public authorities, business offices, workshops, scientific or industrial laboratories,” as well as “disciplined armies.” 1 Many other serviceable terms could be substituted for Weber’s— knowledge versus skill; inspiration versus discipline; insight versus information; learning for its own sake versus learning for the sake of utility— but whatever terms we prefer, a good educational institution strives for both. “The two types do not stand opposed,” as Weber put it, “with no connections or transitions between them.” They coexist— or at least they should— in a dynamic relation.

Delbanco, Andrew (2012-03-22). College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be (Kindle Locations 1635-1645). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.

This particular passage encouraged me to some degree, if only because I feel this tension continuously as a dean of Humanities at a small school.  We are constantly asked to justify ourselves on the basis of the jobs or the security that we can provide and there seems to be no real room anymore for talking about the kinds of dramatic intellectual and moral transformation that occurs with some regularity as a student engages the great philosophical, literary, religious, and historical texts of the past, how much they have done for me in helping me overcome my own prejudices and ill-considered judgements, how they have helped to make me a better person than I would have been without them.  On the other hand, while I think the language of economic self-interest is ascendant and at the moment tipping the scales against the balance that Weber thought important, it is good to know that the tension between these tendencies has always been there, and that purity on either end would probably be unhealthy.  My own college defines itself as a college of the liberal and applied arts and sciences, building that tension in to its self-definition.  Where and how to find that balance is always the question.

I came away in the end being uncertain whether Delbanco’s book actually helped me answer this last question.  Delbanco’s book is best in answering the question of what college was.  As he gets in to an analysis of what college is he is better at showing anecdotally the kinds of things that are happening than providing and analysis of the massive social forces that have brought us to this point.  When it gets to the question of what college should be, I don’t think Delbanco provides a satisfactory answer.  Its clear that he believes we have lost the ethical and public service imperatives of an earlier rhetoric, however imperfectly those ideals were realized.  And to that degree it seems clear that he thinks we ought to return to those ideals.  However, there is no real road map forward , no real plan for how to achieve the values he desires, other than a few random allusions toward things like humanities programs that serve prison populations, or college policies that emphasize degree completion for the common person.  He calls for more collaboration with secondary schools.  All things I too would applaud or call for.

These are laudable instances, but hardly a plan for the kinds of problems that are facing institutions or facing the system of higher education as it exists in the present.  I felt in the end that Delbanco was more than a little like the Puritans whose educational ideals he admires.  The Puritans called for an errand in to the wilderness, but mostly clung pretty close to the coast, seeing the wilderness as dangerous and forbidding.  For Delbanco, the world of higher education is such a wilderness, a place roaring and full of devils, a place for the lost.  I didn’t see a plan here for emptying the forest of its demons, or sufficient directions for how and where to clear a path in the underbrush.

4 thoughts on “What College Should Be: Andrew Delbanco’s Errand in to the Wilderness

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