I’ve been thinking a lot lately about education for the public good and what that must mean. It’s a sign of an impoverished civic imagination that the most we can come up with is that the purposes of an education is to get a better job so you can raise American competitiveness in the global marketplace. I’ve been using Andrew Delbanco as a part time foil in these reflections. In a new interview over at Inside Higher Ed, Delbanco takes on this general issue yet again.
Interview with author of new book on the past and future of higher education | Inside Higher Ed
If a college functions well, it should break down, or at least diminish, the distinction between private and public good. Genuinely educated persons recognize how much they owe to the society that has furnished them with opportunities, and they feel an obligation to give back. This doesn’t mean that a college should teach its students to be ascetics or try to turn them into saints. Personal ambition will always be part of what a successful education requires and rewards. But a good college fosters an atmosphere of public-spiritedness. It teaches its students that individuals depend for fulfillment on community, and that a true community is constituted by responsible individuals.
I like so much of this, but I think Delbanco is only addressing half the question. That is, it seems to me we have a generally compromised sense of public-spiritedness as such in the United States. Our national purposes reduced drastically to a kind of civic consumerism. Students, we, imagine that we are being public spirited by pursuing what it takes to get a job, no longer conceiving of “the public” in a rich complex fashion that can be activated outside the context of warfare and external threats to abstractly defined freedoms. I agree with Delanco, but I wonder whether he is invoking an older notion of public spiritedness that has itself become impoverished. Education as a private good is reflecting a culture that can only image the public through private metaphors and private actions
[Side note: I met Delbanco in the bathroom at the Rethinking Success conference. He seemed stunned that someone had actually read his book. As opposed, I guess, to just reading the excerpts in the chronicle review]