What's the Point of College?


College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be, By Andrew Delbanco

Princeton University Press, 240 pages, $24.95


Visit any campus bookstore, and in addition to lighthearted tracts on applied calculus and hoodies made in China, you will see a baby jumper emblazoned with the school’s logo—a sign of how anxiously and superstitiously Americans hope that their kids, still capable of only gurgling and monkey reflex reactions, will one day go to college. It is this glossily promoted hope that Columbia University professor and social critic Andrew Delbanco explores in a book that, despite its title, is no work of prescriptive policy. Wonks may be disappointed at the lack of charts and tables, but Delbanco explores American higher education in a manner befitting a scholar of Melville and the Puritans, with a humanist’s belief in lessons from history and in asking what the right thing is to do.

The first American colleges were built on the British model, he reminds us, from which ancient features—dorm living, put-upon teaching assistants, study-day benders—survive today. Almost from the outset, though, deans of what would become the Ivy League universities held the building of civic pride and moral soundness in America’s ruling citizenry to be their highest goal, even higher than the training of ministers, as had been the norm in Mother England. “The American college was conceived from the start as more than narrowly ecclesiastical,” Delbanco writes, “with the larger aim, as the historian Samuel Eliot Morison put it, to ‘develop the whole man—his body and soul as well as his intellect’ toward the formation of a person inclined to ‘unity, gentility and public service.’”

Not everyone could join these well-rounded ranks, of course. For a long time, American schools were not too academically choosy, instead picking out the sons of gentlemen farmers, the new republic’s base of power. Top schools stayed blue-blooded well into the 20th century. The gates finally flew open almost 70 years ago, with the GI bill sending to college millions of men who otherwise wouldn’t have dreamed of it, and millions of women and minorities eventually following suit by the mid-1970s. Since then, the pressures and rewards surrounding college have only grown.

Despite these advances, Delbanco thinks that colleges, as they’ve struggled to meet societal expectations that may be impossibly high, have lost their moral center. But not for the reasons that Tom Wolfe was able to easily gather rich source material for all the sex in I Am Charlotte Simmons. The institutions themselves, in Delbanco’s view, no longer take time to nudge students toward an active sense of civic belonging. The college experience has been subsumed by the exhausting demand for quantifiable measures of achievement—grades easily inflated, majors chosen with an eye for high salaries post-graduation. Of the subjects studied, science sits at the top of the heap (admissions brochures feature Swedish-minimalist computer labs and humanoid robots), while business students are rewarded for their pragmatism with gleaming facilities, a subtle butter-up in the hopes of a future gift. When politicians talk about higher education, too, they mean the need to compete. All the while, there’s rarely a mention of college’s qualitative benefits to either a young person’s life or to society. “Science has an enormous advantage in the competition for university resources,” Delbanco writes. “It has the ability to demonstrate progress—an ability of inestimable value in a culture that has always been more forward-looking than retrospective. ... It poses a severe challenge to the humanities—at least to the extent that humanists remain concerned with preserving truth by rearticulating it rather than advancing truth by discarding the old in favor of the new.”

When answering the question of what college at its best can do, or at least used to do, Delbanco, a secular Jew, often circles back to an age when religion, with its moral concerns, held a more prominent place: “The era of spiritual authority belonging to college is gone. And yet I have never encountered a better formulation—‘show me how to think and how to choose’—of what a college should strive to be: an aid to reflection, a place and process whereby young people take stock of their talents and passions and begin to sort out their lives in a way that is true to themselves and responsible to others.” Still, he is a realist anchored in the present and aware that many, perhaps even most, of today’s students will go through school neither interested in nor ever encountering that old-fashioned sense of a community of learning.

Reading this book made me recall the question I used to ask myself as an English major only a few years ago. What was the utility in spending entire class hours discussing the assonance of a line of poetry or the dualities of a character’s thought? I believed I was studying how to bring precise words to feelings and thoughts about life and death and what sometimes seemed a gaping chasm between myself and others. Yet if I am honest, when I defended the humanities to a chemistry major, it was in my generation’s lingua franca: a touch of cynicism, a rat-a-tat elevator pitch. Talking about staring up into the silvery cascade of leaves on a tree and knowing the joy of Wordsworth’s “spot of time” is not something you mention in polite company these days.

Delbanco also makes a fair case that young people today are less interested than they used to be in both public service and a certain understanding of inner life that used to be called introspection. Yes, the millennial generation famously uses the tools of social networking to found all manner of idealistic enterprises. But our feeling of connection to an overarching greater good is a bit wanting; if democracy is a garden that needs tending, a lot of us seem to hope it’s a Chia Pet—give it a bit of water and leave it alone.

College has always been a microcosm of society, so a book about it is also about how we’re doing as a country. The inspiration for Delbanco’s book was his teaching of an undergraduate course on equity and access to higher education. In a nutshell, they’re shrinking. True to his argument’s genesis, Delbanco mixes a cocktail of fact, anecdote, and ponderous musing for the most disinterested, hair-twirling student. Pell grants cover a fraction of what they did in 1976, when the program was founded. The chance that kids whose family’s income lies in the bottom quartile will go to college is one in five. If you’d like a reason why income inequality exists in an increasingly service-driven American economy, these are good starting points. Quoting the social and literary theorist Walter Benn Michaels of the University of Illinois at Chicago, who has called top-tier universities “our primary mechanism for convincing ourselves that poor people deserve their poverty,” Delbanco goes on to add that “few people inside or outside academia would say such a thing openly, at least not without softening it with protestations of humility, but the fact is that many people secretly—or not so secretly—believe it.”

Only a few years ago, students my age believed, not so secretly, in the meritocratic fantasy that success would come our way by virtue of our having done time in the collegiate womb. After the crash, we wondered if we had made a great mistake in throwing ourselves full-force into debt. We’re still not sure how things will turn out.

Yet there’s another reality, and it’s unlikely to change. Those who end up running things in this country will continue, without exception, to be people who went to college; everyone else will end up living by their rules. For this reason, it seems only right that these training grounds of tomorrow’s powerful keep a place for students who know the life-preserving difference that a social safety net can make. Maybe it’s even good for those in power to have had their minds stretched by the briefest bout with thinkers who have asked, “Why do we wage war?” And “Is this all happenstance, or is there a plan?”

In his poem “Digging,” Seamus Heaney ruminates on the lives of his peat-digging father and grandfather. Heaney, a college man, recognizes that his life will not be like theirs. But it will be ever informed by their experience:

But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

If the daughters of soybean farmers and mortgage brokers were to gather with the sons of factory workers and lawyers to discuss this poem, the result might not train a 21st-century workforce. But there are worse visions of a country, and far worse uses of a college afternoon. 

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