Yesterday the New York Times Book Review published my review of Andrew Delbanco’s recent College: What it Was, Is and Should Be. Here’s an excerpt and a link.
Andrew Delbanco must be a great teacher. A longtime faculty member at Columbia, he is devoted to the development of his students as individuals, and recognizes that their time in college should be formative: “They may still be deterred from sheer self-interest toward a life of enlarged sympathy and civic responsibility.” Like most professors devoted to teaching, he has no interest in telling undergraduates what to think, but he does want to draw them toward a sense of skepticism about the status quo and to a feeling of wonder about the natural world. College, he tells us, is a time to learn to “make connections among seemingly disparate phenomena,” to see things from another’s point of view and to develop a sense of ethical responsibility. At a time when many are trying to reduce the college years to a training period for economic competition, Delbanco reminds readers of the ideal of democratic education.
In “College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be,” he recalls this ideal’s roots in English and American Protestantism. In this country, education was never supposed to be only about imparting information. It has long included character development — turning the soul away from selfish concerns and toward community. Delbanco cites Emerson’s version of this turning: “The whole secret of the teacher’s force lies in the conviction that men are convertible. And they are. They want awakening.” Even secular teachers are trying to “get the soul out of bed, out of her deep habitual sleep.”
Selective colleges and universities ought to be shaping campus communities that maximize each undergraduate’s ability to go beyond his or her comfort zone to learn from the most unexpected sources. To do so, and to deliver on the promise of our ideals, we must maintain robust financial aid programs and end the steep rise of tuition. If we’re to become more affordable and more responsible, we must replace spending for cachet with investments in student learning.
Delbanco stresses that “one of the insights at the core of the college idea” is the notion that “to serve others is to serve oneself by providing a sense of purpose, thereby countering the loneliness and aimlessness by which all people, young and old, can be afflicted.” Like John Dewey, he knows that education is a “mode of social life” in which we learn the most by working with others. Like William James, he prizes those “invasive” learning experiences that open us up to the “fruits for life.” The American college is too important “to be permitted to give up on its own ideals,” Delbanco writes. He has underscored these ideals by tracing their history. Like a great teacher, he has inspired us to try to live up to them.