What College Should Be

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.


Virtuous Circle of Teaching and Research

Over the last thirty to forty years, higher education in America has viewed contributions to research as an essential part of its mission. Professors are expected to participate in shaping their scholarly fields, and students are expected to learn not just the wisdom of the past, but how to produce knowledge in the present. At large universities, though, the research function often seems to dwarf the dedication to undergraduate education. At several of the Ivies and other schools that compete for academic prestige, senior faculty often have little to do with teaching those preparing bachelor degrees, and graduate students or other part-time instructors wind up taking on the bulk of college teaching. The tenured professors work mostly with graduate students, preparing them for careers that, too, are expected to center on research.

In recent years the folly of this system has become increasingly evident: there are few tenure-track jobs for the graduate students being trained to work in the most specialized domains, and undergraduates are often left to wonder how courses taught by these narrowly trained specialists are supposed to connect to their lives after college. As smaller institutions emulated the research universities, the publish-or-perish mentality became a core part of faculty culture, with specialized journals publishing for small groups of colleagues offering the most professional prestige.

There has recently been plenty of strong criticism of the cultivation of esoteric research in higher education. Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus have argued that universities are wasting resources and failing students, in part because of the premium put on faculty research rather than teaching. Hacker and Dreifus have been teaching in New York for decades, and they have also been prolific authors. But in their recent book,  Higher Education? they argue that schools have been distracted from their core educational mission by adding on the obligation to contribute to scholarly fields.

Mark C. Taylor, Wesleyan graduate, long time professor at Williams and now Chair of the Religion Department at Columbia University, has recently published what he calls a bold plan to respond to the contemporary crisis on campus. Noting how the focus on research has driven a wedge between faculty and student interests, he diagnoses “the identification of specialization with expertise.” Narrow specialization should be the great enemy of educators because it leads to silos of inquiry with little opportunity for surprising intellectual exchange. But specialization has gone hand in hand with professional prestige, something that schools have been chasing for decades.

Taylor’s main argument is that our overspecialized colleges and universities are increasingly divorced from the hyper-connected world defined by “webs, not walls.” Networks of interconnectivity rather than isolated expertise are defining our world, and higher education will become obsolete if it doesn’t plug into these new forms of knowledge creation. (I’ve taken my comments here from my review of the book in the LA Times.)

How are these critiques relevant to Wesleyan? To be sure, our university prizes research because we believe that it informs and enlivens pedagogy. I often talk about the “virtuous circle” of teaching and research, and many of my Wesleyan colleagues have been deeply affected in their scholarly work by what they learn from students in the classroom. Similarly, our students know that we continue to learn with them through the work we do in our fields…we are not just imparting information to them that somebody else imparted to us.

Some of Wesleyan’s best teachers are also our most serious and original researchers, and all of us remain dedicated to undergraduate education even as we produce scholarship for specialized audiences. So, even though I think Hacker, Dreifus and Taylor are right to worry about severe overspecialization (with its associated bureaucracy) in certain fields, I think they might say more about the positive feedback loop that can connect the classroom and the archive, the science lab and the lecture hall. And we should note that these contemporary critics of education are themselves also researchers, and this hasn’t seemed to undermine their professed love of teaching.

I just attended part of the Molecular Biophysics and Biological Chemistry retreat, and I saw great evidence of how well the scholar teacher model is working here at Wes. This year’s gathering honored David Beveridge, Joshua Boger University Professor of the Sciences and Mathematics. David’s pioneering work in computational biology and biophysics has had a powerful influence in the classroom and the research lab, and I saw several fine examples of Wes student research in the poster session. Sure there is specialization, but there is also an understanding of what is at stake in the experiments and an ability to describe the work for the non-expert. Showing a wonderful talent for translating their efforts to this layman, students explained to me their work on RNA, on modeling the structure of particular carbon based molecules, and on the translation of proteins. My head is still spinning!

There are plenty of things in American higher education that can be improved, but we must be careful to preserve our ability to educate students broadly and deeply by engaging faculty in projects that are both scholarly and pedagogical. Specialization without the capacity for translation (without “intellectual cross-training,” as Wes trustee Geoff Duyk calls it) does undermine effective teaching at many schools, but Wesleyan professors who remain active scholars, scientists and artists exemplify a love of learning that can be made powerfully relevant to their undergraduate students.

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