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Highfalutin Abstractions

By: Barton Swaim
February 8, 2013

A review of College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be, by Andrew Delbanco

At last, universities are on the run. For at least a generation, conservatives of various descriptions have inveighed against them for, among other reasons, purveying anti-Americanism and doctrinaire Leftism under the guise of "openness," obliterating any distinction between the trivial and the serious, and training young people to indict or ignore the past according to the whims of the present. Alas, these sorts of criticisms required a moderate level of abstract thinking, and they didn't produce the widespread outrage their authors wanted to see.

Now, however, there is a new, more accessible criticism: higher education is a rip-off—a product that's enormously expensive and, except as a credential, almost worthless. Several recent books have made the case, in one way or another, that the modern American university, while dominating just about every human endeavor from sports to economic development to scientific research, is failing at the one job everybody agrees it should have: educating young people. In the most oft-cited finding in Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa's Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, 45% of the students they surveyed showed no significant improvement in the ability to reason and write after two years of college, and 36% showed no improvement after four years. Mark C. Taylor's Crisis on Campus: A Bold Plan for Reforming Our Colleges and Universities and Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus's Higher Education?: How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kidsand What We Can Do About It, too, have blasted universities for, variously, charging exorbitant tuition rates while maintaining armies of pointless administrators and offering inferior classroom instruction, rewarding academics for their research prowess whether or not they have any ability to teach, and knowingly outfitting millions of industrious young people with high hopes and useless Ph.D.s. Though each of these books provide powerful and valuable critiques, none answers one very important question: what's the point of a college education?

To be fair, the answer isn't obvious. Is a college education supposed to prepare one for democratic citizenship? There are a great many non-college-educated citizens who are far better equipped for democratic citizenship than their credentialed counterparts. Or is an undergraduate degree valuable mainly in order to make one more competitive in the job market and, to the extent more young people take undergraduate degrees, the U.S. a more economically competitive nation? If so, we might as well be honest with students and tell them that 90% of their efforts are utterly irrelevant to their future lives and careers.

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Surely there ought to be some cogent reason one can give to a young person when he asks why he should spend the years from ages 18 to 21 living and studying (but mainly just living) with other people of the same age. Hacker and Dreifus think young people should attend college in order to "become more thoughtful and interesting human beings." It's easy to see what they're driving at; one is more thoughtful and interesting after learning the differences between Bach and Beethoven, say, than one was before. But that's true of all learning; it doesn't explain why a four-year hiatus is necessary at the cost of tens of thousands of dollars. And anyhow, there are too many college-educated bores in the world to make it convincing.

Andrew Delbanco, the respected novelist, essayist, and literary biographer, has attempted his own answer in his confidently titled College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be. He begins by drawing a clear distinction between the university and the college: the university, he says, is "mainly an array of research activities conducted by faculty and graduate students with the aim of creating new knowledge in order to supersede the past," whereas the college is a place for "transmitting knowledge of and from the past" so that students "may draw upon it as a living resource in the future."

Delbanco thinks that in order to understand what the American college should be, it's necessary first to understand its Puritan origins. He discusses two great aims of the first colleges in the New World: first, they taught students, typically ministerial students, the value of refusing to accept the doctrines of men until those doctrines have been examined and understood; and second, the nation's first colleges inculcated the importance of service, in the older, non-trite sense of the word. Right through the 19th century, Delbanco says, "going to college was an exercise in self-examination, self-discipline, and self-abnegation."

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Delbanco teaches at Columbia and talks mostly about the Ivies, but much of what he says is broadly applicable. He is right to worry that modern undergraduate institutions instill, not self-examination, self-discipline, and self-abnegation, but license, insolence, and self-regard. The most corrosive idea taught by modern universities to their students, he thinks, consists in the word meritocracy, the idea that promotion and rewards should accord strictly with intrinsic merit; that is, with aptitude and achievement. Although the idea of meritocracy may sound appealing when put alongside plutocracy or affirmative action, it leads to arrogance and, sooner or later, autocracy. Delbanco echoes an important point made last fall by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat: whereas the old aristocratic elite were in some measure aware of the arbitrariness of their rule—it owed much to either providence or luck—the modern meritocratic elites believe they deserve to rule and that their decisions are right and just.

So, what's to be done? Delbanco takes a more discursive, circuitous approach than is customary in books lamenting large social trends, but his recommendations are essentially two: first, put greater emphasis on undergraduate teaching; and second, keep undergraduate education from becoming a "baby step in the credentialing process" by bringing back the liberal arts. He's certainly right about the first. That most doctoral programs make no attempt to assess teaching ability is one of the great follies of modern American academia.

About the second, reincorporating liberal arts into undergraduate studies, Delbanco's pleas are heartfelt, and there is a sense in which I couldn't agree more. "Certain old books...speak to us in a subversive whisper," he writes, "that makes us wonder whether the idea of progress might be a sham. They tell us that the questions we face under the shadow of death are not new, and that no new technology will help us answer them." But which "old books"? And why just "old" books—why not new ones, and why not postmodern criticism and comic books and the forgettable doggerel of some Victorian feminist? And why not film, too, old as well as new? And music: surely, if we're going to insist students learn Bach and Beethoven, we can't exclude rock and hip-hop.

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You get the point. Delbanco refers in passing to "the collapse of consensus about what students should know," as if that's a part of the problem rather than the problem itself. He strives to formulate some coherent purpose of a liberal arts undergraduate education and he says some sensible things along the way, but there can be no coherence in the absence of any agreement on content. Very few institutions still require a core curriculum, and even in a single subject—whether economics or literature—students have no idea what sorts of works and viewpoints they'll be taught.

Delbanco tries to get around this problem, as other champions of liberal arts education have tried to do before him, by presenting an ideal undergraduate education not as some kind of regimen in which students are made to learn a more or less agreed upon set of texts and ideas but as a diffuse program in which they're told merely what the "big questions" are and given some guidance about how they might try and answer them. "Except for proselytizing institutions such as Bob Jones or Oral Roberts universities," he writes, "very few colleges tell their students what to think. With equally rare exceptions, most are unwilling even to tell them what's worth thinking about." This is the sort of formulation professors of literature use to get students to talk about the works they've read, but it's hopeless as a guiding principle in higher education unless one is prepared to enumerate those things that are "worth thinking about" and, of equal importance, those things that are not.

Delbanco isn't about to make those kinds of judgment calls. And who can blame him? If he did, his book would be vilified by his colleagues. (Though I'd wager it would make a lot more money.) Instead, he offers up what I regard as some highfalutin abstractions, drawn partly from a passage in Yale Law School professor Anthony Kronman's book Education's End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given up on the Meaning of Life (2008). Kronman writes:

The ideals of individual freedom and toleration; of democratic government; of respect for the rights of minorities and for human rights generally; a reliance on markets as a mechanism for the organization of economic life and a recognition of the need for markets to be regulated by a supervenient political authority; a reliance, in the political realm, on the methods of bureaucratic administration, with its formal division of functions and legal separation of office from officeholder; an acceptance of the truth of modern science and the ubiquitous employment of its technological products: all these provide, in many parts of the world, the existing foundations of political, social, and economic life, and where they do not, they are viewed as aspirational goals toward which everyone has the strongest moral and material reasons to strive.


"Anyone who earns a BA from a reputable college," Delbanco says of this list, "ought to understand something about the genealogy of these ideas and practices, about the historical processes from which they have emerged, the tragic cost when societies fail to defend them, and about alternative ideas both within the Western tradition and outside it."

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Kronman's nebulous generalities (what academic in the humanities or social sciences doesn't think he's teaching "the ideals of individual freedom and toleration," "democratic government," and "respect for the rights of minorities and for human rights"?) combined with Delbanco's further watering down ("ought to understand something of the genealogy of these ideas" and of course "alternative ideas" from both within and outside the West) would leave the undergraduate curriculum open to just about anything. This isn't a formula for a liberal arts core curriculum; it's a labor-intensive way to give kids a few useful concepts, some names and dates, and more than likely a great deal of rubbish.

Delbanco's discussions of practical problems, too, fail to get a critical distance from the liberalism that governs higher education. In his remarks on the inexorable rise of tuition, for example, the idea that these institutions might cut unnecessary spending is evidently unthinkable. Nor does he exhibit any awareness of the possibility that the wide availability of scholarships and government loans may contribute to, rather than alleviate, the problem of rising tuition (although, to be fair, Delbanco has this in common with many other observers, among them Barack Obama).

Despite these shortcomings, Delbanco's brief history of the way colleges transmogrified into universities is well done, he treats a wide array of recent writing on higher education, and his defense of undergraduate education is, though not original, salutary and eloquent. "Academic culture today," he writes in a characteristically quotable passage, "regards the research university as the most evolved species in the institutional chain of being, and implies...that those below it exhibit varying degrees of truncation or failure."

With hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of former English and art and music majors now on the unemployment roles or wishing they had done law or nursing instead, today's college students are probably best advised to stay away from humanities departments except for the odd elective, and read about the "big questions" once they've got something useful to do.