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Andrew Delbanco College Summary Essay

Summary Of Andrew Delbanco Essay

Summary 2 Danielle Caldwell

504 words ENG 105-44

August 26, 2014

A Summary of

Andrew Delbanco's

"Three Reasons College Still Matters"

In Andrew Delbanco's article, "Three Reasons College Still Matters" which first appeared in Parade magazine, Delbanco legitimized a case for obtaining a college degree using three main perspectives: an economic one, a political one, and an intellectual one.

His first argument centered around the commonly-broadcasted statistic that college graduates make approximately one million dollars more in his or her lifetime than do those who only graduate high school. By also introducing several less-conspicuous economic statistics regarding the demographics of college students in the United States, Delbanco clearly established that students from wealthy American families have the best chance of receiving a quality education in our country. He rounded out his economic argument by giving a hypothetical scenario that equated the debate between political parties about whom should receive a college education to the health care controversy surrounding smokers. Through this comparison, Delbanco demonstrated his belief that the value of further economic education cannot be altogether measured in only economic terms, but must also be evaluated by "what it can do for individuals, in both calculable and incalculable ways."

The next perspective that Delbanco utilized regarded politics. He quoted Thomas Jefferson, who once said that, "the basis of our government is the opinion of the people." Delbanco reiterated his interpretation of this statement by stating that, "If the new republic was to endure, it required, above all, an educated citizenry." Delbanco established that Jefferson's concept about educated citizens should be held at a higher importance than ever, especially with all of the misleading advertising techniques, corrupt political...

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[The Montana Professor 23.1, Fall 2012 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be

Andrew Delbanco
Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012
229 pp.; $24.95 hc


Marvin Lansverk, PhD
Professor of English Literature
Montana State University-Bozeman

Andrew Delbanco's new book, College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be, is among the newest contributions to ongoing discussions of the problems and potentialities of higher education in the United States. While it is a very crowded field these days, there is always room for more, especially when coming from an erudite, witty, and engaging voice—and from someone who has studied and experienced the subject from the inside: Delbanco is a longtime, award winning professor of English at Columbia and a specialist in American literature. Interestingly, Delbanco tackles the subject of American higher education as a kind of American literature itself—at least as a uniquely American institution and one that can be studied as a text that is both a product of and producer of many important aspects of American culture. And, as any text, American higher education has a long history, which requires study if one hopes to make any sense of it—Delbanco's goal in this short book; in spite of some shortcomings, he goes a long way toward accomplishing it.

Treatments of higher education and its problems come in many genres, as Delbanco himself discusses (though not until his last chapter). Most common these days are jeremiads, followed by elegies, and finally "calls to arms." While jeremiads often sell the most books, they are not always the most useful or balanced. Delbanco's choice, instead, is to write what he calls "a messy mixture," a combination of all of the above (150). It's an apt description, for in many ways the book is a collection of personal essays (in the best sense): a series of reflections, commentary, analysis, and information, revolving around a central theme&mdaash;the theme ultimately being "colleges." Think of this book, then, as an expanded Montaigne essay: interesting, challenging, enlightening—if somewhat messy. As in any personal essay, Delbanco's own experiences and voice are part of the interest, and by the end of the book, we've come to trust his analysis and judgments, partly because he explores issues; he prods and inquires. It's what essays and essayists do.

Delbanco's title reveals the book's overarching structure: the past, present, and to some extent the future of American higher education—the good and the bad, warts and all. Thus, it is not just a complaint, nor the proffering of impossible solutions, nor an expression of having given up. Instead, the book is a demonstration of the very thing that he is concerned with: the importance of talking in an informed and critical way about things that matter to us, i.e., education, our universities, our values. And so the book both discusses and is an example of bringing together a lot of information where it can continue to be reflected on and addressed—liberal arts fashion, so to speak.

There are better single studies on most of the subjects that he brings together here (many of the titles appearing in Delbanco's extensive Notes). Certainly there are books with more data and detail. But what this book offers is a place to bring many of these interconnected subjects together—an academy of ideas—and from a perspective that believes that the liberal arts and the humanities always did matter, and still do. But even that, notably, is something that Delbanco is willing to put under discussion.

Six chapters comprise the book. Delbanco begins with a Preface and Introduction that characterize his purpose. His focus is meant to be specifically on colleges, not universities—defining colleges as the higher education institutions most concerned with undergraduate education. And Delbanco is addressing not just any colleges but the most selective, elite American colleges, like his own Columbia; more on this later. To some extent a focus on colleges alone provides a market niche for Delbanco's book, since good, detailed histories of research universities have already been written recently (among them William Clark's Academic Charisma and the Origins of the Research University, which I reviewed in the Fall 2008 issue of Montana Professor). More than just that, however, Delbanco's subject is defined by his understanding, and defense, of colleges. Unlike research universities, which tend to be focused on the creation of knowledge and on graduate education, colleges are and should be focused on the study and transmission of knowledge for undergraduates. For Delbanco, they should provide a place characterized by five inseparable qualities:

  1. A skeptical discontent with the present, informed by a sense of the past.
  2. The ability to make connections among seemingly disparate phenomena.
  3. Appreciation of the natural world, enhanced by knowledge of science and the arts.
  4. A willingness to imagine experience from perspectives other than one's own.
  5. A sense of ethical responsibility (3).

Thus, Delbanco quickly makes clear that colleges—specifically American colleges—serve a function like no other, providing a place and time for reflection, thought, and even daydreaming.

Delbanco's first chapter expands this definition, addressing "What Is College For?" His answer is not unique, but the balanced discussion may be. His answers: college provides for 1) the economic health of the nation, 2) the economic health of the individual, and 3) the mental/moral health of the individual; all three are critical. Colleges don't just provide certificates and credentials, job training and opportunities, or professional contacts, though they do that; but they also should provide a liberal education, training for participation in civil society, and time for contemplation.

Chapter 2 addresses the history of American colleges, with the requisite attention to the 2000-year-old history of Western education, going back to Plato. He gives interesting attention to the particularly Anglo and American contributions by way of Oxford and Cambridge, focusing on the rise of residential colleges, where micro-communities are intentionally created, offering small (and therefore expensive!) class sizes, and time for discussion—what Delbanco calls "lateral learning." These are places where lively lectures are even more useful than books. To his credit, Delbanco devotes a great deal of space to the Protestant, Puritan, and denominational origins of most American colleges, a fact now often ignored by books of this type. He even recounts an anecdote about these religious origins: "If you were to remind just about any major university president today that his or her own institution arose from this or that religious denomination, you'd likely get the response of the proverbial Victorian lady who, upon hearing of Darwin's claim that men descend from apes, replied that she hoped it wasn't so—but if it were, that it not become widely known" (64-65).

Chapter 3 addresses the history of the move from college to university in this country, and the stress (in Delbanco's view) that this has put on undergraduate education at colleges. On the benefits side, this has led to a professionalization of the faculty, but it has also meant that colleges more and more try to emulate universities, in part because nearly all college faculty were educated at universities themselves. The impacts are many, including the tendency for colleges to move away from addressing matters of values and getting undergraduates to discuss the Big Questions—aspects of college life that used to be a significant part of their identity.

Chapters 4 and 5, "Who Went? Who Goes? Who Pays?" and "Brave New World," take a turn into equity and justice issues. They trace the history of increasing diversity in higher education undergraduate populations, with attention to the elitist, racist, and sexist pasts of many institutions. To his credit, Delbanco gives sustained attention to the continuing diversity problems created by admission policies, the test score obsession, and the prestige game. He also rehearses the consequences of the widespread cultural attitudes, fostered by elite colleges and universities themselves, that they have overcome their Ivy Club pasts and are now meritocracies. Now only the most deserving get in, thereby harvesting the best and the brightest that America has to offer; on this view, the college becomes the place where the future leaders of American business and government are educated. While endlessly repeated to undergraduates at these institutions, one consequence Delbanco laments is an unintentional inculcation of the self-righteous attitude of entitlement that these students deserve whatever rewards they get—this in spite of the fact their parents' income still determines to a great extent where they will go to school and what opportunities they will have.

Chapter 6 turns to the future and to solutions, asking "What Is To Be Done?" Rather than addressing many solutions, however, Delbanco continues to focus attention on more problems: high presidential salaries, the adjunctification of faculties (the "new norm" of the "instructor for hire"), grade inflation, for-profit universities, etc. Rather than focusing on what he sees as unrealistic big solutions (including experiments in Europe of moving towards national and pan national curricula), Delbanco points more to process, arguing that solutions should and will come from folks who are the best informed about the problems and their history.

While informative, Delbanco's book does have some limitations, as will already have been noticed. An important one lies in his primary focus on elite colleges. On one hand, his distinction between colleges and universities, though enabling him to focus on a particular history, nevertheless ends up being confusing and somewhat counterproductive. The two terms (and the realities) are now so intertwined and interchangeable that some of Delbanco's potentially best points are obscured. His distinction, while grounded in history, nevertheless forces an over-generalized binary opposition, providing too stark a contrast between good, or potentially good, undergraduate colleges, and graduate student-focused research universities. He admits that his format requires some over-generalization, but as William Blake (my favorite philosopher of education) liked to say, "to Generalize is to be an Idiot." Too often, readers find Delbanco himself saying, or quoting someone saying, that research universities don't care much about undergraduate education, e.g., Clark Kerr: "Undergraduate education in the large university is more likely to be acceptable than outstanding" (85). While sometimes true, it fortunately tends not to be true for our Montana institutions, and many large universities give far more than lip service to undergrads. Additionally, Delbanco's attention to the ivies, and other "elite" undergraduate institutions seems wrong-headed for his own project. He justifies the focus by suggesting that for better or worse, it has been the history of the ivies that has driven the history of American colleges. But that is only partly true, as he later goes on to admit in his brief history of the land grant public universities, the many other private liberal arts colleges, and two-year schools (which have proliferated enormously). While occasionally problematizing the notion that the "elites" necessarily attract "the brightest and the best," Delbanco's terminology and focus continue to reinforce that this is necessarily the case, while those of us in the many other institutions know that equally bright students attend elsewhere. Further, many of the funding-based problems that Delbanco discusses are far more prevalent and significant at non-ivies, since the latter have been insulated from some of these trends by large endowments. This leads to a certain incoherence in some of Delbanco's discussion.

Nevertheless, the book has many strengths and values, not the least of which is its attention to history and especially the importance, again, of denominationalism in the American college scene, a discussion that won't be found in many books of this type. In addition, his willingness to argue for colleges' need to continue to address issues of value is to be admired, even when we can't all agree as to what those values are. And his articulation of the role of the humanities in helping address these is important—and not just because it resonates with me, a literature professor myself; Delbanco doesn't resign himself to allowing the humanities to be the step-children among institutions where the sciences and their immediate demonstrable outcomes dominate. Additionally, Delbanco doesn't just talk about numbers and data. He actually talks about ideas and books—not just books on education but novels and even poems. While not offering any specific, significant solution to the many problems higher education faces, this really shouldn't be seen as a weakness, since it never really is the book's intent, which is to demonstrate that one can't discuss the future unless one understands, and to some extent values, the past. Certainly we aren't in a position to judge the efficacy of solutions offered by education critics of all stripes if we don't understand the complexity of colleges and universities. And who does? No single group has a privileged viewpoint, which is why, as AAUP guidelines suggest, that "shared governance" is a modern necessity and that decision making at universities must involve constituencies in areas of primary responsibility (viz., faculty for matters of curriculum, etc.). Legislatures, governing boards, taxpayers, parents, students, faculty, administrators, education experts, and critics all have a role to play. But that role is best played when built on informed thinking, which this book generously promulgates. For that alone, it is well worth reading.

[The Montana Professor 23.1, Fall 2012 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]


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