Are Colleges As We Know Them Endangered?

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Andrew Delbanco teaches humanities at Columbia University and he says college is in many ways an endangered institution — threatened by many forces including high costs and globalization.

State schools are dealing with cutbacks in funding from state governments and faculty at research universities are pressured to publish research and academic papers — which can result in less time for teaching undergraduates.

But what's also happening is that students are turning away from the humanities, which Delbanco sees as a problem.

Instead of studying literature, philosophy, history and the arts, a significant percentage of students opt to major in fields that will give them more marketable skills in the current job market: Think computer science, information technology, and engineering.

"[Young people] are forced too early by their parents, by society at large... to pick an identity-- 'This is who I am, this is the vocation I'm preparing for.'"

Andrew Delbanco, author and professor

And as Delbanco argues in his new book, "College: What It Was, Is, And Should Be," (excerpted below) these factors are changing the focus of colleges.

Here's what he thinks college should be.

Principle 1 Of American Colleges: A Time Of Exploration

Delbanco says the American college has long been a place where young adults can reflect on who they are and what kind of life they want.

"That implies the opportunity to explore subjects that they may never have encountered, to find out what they're good at, to take risks and fail and not have those failures haunt them for the rest of their lives," Delbanco told Here & Now's Sacha Pfeiffer. "These are assumptions that are built into the American idea of college."

This contrasts with many other countries, where students are expected to know what they want to study by the time they enter a university. Delbanco says American students increasingly turn to this mold.

"They're forced too early by their parents, by society at large... to pick an identity, 'This is who I am, this is the vocation I'm preparing for,'" Delbanco said.

Principle 2 of American Colleges: Students Can Learn From Each Other

Another idea embodied in the American college is that students don't just learn from their instructors, Delbanco argues.

“We cannot have a democracy without an educated citizenry... that can tell the difference between demagoguery and serious leadership."

Andrew Delbanco, author and professor

"This is the idea that you join a community because you have something to bring to it," he said.

The concept held true in the 17th century and implied a certain kind of diversity-- and not necessarily racial diversity, Delbanco says.

"All the students at New England colleges had more or less the same color skin and similar genealogies, but there was this implicit idea that in order for a college to be a real learning community you wanted students who are different from one another," he said.

Principle 3 Of American Colleges: Preparing For Democracy

Delbanco agrees that an educated population is crucial for competition in the global marketplace.

But he says another, often neglected argument, is equally important.

"We cannot have a democracy without an educated citizenry," he said. "We must have a citizenry that can tell the difference between demagoguery and serious leadership. That can tell the difference between arguments and opinions," he said.

"An ideal college classroom is a place where students learn to speak civilly to one another, to listen to one another respectfully, and they learn that it's possible that they're going to walk in with one point of view and they're going to walk out with another- or at least with a curiosity about another point of view," he said.

"That's the kind of rehearsal space for democracy, and we need as much of that as we can possibly get."


Book Excerpt: 'College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be'

By: Andrew Delbanco

Imagine a list of American innovations that would convey some sense of our nation’s distinctiveness in the world. Depending on the list-maker’s mood, it might include the atom bomb, jazz, the constitutional rights of criminal defendants, abstract expressionism, baseball, the thirty-year fixed rate mortgage, and fast food. Everyone would have a different version; but unless it included the American college, it would be glaringly incomplete.

At least in a vague way, we all know this. Americans, particularly those in or aspiring to the middle class, talk about college all the time—from the toddler’s first standardized test, through the nail-biting day when the good or bad news arrives from the admissions office, to the “yellow, bald, toothless meetings in memory of red cheeks, black hair, and departed health,” as Ralph Waldo Emerson described his twentieth college reunion nearly two centuries ago (men aged more quickly in those days). The best week of the year for your local news vendor is probably the week U.S. News & World Report comes out with its annual college rankings issue. Rival publications from Playboy to Princeton Review peddle their own lists of best party colleges, best “green” colleges, best for minorities, best for cost versus value, and, of course, their versions of the best of the best. If you Google the word “college”—even if you screen out such irrelevancies as “electoral college” or “college of cardinals”—you run the risk of overloading your computer. When I tried it not long ago, I got 52,800,000 hits.

Most of the chatter does little, however, to answer the question of what a good college is or ought to be. In fact, the criteria we use to assess the quality of a college—number of publications by its faculty, size of endowment, selectivity in admissions, rate of alumni giving, even graduation rates—tell very little about what it does for its students. In a New Yorker article not long ago, Malcolm Gladwell pointed out that faculty compensation, which is one standard measure of college quality, may actually have an inverse relation to faculty engagement in teaching—since the best-paid professors are likely to be at research universities, where undergraduate teaching tends to be a sideline activity.

Yet we use the terms “college” and “university” interchangeably. “She went to Michigan,” we say, or “he goes to Oberlin”— not bothering with the noun that follows the name, as if a college and a university were the same thing. They are not. They are, to be sure, interconnected (most college teachers nowadays hold an advanced university degree), and a college may exist as a division or “school” within a university. But a college and a university have—or should have—different purposes. The former is about transmitting knowledge of and from the past to undergraduate students so they may draw upon it as a living resource in the future. The latter 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.

Both of these are worthy aims, and sometimes they converge, as when a college student works with a scholar or scientist doing “cutting-edge” or “groundbreaking” research—terms of praise that would have been incomprehensible before the advent of the modern university. More often, however, these purposes come into competition if not conflict, especially as one moves up the ladder of prestige. As the man who created one of the world’s great universities, the University of California, acknowledged with unusual honesty, “a superior faculty results in an inferior concern for undergraduate teaching.” It has been nearly fifty years since Clark Kerr identified this “cruel paradox” as “one of our more pressing problems.” Today it is more pressing than ever.

But what, exactly, is at stake in college, and why should it matter how much or little goes on there? At its core, a college should be a place where young people find help for navigating the territory between adolescence and adulthood. It should provide guidance, but not coercion, for students trying to cross that treacherous terrain on their way toward self-knowledge. It should help them develop certain qualities of mind and heart requisite for reflective citizenship. Here is my own attempt at reducing these qualities to a list, in no particular order of priority, since they are inseparable from one another:

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.

These habits of thought and feeling are hard to attain and harder to sustain. They cannot be derived from exclusive study of the humanities, the natural sciences, or the social sciences and they cannot be fully developed solely by academic study, no matter how well “distributed” or “rounded.” It is absurd to imagine them as commodities to be purchased by and delivered to student consumers. Ultimately they make themselves known not in grades or examinations but in the way we live our lives.

Still, encouraging and fostering them should be among the aims of a college education, and in the pages that follow I will have critical things to say about how well we are doing at meeting this responsibility. I have been reluctant, however, to join the hue and cry that the condition of our colleges is dire. Everywhere, and all the time—or so, at least, it seems—we hear about “administrative bloat, overpriced tuition, overpaid teachers, decadent facilities, and subpar educational experiences.” This cry of crisis is very old. As early as 1776, Abigail Adams was writing to her husband that college students “complain that their professor . . . is taken off by public business to their great detriment,” and that education has “never been in a worse state.” More than a century later, the president of Stanford University declared that “the most pressing problem in American higher education is the care of underclassmen, the freshmen and sophomores.” It would not be difficult to compile a list of similar laments stretching from the colonial period into the present.

So anyone who writes about the state of our colleges today has a boy-who-cried-wolf problem. But that does not mean that the wolf is not at the door. The American college is going through a period of wrenching change, buffeted by forces—globalization; economic instability; the ongoing revolution in information technology; the increasingly evident inadequacy of K–12 education; the elongation of adolescence; the breakdown of faculty tenure as an academic norm; and, perhaps most important, the collapse of consensus about what students should know—that make its task more difficult and contentious than ever before.

Excerpted from College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be by Andrew Delbanco. Copyright © 2012 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission.


  • Andrew Delbanco, Mendelson Family Chair of American Studies and Julian Clarence Levi Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University, author of "College: What It Was. Os, And Should Be"

This segment aired on April 25, 2012.


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