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College: ‘The Best Rehearsal Spaces We Have for Democracy’

May 22, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
In "College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be," Columbia University professor Andrew Delbanco presents a biting defense of a traditional four-year college experience with a liberal arts education -- as opposed to a pre-professional training experience increasingly popular in a tough economy. Jeffrey Brown hosts the conversation.

GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight, as students line up to receive diplomas and head out in search of work in a tough economy, we turn to one author’s assessment of the value of a college education.

Jeffrey Brown recorded this book conversation earlier this month.

JEFFREY BROWN: On the one hand, an article of faith, a college education is a goal to be sought for all Americans; on the other, a growing question, is college still worth it?

A new book looks at this great and troubled institution. It’s titled “College: What it Was, Is and Should Be.”

Author Andrew Delbanco is a professor at Columbia University. His many books include a biography of Herman Melville, and last year he was awarded a National Humanities Medal by President Obama.

And welcome to you.

ANDREW DELBANCO, professor, Columbia University: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, you make a case in this book that something has been lost, or at least in danger of being lost, even a kind of moral center for our colleges. How do you define the problem?

ANDREW DELBANCO: Well, I think we want to remember that through much of our history, a very small percentage of the college-age population went to college.

And for those people, either they didn’t need a job or they had a job waiting for them. College wasn’t so much an institution for preparing people for the marketplace, but it was an institution for helping them discover who they were.

In fact, I’d say that the American college which we take for granted is actually a unique institution in the world of higher education. In most countries, the relatively small number of people who go on to university are expected to know what they’re after, what they’re good at, what their competence is.

In our country, we have always wanted to believe that there might be a chance for young people between adolescence and adulthood to take some time to reflect, to discover who they are.

JEFFREY BROWN: So your sense is that we’ve lost this place of exploration, I think, or we’re losing that sense, and turning more towards a kind of credentialing, utilitarian. . .

ANDREW DELBANCO: It’s not lost, but I think it’s under threat from many directions. And much of that is understandable. The anxiety that parents feel about the cost of colleges. . .

JEFFREY BROWN: I will say. You could hear somebody saying right away, right, but it costs so much.

ANDREW DELBANCO: It’s a well-placed anxiety.

And the anxiety that young people feel, especially those who are trying to get into selective colleges, what’s this going to do for me, what’s it’s going to be about, all of that is understandable. But I don’t think it should be an either-or. I don’t think colleges should be expected exclusively to provide sort of job training services, though they should graduate students with competence and with the ability to read and to write clearly and to think and to work hard.

But they should also try their best to preserve this space for self-reflection that has been so important to us.

JEFFREY BROWN: Part of the focus of this book, of course, is that the most elite schools, which is where you’re coming from, but also you’re making a case for a much broader sector, the entire educational sector?


I think so much of the conversation is about a small handful of institutions. And that’s understandable on a number of scores. And we want to remember that most college teachers are trained in research universities, so that small group of highly esteemed research universities is important.

But, of course, the glory of the American education system is its breadth and its diversity. And we have an enormous number of different kinds of institutions. The community colleges are every bit as important for the future of our country as the Harvards and the Yales.

JEFFREY BROWN: One of the pieces of the economic puzzle that you point to as a problem today is access to schools, that the better off you are, the far greater chance you have of getting into especially top schools.

So, is there less upward mobility now? You’re making a case that this problem is exacerbating economic and social divisions in the country.

ANDREW DELBANCO: I think that’s right.

I mean, it’s one of the glorious stories of American civilization that we opened up the opportunity for college to an unprecedented number of young people, much more widely than any society ever had done before. That story, I think, is slowing, it’s stalled, it may even have gone into reverse. And we don’t acknowledge this frankly as we should how steep the barriers are for kids who come from families that are struggling economically.

JEFFREY BROWN: And so what’s happening? What do you see happening? A division?

ANDREW DELBANCO: I see a stratification of the higher education system.

I see in the elite, selective colleges a much too high percentages of students from affluent families. And I see too many resources going in that direction and too few resources going to the institutions that serve low-income students and children of immigrants and first-generation college-goers.

JEFFREY BROWN: How much do you blame the top-echelon colleges themselves?

I note — I went back. During the campaign, Rick Santorum made a statement about calling colleges indoctrination mills. You wrote an op-ed piece. And, of course, you didn’t agree with him on that, but you pointed out that there is a — I think you used the word smugness, a certain smugness on the part of elite schools.

ANDREW DELBANCO: Well, I didn’t agree with him. And I thought he misrepresented President Obama to some degree.

But I don’t like the rhetoric that greets the incoming class at the most selective institutions, which is almost invariably, you are the best ever. And it encourages young people — a lot of them resist it. There are a lot of wonderful students at these institution, but it encourages them to think that, well, I must be better than all those thousands who didn’t get in.

I think that’s a bad message. And I think there are reasons for the winners to doubt that they won altogether because of their own virtue and merit.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, what would you do? What would you — even a single thing to improve college, given that we have only touched on some of the problems that you raise here?

ANDREW DELBANCO: I don’t have a sweeping answer to that. And that’s going to disappoint some readers of my book.

But I think every institution has to tackle this on its own terms. One of the glories, as I said, of our system is that it’s not really a system. Every institution has a different constituency, different alumni, different cultural values.

But I think that we want to keep in mind as firmly as we can and we want to defend this historical function of the American college, which is to help students discover themselves and to become citizens, not just competent employees, but thoughtful citizens. And that includes self-criticism.

There are ways to do that by, I think notably, having those students participate in classes which are, in my mind, the best rehearsal spaces we have for democracy. The college classroom should be a place where students learn to speak with civility, to listen with respect to each other, to know the difference between an argument based on evidence and an opinion, and most of all to realize that they might walk into the room with one point of view and they might walk out with another.

That adds up to a certain kind of humility. And I think all of our colleges have the responsibility to try to inculcate that as much as possible.

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course, most of the rhetoric one hears from politicians, the president included, as well as parents sitting around their tables now trying to figure out how they’re going to pay for this, is that there’s got to be something at the other end, right?


JEFFREY BROWN: It’s got to lead to something that benefits my daughter or son and, most of all, it’s put in economic, job terms.

ANDREW DELBANCO: Yes. And the economic argument is indisputable. We need a competitive population in the global knowledge economy. The evidence is clear that young people who go to college even for a year or two tend to do better than people who don’t.

But the argument for democracy is, I think, at least as important.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, we are going to continue this conversation online. And I’m going to invite our viewers to join us there later on.

But, for now, Andrew Delbanco’s new book is “College: What It Was, Is and Should Be.”

Thanks so much.