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ON THE SHELF - Reviewed by Robin Tatu

ON THE SHELFWhy Education Matters

A humanities scholar builds a persuasive case for learning for the sake of learning.

College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be

By Andrew Delbanco, Princeton University Press 2012, 229 pages

In this slender volume, author Andrew Delbanco offers an eloquent and persuasive argument for the importance of a liberal arts education. At a time when others are challenging the so-called economic viability of a college diploma – or even, like mega entrepreneur Peter Thiel, offering money to bright kids to drop out – Delbanco seeks to remind us of the enduring existential value of higher education; of its ability to enrich experience, deepen intellectual ability, and enhance one’s own humanity.

To build this seemingly lofty case, Delbanco, a longtime humanities professor at Columbia University, revisits the origins of American higher education. The earliest colleges established in the Colonies, he tells us, were closely connected to the religious principles of their chartering churches or heavily influenced by clergymen, who served as the principal instructors (think: Harvard, William and Mary, Yale, Princeton, and Brown). Puritan belief in the moral uplift of postsecondary education continued to resonate in the 19th century, when Ralph Waldo Emerson expressed that “the whole secret of the teacher’s force lies in the conviction that men are convertible” and awaiting “awakening.”

Yet those few young people fortunate enough to receive such schooling were expected to put their experience into the service of society. And while belief in the “spiritual authority” of college has long since dwindled, Delbanco believes that the transformative potential of education should be recognized – and nurtured.

Although his experience clearly lies more with select schools, such as his alma mater, Harvard, and home institution, Columbia, Delbanco is no snob. Nor is he unrealistic about what higher ed has become, the topic that concerns the second half of this book. He not only examines the current crushing financial burden of college on ordinary families but also digs into hypocrisies of “blind admissions,” university sports programs, and a trending shift toward students who don’t need financial aid. Consider that the majority of students who land at selective colleges based on academic achievement are from well-heeled families who can afford to finance tutors, SAT prep courses, and personal advisers, he writes.

Delbanco addresses myriad troubling realities about education today, including a growing presence of foreign students, who may soon outnumber Americans on campus. The reality is that foreigners provide U.S. institutions with much-needed financial support and skills – but how does their increased number affect American students, and American achievement? While his solutions are few and he does not attempt to be comprehensive in his discussion, Delbanco offers serious exploration of issues. He also floats some intriguing propositions, such as core curriculum seminars – as professors conduct at Columbia – that encourage students to reflect upon their shared academic experience. He staunchly rejects the idea that such engagement is the privilege of an elite few, excoriating a former director of the for-profit University of Phoenix for suggesting that sitting down and thinking is “very expensive… not everyone can do that.”

Engineering is given scant notice in this book, yet science and technology educators should read Delbanco to deliberate upon his conception of what college should be: “an aid to reflection, a place and process whereby young people take stock of their talents and passions and begin to sort out their lives in a way that is true to themselves and responsible to others.” Engineering educators and students alike may recognize in that description the very core of their commitment to the field – the belief that applications of science can help create a better world.

Ultimately for Delbanco, college is important not just because it helps one develop “a well-functioning bull**** meter,” but also because it is a place, in the words of Judith Shapiro, former president of Barnard, where one can work to ensure that “the inside of your head [will be] an interesting place to spend the rest of your life.” An inspiring message, indeed.


Robin Tatu is Prism’s senior editorial consultant.


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