Jim Cullen: Review of Andrew Delbanco's "College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be" (Princeton, 2012)





Jim Cullen, who teaches at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York, is a book review editor at HNN. His new book, Sensing the Past: Hollywood Stars and Historical Visions, will be published by Oxford University Press in January. Cullen blogs at American History Now.

Toward the end of this succinctly-titled book, American studies scholar Andrew Delbanco explains that he tried to avoid traditional typologies in rendering his story: it is neither a jeremiad, an elegy, or a call to arms. Nor, he says, does it conform to the most common type of writings about the state of liberal arts colleges today: the funeral dirge. Actually, the rhetorical form that most closely matches what he's doing here is History. The book is a meditation on the past, its relationship with the present, and how both may inform what may, for better and worse, yet be.

A truly interesting history of just about anything is going to affirm continuity and change. One of the more striking aspects of this book is the way that many of the things we think of as innovations, even improvements, in the traditional college experience are really quite old. Financial aid, efforts to diversify demographically, growth in the size and range of the curriculum: these trends are at least one hundred fifty years old, and recent developments are really more quantitative than qualitative. Conversely, many of the less attractive aspects of college life have not disappeared, and have even intensified: economic inequality, discrimination (Asians have replaced Jews as the new "problem") and vague standards of admissions "quality" that accrue largely to the benefit those who are already privileged.

According to Delbanco, the main difference between what liberal arts colleges used to be and what they now are is a religious one -- or, more accurately, the disappearance of religion, and the attendant moral vision, that once went along with it. As he notes, this is not an altogether bad thing: all kinds of bigotry and exclusion attached to it. But if there was a saving grace in the origins of most elite colleges, it was in their Calvinist-tinged assumption that one's status was a God-given gift, the rendering of which neither fully understandable nor earned by human beings. This precept secularized into the concept of noblesse oblige, evident in places like Harvard's Memorial Hall, where a truly striking proportion of undergraduates fought, died, or were injured in the Civil War, or in the efforts of WASPs like Kingman Brewster to shatter the old-boys network at Yale and usher in an affirmative action order. What has replaced it, he says, is meritocracy, which, for all its strengths does little to engender humility or responsibility on the part of its beneficiaries. Delbanco is not alone in making this point; writers from Michael Lind to Nicholas Lemann also noted the less lovely side of meritocracy (British writer Michael Young critiqued it in his strikingly prescient 1958 novel The Rise of the Meritocracy, 1870-2033, which Delbanco analyzes here). But he does so deftly and resonantly.

Today, Delbanco suggests, the nation's elite colleges (which includes universities like Columbia and Chicago, which have strong undergraduate divisions) find themselves more prosperous than ever -- and more anxious than ever. The amenities are almost literally fabulous. But atomized by faculty with limited loyalty to teaching or their institutions, addicted to donations by corporate interests who place primacy on remunerative applications of information, and lacking a vision by which to evaluate questions that neither lend themselves to scientific calculation nor monetary value, our elite schools are adrift. The best way to begin fixing this problem would be to begin with a constituency that is sometimes forgotten as anything other than a source of revenue: students. Assessing where they are, what they need, and what we can expect of them would be important first steps in reaffirming the social compact that was once their source and justification. To which I say: Amen.


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