College: What it Was, Is and Should Be

April 11, 2013

Editor’s note: Ben Wildavsky pens a thoughtful review of Andrew Delbanco’s book College: What it Was, Is and Should Be. The following review is reprinted with the permission of AKA Strategy.

At the outset of his deeply informed defense of the value of liberal arts education, Andrew Delbanco, a noted Melville scholar, illustrates one of his central points with a quotation from Moby Dick. When the novel’s narrator famously declares that “a whale ship was my Yale College and my Harvard,” Delbanco observes, “he used the word ‘college’ as the name of the place where (to use our modern formulation) he ‘found himself.’”

“How to Think and How to Choose”

Yet if college is in part a voyage of self discovery, it ought not to be simply a narcissistic extension of adolescence, contends Delbanco, a professor of American Studies and Humanities at Columbia University. At its heart, college is—or should be—about truth-seeking. Quoting an 1850 diary by a student at a Methodist college in Virginia, Delbanco declares that showing students “how to think and how to choose” ought to be the goal of every college. He ticks off a list of the habits of mind that a college should nurture in its students, from a “skeptical discontent with the present, informed by a sense of the past,” to knowledge of science and the arts, to the capacity “to make connections among seemingly disparate phenomena.”

Unfortunately, far too many colleges simply don’t give students anything approaching this kind of education. In College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be, Delbanco traces U.S. higher education from the establishment of religious colleges in Colonial days to the advent of research universities in the nineteenth century to the birth, more recently, of mass access community colleges. He thoughtfully details, among other things, how the goals of college have evolved, what meritocracy in admissions does and doesn’t mean, and how, although access to college has expanded massively, numerous shortcomings remain in the nation’s efforts to make higher education available to more Americans. Along the way, he writes, the meaning of a college education has changed radically.

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Reprinted by permission of AKA Strategy.