Mark Bao's Reviews > College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be

College by Andrew Delbanco
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's review
May 14, 2015

really liked it

Hot-iron review, to be revised with a more complete one when I go through it again in a few weeks. — A solid look into college and how it has progressed over time, and the key challenges today with college. The main thing that Delbanco argues is that college is moving away from the key points that made it a useful institution, mainly, that it serves as a "mid-point" for students to transition into real-world life. We are losing that: with a more vocational (technical-skills) focus, movement away from the liberal arts ideal, adjunct professors, and the growing costs of college, the institution is becoming sort of a shadow of its former self.

Delbanco does not try to extensively describe why a liberal education matters—this sort of question is better addressed by the 'soft skills, hard skills' approach that Fareed Zakaria takes in In Defense of a Liberal Education —but he does make the common argument that liberal/humanistic education is pretty much the only one that can make us think about the harder questions of life, ethics, and meaning, questions that science cannot, and usually does not attempt to answer (save for some future consilience event in neuroscience, he says).

The interesting thing that Delbanco does is that he ties these ideals back to the Puritan roots of college: that college should be a place where character and self-questioning is developed, and that our external condition, be it wealth or credentials, say nothing about the "inward condition of the soul," and that college was a place to nurture this sort of thing. Yet, today, admissions and other programs are bogged down with legacy, athlete scholarships, the sway of money, the "new Jews" of Asian-Americans (at elite colleges) and low-income students.

Many of these changes to the system of college are rooted in economics on both sides. On the student side, many see college as a gateway to a career and not so much as the sort of 'development ground' like before, and many are anxious to turn the college investment into some sort of credential that can be leveraged for a job. On the institutional side, colleges, with less public support, growing costs, and lots of other complicated things, are highly inclined to cut departments, reduce costs, and selective colleges have to try to balance the dual ideals of admitting an equitable set of students (including lower-performing low-income ones) while also rewarding educational performance, with less-endowed colleges having to reach to more wealthy out-of-state or out-of-country students to stay in the black. These are all very complicated problems, as is evident though Delbanco's analysis.

Finally and most importantly, undergraduate education is given very little attention in research universities. Faculty are judged by their research ability, not their ability to teach. PhD students are admitted on the same scale. Faculty at Columbia in particular rarely meet to discuss the undergraduate education, and undergraduates rarely have a seat at the table in university considerations. The beneficial innovations to the classroom have mostly been driven by teachers that care—outside of any systems of evaluation (which rarely take the quality of undergraduate education into consideration), and thus outside of any desire for a raise or promotion.

All in all, Delbanco portrays a system of college that has lost its way, but still has motivated students inside the system that are trying their best. He portrays a number of solutions, none of which seem totally new, and many of which require a lot of investment. The key point is that these are very complex problems that have to do with internal problems, economics, and mismatched incentives.

I'm only focusing in on a few things that stuck out to me, but he also talks about a lot of other things—rigid curriculums vs. free-flowing, for example. I generally liked the book, but I think it would have been better if it were tied together a bit better—the wide area of analysis was good, but it could have done with a bit more consolidation. I think I learned a few new things, but for the most part, I learned the background and additional detail behind realities that I already thought were true (mismatched incentives, neglect of the undergraduate education, movement from the humanities to the sciences, etc.) Missing from it was also how to get students and others to care about liberal education, since that is a key problem by itself that provides the basis of why we should maintain the institution of college despite challenges. It did make me want to sign up for the year-long Western Literature class at my school, though, since he makes the point that they bring up very personal questions of character and conduct that we see in ourselves through the characters in those books.
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Reading Progress

May 14, 2015 – Started Reading
May 14, 2015 –
May 14, 2015 – Shelved
May 15, 2015 –
May 16, 2015 – Finished Reading

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