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College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be

Copyright Date: 2012
Edition: STU - Student edition
Pages: 264
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    As the commercialization of American higher education accelerates, more and more students are coming to college with the narrow aim of obtaining a preprofessional credential. The traditional four-year college experience-an exploratory time for students to discover their passions and test ideas and values with the help of teachers and peers-is in danger of becoming a thing of the past.

    InCollege, prominent cultural critic Andrew Delbanco offers a trenchant defense of such an education, and warns that it is becoming a privilege reserved for the relatively rich. In describing what a true college education should be, he demonstrates why making it available to as many young people as possible remains central to America's democratic promise.

    In a brisk and vivid historical narrative, Delbanco explains how the idea of college arose in the colonial period from the Puritan idea of the gathered church, how it struggled to survive in the nineteenth century in the shadow of the new research universities, and how, in the twentieth century, it slowly opened its doors to women, minorities, and students from low-income families. He describes the unique strengths of America's colleges in our era of globalization and, while recognizing the growing centrality of science, technology, and vocational subjects in the curriculum, he mounts a vigorous defense of a broadly humanistic education for all. Acknowledging the serious financial, intellectual, and ethical challenges that all colleges face today, Delbanco considers what is at stake in the urgent effort to protect these venerable institutions for future generations.

    In a new afterword, Delbanco responds to recent developments-both ominous and promising-in the changing landscape of higher education.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-6614-4
    Subjects: Education

Table of Contents

  1. Preface to the Paperback Edition
    (pp. xi-xvi)
    (pp. 1-8)

    Imagine a list of American innovations that would convey some sense of our nation’s distinctiveness in the world. Depending on the list-maker’s mood, it might include the atom bomb,jazz,the constitutional rights of criminal defendants, abstract expressionism, baseball, the thirty-year fixed rate mortgage, and fast food. Everyone would have a different version; but unless it included the American college, it would be glaringly incomplete.

    At least in a vague way, we all know this. Americans, particularly those in or aspiring to the middle class, talk about college all the time—from the toddler’s first standardized test, through the nail-biting...

    (pp. 9-35)

    One of the peculiarities of the teaching life is that every year the teacher gets older while the students stay the same age. Each fall when classes resume, I am reminded of the ancient Greek story of a kindly old couple who invite two strangers into their modest home for a meal. No matter how much the hosts drink, by some mysterious trick their goblets remain full even though no one pours more wine. Eventually, the guests reveal themselves as gods who have performed a little miracle to express their thanks. So it goes in college: every fall the teacher...

    (pp. 36-66)

    The assumption that young adults should pass through a period of higher education before entering a life of commerce or service is, of course, much older than the United States and older, too, than the English colonies that became the United States. Aristotle identified the years between puberty and age twenty-one as the formative time for mind and character, and it was customary for young Greek men to attend a series of lectures that resembled our notion of a college “course.” In Augustan Rome, gatherings of students under instruction by settled teachers took on some of the attributes we associate...

    (pp. 67-101)

    Nearly a century after the first English settlement at Jamestown, and eighty years after the “pilgrims” landed at Plymouth, there were still only two colleges in the American colonies, Harvard (founded in 1636) in the north, and William and Mary (1693) in the upper south. Between the outset of the eighteenth century and the outbreak of the Revolution, the number grew to nine, with New England, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania accounting for all the growth. The two oldest colleges were joined by Yale (1701); The College of New Jersey (1746), which became Princeton University in 1896; King’s College...

    (pp. 102-124)

    The modern university was an entirely new entity—in part an educational institution focused on graduate and professional training, but in larger part a research enterprise driven by science. Where, in this house of many mansions, was the college? Did it—does it—still exist as a place of guided self-discovery for young people in search of themselves?

    One way of coming at this question was suggested around a century ago by Max Weber, who, not long before Sinclair Lewis invented “Winnemac,” proposed a distinction between two “polar opposites of types of education.” The types he had in mind correspond...

    (pp. 125-149)

    Despite the unpalatable facts that I’ve just reviewed, the word often used today to describe people who succeed in getting into and through college, especially our most selective and prestigious colleges, is “meritocracy”—a name for those who get to the top because they are intelligent, hardworking, and ambitious. It’s a word with an interesting genealogy. It sounds as if it were derived from the ancient Greek along with such words as “aristocracy” or “oligarchy,” but in fact it is little more than fifty years old, coined in 1958 by an English social critic named Michael Young, who meant it...

    (pp. 150-178)

    I have tried in this book to tell a story of ideas and institutions while keeping people—students, teachers, academic leaders—at the forefront of the tale. I did not want to stick to any one of the genres to which such a story usually conforms—jeremiad (invoking the past to shame the present), elegy (gone are the greats of yesteryear), call to arms (do this or that and we will be saved)—so the result, no doubt, is a messy mixture of them all.

    In fact, if there is one form to which most recent writing about college belongs,...

  9. Afterword to the New Paperback Edition
    (pp. 179-186)

    The scant three years since this book first appeared have sometimes felt like a chronic emergency. Every type of institution in our country—political, financial, medical, religious, legal, educational—has been declared broken or on the verge of breakdown, and, with every passing year, college is more likely to show up on the critical list.

    We’re told that college is a waste of time, that it fails young people by putting them on a “party track,” or burns them out, or narrows their imagination, or, like some predatory mortgage broker, makes false promises and leaves them with crippling debt. Everyone...