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“The college idea still has the power to motivate young adults more than any other form of education we know”—so says Andrew Delbanco in College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be (Princeton University Press, 2012). In America, the college and what is now known as the university are often housed under the same roof and treated interchangeably, but Delbanco emphasizes that they are distinct entities. In fact, the college idea has persisted despite its displacement, and near replacement, by the research idea that is central to universities. One of the virtues of Delbanco’s book is that he sees this distinction clearly. “A college and a university have—or should have—different purposes,” Delbanco writes. Colleges pass down old knowledge; universities create new.

The college is, Delbanco argues, distinctively American. The notion that the late teens are a particularly formative age goes back to the Greeks, but this educational idea was given a particular institutional structure in England and then developed—and, crucially, democratized—in America.

And if early American colleges are often portrayed (as the historian Richard Hofstadter memorably put it) as “precarious little institutions, denomination-ridden, poverty-stricken, keeping dubious educational standards,” Delbanco, unlike most historians of higher education, describes their virtues at least as enthusiastically as their detractors deride them.

What principles animated these little schools, and what purpose did they serve?

The American college dates back to Harvard, which persisted alone for more than fifty years in the British colonies before it was joined by William & Mary and Yale at the end of the seventeenth century. Religion dominated the curriculum (Harvard was founded as a school for the ministry), but not to the complete exclusion of subjects like logic, ethics, geometry, history and natural philosophy. The point was for students to learn to see that what Jonathan Edwards called “the university of things” represented a single truth, as it was the product of a single God. A senior-year course on moral philosophy, usually taught by the college president, served as the culmination of the four years. There is, this curriculum implied, a sort of order to the world, and therefore also a series of studies that can help us make sense of it.

Harvard’s roots can be traced to a single Cambridge college, Emmanuel College, which was a Puritan stronghold in the seventeenth century and supplied more than one-fifth of the college graduates who came to New England in the 1630s. (Hence Cambridge, Massachusetts, whose name was changed from New Towne in 1638.) The Cambridge colleges, like those at Oxford, resembled cloisters; a gate kept the world out, and a great hall fostered exchange within. Teaching and preaching were, for Puritans, closely related activities, linked through their association with a “mysterious force” which the Puritans called grace. The operation of God’s grace leads some Church members to feel themselves drawn suddenly closer to God, just as a similarly intangible force can cause a student to stare rapt at the teacher, his education at least for the moment taking the form of a deep inner change.

These central features of the old religious college—curriculum, community, grace—satisfied the student’s yearning to understand the world and to find his place in it. Perhaps most importantly, college gave students a sense of purpose, and a sense of responsibility to the broader community, which they would re-enter upon graduation. Delbanco insists that, as far as student expectations are concerned, not much has changed in the past few hundred years, diversity and technology notwithstanding: “Now, as then, most students have no clear conception of why or to what end they are in college. Some students have always been aimless, bored, or confused; others self-possessed, with their eyes on the prize. Most are in between, looking for something to care about.” What has changed is the college itself, and its sense of responsibility to its students.

Two parallel and mutually reinforcing developments transformed American higher education in the last third of the nineteenth century. The first was the rise of electives, associated most strongly with Harvard and its long-serving president, Charles W. Eliot, who took office in 1869 and stayed for forty years. The second was specialization, represented by newly founded universities with graduate schools, like Johns Hopkins, which opened in 1876. The changes started at Harvard and Hopkins, and quickly spread to the rest of the higher education system.

Both developments were the result of a new emphasis on scientific research, imported from Germany by the thousands of American students who traveled to Berlin, Göttingen, and other German universities in the nineteenth century. The new research-oriented professors concentrated on narrower subjects than their old generalist colleagues while at the same time increasing, through their research, the number of subjects that could be taught. By the 1890s, nearly all college faculties had been divided into subject-based departments (like English or History); most top colleges had added research-oriented graduate programs; and some schools required no more than freshman English and perhaps a foreign language before students were free to accumulate credits as they saw fit. The research university has been so successful in America and around the world that we now see it as the norm.

But electives and specialization undermined two key aspects of the old college. The first, and most obvious, was the prescribed curriculum and its implication of an ordered world. The basic principle behind the elective system, as Eliot put it in 1885, is that “a well-instructed youth of eighteen can select for himself … a better course of study than any college faculty.” Yet even a glancing acquaintance with the current campus situation suggests that most college students just pick courses that sound interesting, or satisfy requirements most easily; looking back, they often think it might have been useful, at that age, to have someone older tell them what to study and what to read. Colleges today have given up this responsibility to their students: as Delbanco says, “most are unwilling even to tell them what’s worth thinking about.”

The second aspect of the old college that was undermined by specialization was the sense of community and common purpose that had animated the older colleges. With faculty split into separate departments, each pursuing its own ends, professors now tend to identify more with their fellow historians or biologists across the country than with the economists across the quad. And without any common courses to bring students together, learning becomes an independent, individualized activity that takes place only in the classroom. “As a significant reality in the contemporary landscape of higher education,” Delbanco writes, “the university as community barely exists.”

Electives and specialization worked against the old fixed curriculum and the college community, but they were enabled by an even greater change in American higher education: its expansion and democratization. More students in the late nineteenth century meant there could be more professors teaching a wider variety of courses—and those courses would have tuition-paying bodies in the seats. The democratization process actually began before the Civil War, with the proliferation of hundreds of small sectarian colleges, then continued in the late nineteenth century with the founding of new universities and the start of some women’s and black colleges. But the main explosion came in the decades after World War II. Fewer than a quarter-million Americans, or two percent of the college-aged population, attended college at the start of the twentieth century; a number that rose to more than two million by the end of World War II, nearly ten million (roughly one-third of the college-aged population) in 1975, and about eighteen million today. By the late 1940s, as a character in Arthur Miller’s All My Sons says, you could “stand on a streetcorner and spit, and you’re liable to hit a college man.”

The democratization of college in America is, for Delbanco, central to what makes the college distinctively American: everyone should have a shot. That’s why he’s so diligent, after giving the progressive story of expanding opportunity, to show the various ways we’ve stalled or slid backward in the past twenty or thirty years. State investment in public universities has declined so much that some schools, like the University of Virginia, which now gets only 8 percent of its funding from the state, have become basically private. Growth in need-based aid is being outpaced by growth in merit scholarships, which tend to go to students who don’t much need the help. The result is that colleges “have lately been reinforcing more than ameliorating the disparity of wealth and opportunity in American society,” making them more like schools for aristocracy than schools for democracy.

But the deeper problem, according to Delbanco, is that, even if it were fully implemented, the democratization of higher education, with its attendant emphasis on merit, would actually work against the idea of grace. In theory, at least, we now operate in a meritocratic system in which test scores and grades are what get you into college, not skin color or religion or wealth. But this system corrodes the sense of community and civic duty which is necessary to hold a diverse democracy together. What Delbanco is too gentle to say in his own words is that college graduates today think they’re better people than those who don’t go to college, and as a result feel little sense of responsibility to their community or country. As an older sociologist once berated Delbanco (who went to Harvard in the early 1970s) over breakfast, “You and your whole generation are the smuggest, most self-satisfied in the history of the republic. You figured you had earned what you got, whereas when Jack Kennedy went to Harvard, he knew he was there because of his daddy’s money—and when he got out, he felt he ought to give something back!” “Our oldest colleges,” Delbanco laments, “have abandoned the cardinal principle out of which they arose: the principle that no human being deserves anything based on his or her merit.”

To Delbanco’s credit, he eschews a straight celebration of the old college and demonization of the new, admitting that the research university and the democratization of college have been real gains. It is possible in any age to find students and professors who don’t care, just as it’s always possible to find students and professors who are utterly devoted to what they’re doing. Yet Delbanco is willing to assert that there’s a near-palpable “sense of drift” in college life today—which he attributes to the decline of the fixed curriculum (which told students what was worth knowing), the college community (which taught responsibility), and the Puritan concept of grace (which reinforced a sense of civic duty).

Of course, the college idea has not been left entirely behind. In the early decades of the twentieth century, several growing universities, led by the likes of Harvard and Columbia, enacted a series of reforms to preserve something resembling the old college: Yale started its colleges to recreate the small community of the old college; places like Chicago and (most radically) St. John’s designed a core curriculum that all students had to take. Some schools retreated from the elective system, creating small honors programs to foster community and general education requirements that said what all students, at a minimum, ought to know. Delbanco, who teaches at Columbia, thinks that these changes were for the good and that they continue to provide something like a true college experience for those who pass through them. But he doesn’t seem to have much faith that they’ll succeed in bringing back the most important aspects of the older ideal.

When I was in college (within the last decade), I had the great good fortune to find a true college, in the sense that Delbanco means, tucked away within the larger institutional structure of my school. Two or three dozen of us met twice a week, under the guidance of someone who was technically just an untenured, adjunct professor, to talk about political philosophy. Anyone could come to this series of courses; often some of us had to sit on the floor because there weren’t enough desks. Class never had any agenda other than free discussion—the professor started each period by saying, “Open floor”—but the questions we asked generally circled around one central concern: What is justice?

We weren’t asking about justice in the narrow sense of what should be legal, but rather in the broader yet also more intimate sense of what obligations we, as humans, owed to ourselves, our families, our friends and our communities, and how we might deal with the inevitable conflicts that would arise between those obligations. Whether or not we knew it at the time, we were trying to figure out how a person should live. In a quaint touch that added egalitarianism and earnestness to the endeavor, we addressed each other as Mr. Lundin or Ms. Watkins: in class we were all the same, no matter what friendships or other activities we had going on outside.

“A whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard,” Ishmael says in Moby Dick. He’s telling us about the nature of whaling—it provides an education; it turns boys into men—but also about the nature of college. It’s a community of fairly young people engaged in a nearly religious search for something higher, be it a white whale or wisdom. (An older, slightly crazy person is usually leading the way.) My own experience makes me tend to believe Delbanco when he suggests, as a primary solution to the problems facing the American college, that “faculty must care.” No deep, systemic change is necessarily needed for it to happen. After all, I found this frankly life-changing series of courses not at a small northeastern liberal arts college or even an elite private university, but at a big state school in the South, the kind with tens of thousands of students and an athletics program that threatens to swallow the rest of the university whole.

Yet there are at least a couple of icebergs standing in the way. Even—and especially—when faculty care, when they try to teach courses that might force students to think deeply about their own lives, they are not always supported by their administrations. The series of courses that was so important to me and to my classmates has been taught for more than twenty years now, but it has been endangered for at least the last ten. Why should administrators with limited budgets (extremely limited, in the case of a state university fighting for every dime it can get from the legislature) devote funds year after year to relatively small discussion courses, when they could spend the money instead on study abroad programs or new science buildings? There are, after all, lots of students at college these days, and they’re interested in lots of different things.

The logic is sound, which only re-raises the problem that the democratization of college, which many intellectuals claim to support, may be playing its part in the destruction of what we most value about it in the first place. A big college population makes a fixed curriculum and a coherent college community not only impossible but possibly also immoral to maintain. Who are the liberal arts majors to tell the rest of the student body what and how they should learn? How would we like the opposite, which is in fact the more likely and “democratic” scenario?  (The popularity of majors like business and engineering only sharpens this issue: Georgia Tech, in my hometown, might more properly be called the North Avenue Trade School; Stanford, where I go to graduate school, is essentially a high-class vocational school that subsidizes a small liberal arts program.)

Stripped to the basics, a college is a group of people trying to find an elusive thing: what the good life might be. That sort of college might only exist today in a single course, or in a series of courses, or in a few select institutions. But maybe that’s okay. Although Delbanco mounts a strong case for extending this kind of education to as many students as possible, the truth is that it never has been, and probably never will be, for everyone.

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