Colleges and Universities

Andrew Delbanco’s discussion of college in the US is at its most interesting discussing the origins of college. He is keen to emphasize that college and university is not the same thing. He suggests that college, a place for undergraduate education, developed from early American Puritan ideals. This was a place for moral and intellectual improvement.

Over time graduate studies in universities, developing more from a German intellectual tradition, largely took over as the key element of tertiary education and subsumed colleges. By the early twentieth century: “At universities that had taken form around an establish college, proposals were floated to relegate undergraduate teaching to what amounted to a second-class faculty of failed, or former, researchers…” (Delbanco, 2012, page 81). He sees this as a challenge that has continued to this day with undergraduate teaching treated not as seriously as it might be.

This book is interesting when it discusses history. There are many examples of problems from the past that have resonance today. A recurring theme is the end of core curriculum in college and the fragmentation of studies. I have some sympathy with his concerns. I would certainly think helping students become better rounded and more social engaged people is a worthy aim and would help justify government subsidy. Such alumni give more back to society. There are of course challenges in this view. Faculty are rightly wary of foisting their views on their students even when the views seem admirable such as the need to help the less fortunate.

The challenge in the book arises when it comes to specificity. To have a core curriculum one needs some sort of agreement on what essential knowledge is. Delbanco concentrates a lot on Western classics — e.g., hoping students will appreciate king Lear — but I for one would find it hard to justify prioritizing Shakespeare over forms of expression from other cultures and times. With so much out there what is essential?

To my mind the chapter on ‘what is to be done’ seems lacking in proposals for what is to be done. Concerns I share about equal access to education are raised but not dealt with in an especially comprehensive fashion, nor are clear solutions put forward. This is somewhat understandable — the problems are hard — but I would have liked a bit more.

Maybe that isn’t the point as Delbanco wants to inspire not advise. He wants to suggest that scholars can get meaning from teaching which can even inspire research. While the practical challenges are significant I can’t argue that it would be better if doctoral education took teaching more seriously.

Read: Andrew Delbanco (2012) College: What it was, is and should be, Princetown University Press, paperback edition