Professor Andrew Delbanco ponders what students should really be learning in college and how boards can facilitate that. He is the author of College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be (Princeton University Press, 2012), which has received significant newsmedia attention in recent weeks.
You have written about the “transformative ideal” of college. What does that mean for you?
All colleges should be places where young people discover their passions, test their talents, and learn from peers as well as from professors to think outside their accustomed perspective—something that students learn best in classes and, ideally, residences, with people unlike themselves. A Columbia University alum once told me that college had taught him to “enjoy life.” What he meant was that college opened up experiences (including art, music, and literature) whose existence he had previously not suspected and that have enriched his life ever since.
Has American higher education lost focus on the importance of a liberal education in its pursuit of the “knowledge economy”?
The word liberal (derived from the Latin liber, or free) implies education for freedom. Responsible freedom requires perspective on one’s own time and place, as well as an awareness of rival ideas about how society might be organized, of the power of art to liberate the imagination, and of the power of science to reveal the workings of the physical world. Democracy is built on the premise that these capabilities must be as widely distributed as possible in the enfranchised population.
American higher education is not meeting these responsibilities. We are increasingly focused on such measures as standardized tests, graduation rates, and job attainment, which tell us little about what kinds of citizens are being graduated from our colleges. Proficiency in STEM fields is important in the global knowledge economy, but so are creativity, sensitivity to other cultures, and, most of all, the ability to mediate among conflicting values. If we are to be not only a competitive society, but also a good society, we need liberally educated citizens.
You’ve warned that college is becoming the prerogative of the rich. What can boards do to ensure that it remains accessible and affordable?
Every college is dealing with a growing disproportion between resources and needs, which means that every board must consider strategies for controlling costs and raising revenues. One tempting strategy is to reduce subsidies for students who need financial aid. Yet accessibility for such students should remain a cardinal principle that all of us strive to protect in every way we can. We want our colleges to restrain rather than reinforce the growing gap between the wealthy and the needy in our society.
You write about the value of civic engagement. Why is that important, and what should institutions be doing to encourage more of it?
A college should not be exclusively about helping students achieve personal success. It should also cultivate public-spirited generosity. At its heart should be a “no man is an island” ethos, or, to put it in more explicitly religious terms, a recognition that “there but for the grace of God go I.” This way of looking at the world can be encouraged by integrating into the curriculum opportunities that await outside the campus gates: assisting the sick or elderly, for example, in the context of courses on the history of health care or on how different societies cope with aging populations.
One reason for public hostility to higher education is the perception—however justified—that colleges and universities are haughty places where people consider themselves superior to those outside the inner circle. Especially those institutions that have had vexed relations with their surrounding community should reach beyond themselves by engaging, for example, in the local schools so that parents and children feel a sense of good-neighborliness rather than indifference from the college “on the hill.” Boards should take these concerns seriously and should elevate questions about the ethical health of the institution to the same level as questions about its financial health.