The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 15, No. 1 (Spring 2013)

A Conversation with Andrew Delbanco

Joseph E. Davis

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 15.1 (Spring 2013). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Spring 2013

(Volume 15 | Issue 1)

Your book, College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be, deals with both the question of a liberal arts education, what you refer to as the “college idea,” and the question of access. I want to begin with the goods of a liberal education, and whether those goods are the same for public and private institutions. Your book deals a lot with colleges, which tend to be private. Is there any distinction you wanted to make?

One point I make in the book is that the distinction between public and private is in some respects false, or at least overstated. It’s certainly true that there are differences in governance and freedom of action on the part of private versus public institutions, but at the same time, private institutions are the beneficiaries of a great deal of public funding, which comes to them in various forms. It comes in the form of federal research dollars; it comes in the form of the tax deductibility of private donations, which represent, arguably, funds deflected from the public treasury and directed instead to a private, non-profit institution. And some students at such institutions are beneficiaries of Pell Grants or federally subsidized loans—so there’s a whole variety of ways in which private institutions are also public and have public responsibility.

By the same token, public institutions have been trying, for some years now, to address the dollar shortfall by raising private endowments from donors, alumni, and so on. And the precise nature of the public responsibility of a public institution is not clear anymore, since many flagship state universities are attempting to deal with the financial challenge by taking more and more students from out of state, and charging them higher tuition. So it seems to me that the whole question of what exactly private versus public means today is in flux, and it’s a question we all ought to be thinking about.

Financial problems are common to a lot of public universities as states are cutting back, so at some flagship campuses, there’s a real fear of falling out of elite status. But it seems to me there’s a deeper legitimation crisis at public universities, centered on the question: what is the value of a liberal education and how does it constitute a public good?

For one thing, services and activities that may once have been uncontroversial come under closer scrutiny when there’s belt tightening and financial anxiety, which require choices among those things we think we can afford and those things we regard as luxuries. In the wake of the recession, talk about the personal fulfillment value of education tends to be greeted with considerable impatience by people who are making large investments in the education of their children and want to know what they’re going to get for their money in concrete terms.

There’s a legitimate question in this respect as to how well education is doing its job. There’s a new perception that American economic dominance in the world is under threat: we’re shaken by the evident failures of our K–12 education system, particularly in the sciences, where other countries seem to be outstripping us. There’s anxiety that our competitiveness in a global knowledge economy is under threat.

In this context, purveyors of liberal education, including the humanities departments in leading universities, have not done a very good job of articulating the value of what they do.

So for a variety of reasons, I think there is, as you say, a legitimation crisis, and it’s up to us to be more persuasive about why liberal education matters. It’s a difficult task because we’re in a cultural moment where quantifiable metrics of assessment, correlations between inputs and outcomes, are all the rage, and it’s very hard to quantify the effects of liberal education. How do we assess when it works? Should we measure the income of graduates of a college with a liberal arts curriculum versus the income of graduates who have taken an exclusively technical curriculum, and thereby draw some conclusion about which is the better or more worthy institution? Any kind of reductionist thinking along those lines is dangerous, but it’s also tempting and increasingly widespread.

The state of Virginia created a new database to report on what graduates of Virginia colleges and universities are earning in the private sector within eighteen months of earning their degrees. Apparently other states are working to emulate this model. The Washington Post article reporting on the first results was entitled “New Data Tells What a Virginia College Degree Is Worth.” Of course there were the typical disclaimers that financial output isn’t the only way to measure a degree’s worth–and yet it seems clear from the very title that “worth” is being effectively reduced to the question of the graduates’ salaries.

I’m suspicious of those kinds of data, not only of the premise on which they’re based, but of how much they really tell us. For example, immediate post-college income might not be a very good indicator of life-time earning capacity: many professions require years of further education and are likely to bring further indebtedness before they “pay off.” And even if one accepts the assumptions that lie behind this kind of survey, there are a lot of problems with interpreting the data.

But it’s not unreasonable to ask these questions, and we simply have to be able to say why there are other questions that ought to be asked alongside them.

Exactly. What are some of those other questions?

Well, for one thing, we can point to societies elsewhere in the world where productivity is rising, where economic strength is growing, but where none of us would want to live. Because in those societies, possibilities for individual self-fulfillment are very constrained, freedom of thought and creativity are not valued, opportunity for individual choice is extremely limited, etc. How do you put a numerical value on those attributes?

We don’t want to be a society where things we can measure are going in the right direction while things we can’t measure are going in the wrong direction. I try to argue in my book that the college classroom at its best is a very good rehearsal space for democracy. It’s a place where students learn to speak with civility, listen to each other with respect, learn the difference between an argument and an opinion, and most important, perhaps, learn that it’s possible to walk into the room with one point of view and walk out with another—or at least with some fruitful doubt about the perspective with which you began.

I think everybody, regardless of where one stands on the political spectrum, can agree that those are qualities we could use more of in our public discourse. We need a citizenry that can tell the difference between a demagogue and a person trying to make rational arguments about complicated problems. I think there’s good reason to believe that when college works as well as it can—and it certainly doesn’t always—it’s an institution that contributes to the general welfare in this way, among others.

So there’s an argument for liberal education as essential to citizenship. But in any conversation like this, we should also try to be clear what we mean by “liberal education.” It can be confused with a certain kind of very traditional curriculum, whose virtues I happen to believe in; it can be understood as meaning exclusively the humanities, but it should be obvious that the benefits I’ve just been describing can also be derived from, for example, the study of science.

Right, you can learn a lot of those same democratic virtues–what constitutes a valid argument, how to disagree civilly, when to change your mind–in the science classroom.

The argument for democracy is real and important, but there’s also another argument I try to make in the book, something particularly associated with American ideals. And that is that we want to be a society, as much as possible, where young people have the opportunity to reflect on who they are and want to be, rather than have decisions made for them early in life—or be compelled to make their own premature decisions—about what kinds of lives they can imagine for themselves.

This has been an American aspiration for a very long time. It’s a bedrock principle for Americans that people should have the chance to define themselves and not be constrained by their circumstances of birth. Of course we all know that limitations on that opportunity are real, especially for people with limited means, but again, college has been an institution that tries to open up a space for young people to reflect on the world and their place in it. Surely we don’t want to lose that. We want to fight to preserve it as much as possible and for as many people as possible.

In the book you quote former Harvard President Derek Bok as saying, “faculties currently display scant interest in preparing undergraduates to be democratic citizens, a task once regarded as the principle purpose of a liberal education” (149). Then you observe that perhaps this is old news because Bok said it in a footnote. If faculty members have that attitude, what are the implications, if we think colleges should serve an educative democratic purpose?

The implications are large. I tried in the book to defend college against skeptics from outside the institution, but also to criticize colleges for their own failures to fulfill their mission. I think we should take seriously those who look at our colleges and say we’re giving Bachelor’s degrees to people who don’t know the first thing about our own national history and don’t have a clear understanding about the rule of law or the separation of government powers, and also don’t have the first clue about other political, religious, or cultural traditions. More often than not, that critique is a fair and a serious one. Some institutions do a much better job at this than others, and those of us in higher education ought to look at those institutions that do it well and try to learn from them. Now that doesn’t mean that administrators should bully faculty into teaching certain subjects or teaching them in certain ways—the dangers of that kind of intervention outweigh the possible benefits—but I think there should be a civil conversation on every campus among faculty, students, and alumni about how well the institution is fulfilling its mission of educating democratic citizens.

Do you think faculty think that’s a problem?

I don’t think enough faculty think it’s a problem, no. But one of the pleasures I’ve had since the publication of the book is to do a fair amount of traveling around the country to different institutions. And on every campus that I’ve visited, I find at least some core group of faculty concerned about these issues and trying to do something about them. There’s a great deal of encouraging energy in America’s colleges of all sorts—public and private, secular and sectarian—and an enormous number of passionately dedicated teachers. I even think there’s a degree of idealism among the purveyors of distance-learning via technology—including at least some of those who are looking for big profits from online “delivery systems,” as they are called. Some of those who believe that the future of higher education is on the internet are genuinely committed to using the new technologies to try to take the next step toward democratizing education.

At the same time, I think we want to be clear-eyed about the obstacles and problems we face, including those associated with the new technologies. Faculties face a lot of challenges. First of all, as you well know, if we use the broad-gauge term “faculty,” we are more and more referring to recent Ph.D.s who are struggling to put together a living by working on two—sometimes more than two—campuses at the same time, with little job security and low wages. Many of these people are terrific teachers and idealistic academic citizens, but it’s hard for them to engage in anything resembling faculty governance or to advance reforms of the existing institution, because they don’t have a reliable stake in it. This is a grave problem both for individuals and institutions.

And then there is—both by choice and by compulsion—the tremendous emphasis on the importance of research. Nobody would argue against the value of research, and since you can’t know ahead of time which research results are going to prove important and which will be trivial, you need to support a wide range of research at a wide range of institutions to get results that benefit society. At the same time, I think it’s fair to say that there’s too much pressure on research productivity in American higher education. If most incentives for promotion and salary improvements, tenure, etc., have to do with research productivity, then how can we simultaneously demand of our faculty that they give more of themselves to their students? We’ve got the proportions between research and teaching out of whack, I think, and that’s a serious problem within institutions and across institutions.

You note that higher education is not just the conveying of information but also involves formation. Is that a controversial statement?

I don’t know that it’s a controversial statement in the abstract, but it’s a challenge to say what it means concretely, since the influence of religion has subsided or moved to the periphery of American higher education.

Of course we still have some significant and distinguished institutions that take their religious character and mission seriously. I was at a conference some months ago, where one of the questions put to a panel of deans and department chairs was, what’s your institutional mission? I was struck that representatives from some very prestigious institutions had a lot of trouble articulating an answer in anything more than a vague or even vacuous way. But there was one person from a Jesuit institution, who answered it without any hesitation, and he said something like: “the mission of our institution is to prepare students to live lives in which they find ways to alleviate human suffering.” I was impressed by that. I liked the unembarrassed clarity. Most people, if pushed to explain how they lead their lives, would probably come up with some formulation suggesting that they’re trying to make a contribution to the general welfare or do something other than serve themselves. But having it front and center as the institutional mission statement was quite refreshing and took me back to the origins of the idea of the American college, which grew out of the churches and initially had the mission of training pastors or teachers who were, ideally at least, in the business of supporting human beings through the trials of life. So I like that mission statement, and I think it still should have a place even in our so-called multiversities, where things are very fragmented beyond the general mission of creating new knowledge.

It’s conventional to say that we have a research mission and a teaching mission. But when it comes to the teaching, we often get fuzzy in explaining what we’re doing. For instance, in our science courses, are we preparing pre-meds, or are we trying to awaken students to the complexities of the natural world and give them the intellectual equipment to understand it better? Are we trying to introduce them to the joys of science? The best scientists I know speak about what they do with the same kind of aesthetic appreciation that musicians express when they speak about music or artists about art. The right answer is, I guess, all of the above. But we’re not having a very good conversation about how best to accomplish these things for as many students as possible.

You argue that college should be concerned in some sense with character and encourage a life of enlarged sympathy and civic responsibility. Can we have that sort of formation without some shared values? I ask because you suggest that we don’t actually share many values. You write that “the university as a community barely exists” (92) and describe the “‘balkanization’–the splintering of the faculty into mutually wary interest groups–of modern academic life” (98). You also suggest that “most [professors] are unwilling even to tell [students] what’s worth thinking about” (85). Is the kind of formation that attends to the person of the student possible without some sense of shared values?

It’s a very difficult challenge, but if I didn’t believe that we could rise to it, I wouldn’t be enthusiastic about getting up in the morning and going to work. I can only speak with any confidence about my own field, which is, broadly, literary studies or, more narrowly, the history of ideals and values in America. When I teach, I try not to proselytize for this or that political or ethical principle; I try not to assume that I know what my students think or believe. In fact I’m pretty confused on a lot of issues about what, exactly, I believe. But I am confident of the value of the texts I teach for provoking reflection, self-criticism, and, if this doesn’t sound too grandiose, enlarging the moral imagination. For instance, the other day I was teaching “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” that great story by Herman Melville, which compels us to think about where our responsibilities for our fellow human beings begin and where they end. Or take John Winthrop’s sermon delivered right before the departure of the Arbella from Old England to New England, in which he raises some startlingly contemporary questions, such as what are our obligations if we’ve loaned money to someone who can’t afford to repay it? No one needs to be persuaded that this question from 1630 remains alive today, in a society that has been struggling with it since the housing collapse five years ago.

I don’t stand up in front of my students and say, “you are a person of bad character if you think the answer is x, or a person of good character if you think the answer is y.” But I do say that these are questions we need to continue to confront and debate, and that literature is a resource for doing just that. I want to believe that by keeping such texts in the curriculum, and by pursuing the questions to which they lead, we’re provoking thought about matters that students might otherwise trivialize or evade.

You’ve answered at an individual level. I have no doubt that you and I and lots of other professors try to do that. The question was really about shared values: is there some sense of coherence to our institutions themselves, not just what individual professors do in the classroom? I thought it was interesting that when you spoke about the mission statement, the one who apparently could give a clear and concise answer was from a religious institution. Can we have such coherence without religion?

This is the key question. On a theoretical level, the answer has to be an almost unambiguous “no” because the forces seem to be ever more centrifugal, and it’s hard even to get the faculty in a big research university to come together in the same room. But you have to try. On each campus, you have to gather the faculty who do have some concern for guiding young people to lives of meaning and purpose and encourage those faculty, support them, help them build useful structures—team-taught courses, for example, in which humanists and scientists collaborate, or courses in which students confront the moral arguments underlying politics, or in which they learn about the moral conflicts that constitute history. There are all kinds of elements in the university that do try to contribute to these aims, whether it’s the counseling services, or student volunteer organizations, or experimental curricula in which ethical questions are put front and center, or the proliferating institutes for the study and teaching of ethics and values. I’m an incrementalist; I think it really is a one-life-at-a-time situation. Most experiments that I’m aware of that have attempted wholesale reform of large complex institutions have either failed or moved those institutions towards even greater incoherence. That’s really the best I can do with your question.

I suppose the alternative is to take the position of someone like Alasdair MacIntyre or George Marsden—both of whom I greatly respect—who think we should give up on all the institutions that don’t still conceive of themselves in the mold of Cardinal Newman, more or less. My own view is that students should, indeed, read Cardinal Newman; the faculty should read him and try to incorporate something of his vision into the institutions we already have—but trying to recapture the lost coherence of Newman’s university is a non-starter.

You note that one of our daunting challenges is to convey the value of a liberal education, particularly to those who don’t have one. However, you also note that while attention to the liberal arts is declining here, it seems to be gaining elsewhere. There is an example of that here at the University of Virginia, which is involved in an initiative in China. A couple of prominent Chinese universities invited UVa to come and teach courses on literature and history and other elements of the Western tradition. It’s very interesting that even while the university itself seems to be downplaying the liberal arts and focusing on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics), the Chinese want them. Can you comment on this paradox?

Well it’s both a conspicuous and ironic phenomenon. I don’t know enough to say whether the interest in Asia is entirely or exclusively an instrumental one. The explanation one usually hears is that intellectuals, and to some degree political leaders, in other countries are looking at the United States and trying to figure out what our secret has been, so to speak, since we had a pretty successful twentieth century characterized by immense creativity in science as well as the arts and by a relatively peaceful process of incremental social reform. It would seem that our peculiar system of higher education, which has put an emphasis on the liberal arts, might have had something to do with fostering creativity and innovation of the sort that other nations now want to emulate. Of course that’s a reductionist way of stating the case, since liberal education, when it works, also creates citizens with articulate discontent who are able to mount a critique of existing social norms. But whatever the reason, it’s a conspicuous irony that America seems to be losing faith in liberal education just as other societies are gaining interest in it. This irony furnishes a good argument against those who are skeptical of the “real world” value of liberal education: if it’s as worthless as you think, why is the rest of the world getting interested in it?

From what I know of the UVa program, the Chinese interest is not narrowly instrumental or business related, but rather reflects their desire to rebuild a lost foundation for community life. The Cultural Revolution cut them off from their own past and cultural traditions, and the absence is felt deeply. They have a run-away capitalism and great strains on social cohesion and now want to recover and reconstitute their traditions, turning to the Western tradition to learn how that might be done.

I’m glad to hear you say that and I’m inclined to think you’re right. And I want to think that all people have a need, a hunger for self-understanding that can be encouraged and deepened by a sense of history. To the extent that we lose all sense of commonality, we’re in big trouble. America has always been about negotiating the tensions between sameness and difference, between commonality and divergence. When we work best as a society we have found ways to respect both, and I think our institutions of higher education remain critically important to that project going forward.

Let me ask you about the issue of access to higher education. You focus on elite colleges in your book, and I think in part that’s because they do a reasonably good job of providing a liberal arts education. My question is whether that model can be extended to others. Mike Rose, in his new book, Back to School, focuses on what he calls “second chance institutions,” and he argues that the nontraditional student is becoming the norm. Nearly 45 percent of students in higher education do not enroll directly out of high school, are not 18 years old, and have often been in the work force. Apparently the average age of a student at a community college is 28, and that’s also where the majority of veterans are studying. Are the ideals of college, as you’ve articulated them, really applicable to these other institutions, where so many students are being educated?

I have great admiration for Mike Rose, and what I like so much about his view of education is his faith that it’s always premature to give up on students of any degree of preparation or sophistication. You’re right that my book does mainly tell the story through the history of elite institutions, but I want to believe there are general principles that can be derived from that history that apply across the board. Of course there are going to be differences in students’ sophistication and proficiency, and of course we need institutions that give people vocational training for practical occupations, but I really want to insist that this is not an either-or question. I think people have a lot in common with each other, whether they’re 18 or 25 or 30, whether they’re veterans or have only seen a couple of war movies at home on TV.

It would be a travesty, a disaster, if the kind of education I’m talking about were to become restricted to the coddled and privileged and denied to everyone else. That’s the whole point of the argument for access. We don’t want to become a society where a small handful gets this elite education, and everybody else is tracked into a vocational program of one sort or another. There’s no reason why the two can’t go together.

One of the satisfactions I’ve had since the book came out has been hearing from a fair number of people at non-elite institutions—students and administrators as well as faculty. I get the feeling that it’s appreciated by faculty at underfunded public institutions because they find that it may help them to articulate to their deans and provosts why what they do is indispensable. If my book can make even a small contribution to the sustenance of liberal education in the institutions where you might think it would be the least valued, that would be great.

Andrew Delbanco is Levi Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University and the author of College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be (Princeton University Press).

Joseph E. Davis is Research Associate Professor at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture and Co-Editor of The Hedgehog Review.

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Published three times a year by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, The Hedgehog Review offers critical reflections on contemporary culture—how we shape it, and how it shapes us.

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