On the transformative ideal of education today

Andrew Delbanco, professor of American Studies at Columbia University, distilled some of the content from his new book, College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be (Princeton), in The Chronicle of Higher Education. See the article, College At Risk.” The instrumental view of education, which prevails among liberals and conservatives today, is characterized by two goals: preparing a productive and competitive workforce for the global economy and developing an informed citizenry for democracy. Delbanco affirms both of these goals while lifting up the transformative ideal of education:

In most of the world, students who continue their education beyond secondary school are expected to choose their field of specialization before they arrive at university. In America there has been an impulse to slow things down, to extend the time for second chances and defer the day when determinative choices must be made. When, in 1851, Herman Melville wrote in his great American novel Moby-Dick that “a whaleship was my Yale College and my Harvard,” he used the word “college” as a metaphor for the place where, as we would say today, he “found himself.” In our own time, a former president of Amherst College writes of a young man experiencing in college the “stirring and shaping, perhaps for the first time in his life, [of] actual convictions—not just gut feelings—among his friends and, more important, further down, in his own soul.”

Here is another description of the transformative ideal:

A few years ago, when I was beginning to work on my book about the American college, I came across a manuscript diary kept in the early 1850s by a student at a small Metho­dist college in southwest Virginia. One spring evening, after attending a sermon by the college president that left him troubled and apprehensive, he made the following entry: “Oh that the Lord would show me how to think and how to choose.” That sentence, poised somewhere between a wish and a plea, sounds archaic today. But even if the religious note is dissonant to some of us, it seems hard to come up with a better formulation of what a college should strive to be: an aid to reflection, a place and process whereby young people take stock of their talents and passions and begin to sort out their lives in a way that is true to themselves and responsible to others. “Show me how to think and how to choose.”

Delbanco claims this “transformative ideal has entailed the hope of reaching as many citizens as possible”:

. . . in the New World, beginning in the Colonial era with church-sponsored scholarships for promising schoolboys, the story of higher education has been one of increasing inclusion. That story continued in the early national period through the founding of state colleges, and later through the land-grant colleges created by the federal government during the Civil War. In the 20th century, it accelerated with the GI Bill, the “California plan” (a tiered system designed to provide virtually universal postsecondary education), the inclusion of women and minorities in previously all-male or all-white institutions, the growth of community colleges, and the adoption of “need-based” financial-aid policies. American higher education has been built on the premise that human capital is widely distributed among social classes and does not correlate with conditions of birth or social status.

Seen in that long view, the distinctive contribution of the United States to the history of liberal education has been to deploy it on behalf of the cardinal American principle that all persons have the right to pursue happiness, and that “getting to know,” in Matthew Arnold’s much-quoted phrase, “the best which has been thought and said in the world” is helpful to that pursuit. That understanding of what it means to be educated is sometimes caricatured as elite or effete, but in fact it is neither, as Arnold makes clear by the (seldom-quoted) phrase with which he completes his point: “and through this knowledge, turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits.” Knowledge of the past, in other words, helps citizens develop the capacity to think critically about the present—an indispensable attribute of a healthy democracy.

These ideals and achievements are among the glories of our civilization, and all Americans should be alarmed as they come to be regarded as luxuries unaffordable for all but the wealthy few.

On educational reform:

Every­one who is honest about academe knows that colleges and universities tend to be wasteful and plagued by expensive redundancies. The demand for greater efficiency is reasonable and, in some respects, be­lated. The cost of college must be reined in, and its “produc­tivity”—in the multiple senses of student proficiency, graduation rates, and job attainment—must be improved. The trouble is that many reforms, and most efficiencies, whether achieved through rational planning or imposed by the ineluctable process of technological change, are at odds with practices that are essential if liberal education is to survive and thrive.

On why the small-class experience and master teachers are essential to liberal learning:

One of the distinctive features of the American college has always been the idea that students have something to learn not only from their teachers but also from each other. That idea of lateral learning originates from the Puritan conception of the gathered church, in which the criterion for membership was the candidate’s “aptness to edifie another.” The idea persists to this day in the question that every admissions officer in every selective college is supposed to ask of every applicant: “What would this candidate bring to the class?” It under­lies the opinion by Justice Lewis Powell in the landmark case of Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978), in which the Supreme Court ruled that considering a candidate’s race is constitutional for the purpose of ensuring “the interplay of ideas and the exchange of views” among students from different backgrounds. Those are modern reformulations of the ancient (by American standards) view that a college, no less than a church, exists fundamentally as what one scholar of Puritanism calls the “interaction of consciences.”

A well-managed discussion among peers of diverse interests and talents can help students learn the difference between informed insights and mere opinionating. It can provide the pleasurable chastisement of discovering that others see the world differently, and that their experience is not replicable by, or even reconcilable with, one’s own. It is a rehearsal for deliberative democracy.

Unfortunately, at many colleges, as fiscal imperatives overwhelm educational values, this kind of experience is becoming the exception more than the rule. The educational imperative is clear: A class should be small enough to permit every student to participate in the give-and-take of discussion under the guidance of an informed, skilled, and engaged teacher. But the economic imperative is also clear: The lower the ratio between students and faculty, the higher the cost. One obvious way to mitigate the cost is to put fewer full-time tenured or tenure-track faculty in the classroom, and to replace them with underpaid, overworked part-timers—something that is happening at a frightening pace across the nation.

An even more promising strategy for cost containment is to install one or another technological “delivery system” in place of the cumbersome old system of teachers mentoring students. On that matter, the academic community is divided among true believers, diehard opponents, and those trying to find some middle ground in the form of “hybrid” or “blended” learning, whereby students are instructed and assessed through electronic means but do not entirely lose face-to-face human contact with their teachers and with one another.

Those of us who have trouble imagining how technology can advance liberal learning are liable to be charged with mindless obedience to what the English classicist F.M. Cornford famously called the first law of academe: “Nothing should ever be done for the first time.” No doubt there is some truth to that charge. But as a more recent English scholar, Alison Wolf, puts it in her book Does Education Matter? Myths About Education and Economic Growth, “We have not found any low-cost, high-technology alternatives to expert human teachers.” At least not yet.


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