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Can the Colleges Be Saved?

20th Century Fox/Everett Collection
Betty Grable, top right, in How to Be Very, Very Popular, 1955


Many years ago I asked Otto Neugebauer, a pioneering historian of mathematics and astronomy in the ancient world, about his education in pre–World War I Austria. Neugebauer was known both for his comprehensive histories and for his editions and interpretations of very difficult texts—mathematical and astronomical tables and horoscopes, preserved on cuneiform tablets, in Greek papyri and Latin manuscripts, and in many other sources and traditions. (Late in life, Neugebauer mastered Ethiopic and wrote penetrating work on Ethiopian astronomy and calendrics.)

I expected him to say something warm about his teachers at gymnasium, along the lines of the memoir in which another great émigré scholar, Erwin Panofsky, described the “lovable pedant” who taught him Greek in Berlin (this gentleman reproached himself in class for failing to notice a misplaced comma in a Greek text, since he himself had written an article on that very comma long before). Instead, Neugebauer told me that he had hated his secondary school. He received his diploma, he explained, only because he volunteered for the army, which led to several years of service in the artillery on the Italian front. And he did not begin to work at a high level until he went to university after the war.

It was surprising enough to learn that Neugebauer, whose brilliant, demanding lectures on ancient science had impressed even Richard Feynman, no admirer of the humanities, had ever been a less than brilliant student. But I was even more shocked when he went on to explain that he thought his experience typical of the only general principle about education that he had been able to distill from his career of many decades in German and American universities. I asked him to reveal it. He smiled and said: “No system of education known to man is capable of ruining everyone.”

In recent years, I have often found myself thinking back to that conversation. For if the nature of education and the uses of four years of college could stir passions thirty years ago, when Neugebauer told me his story, they are now the objects of a debate, extensive and often intemperate, that rages in magazines, on the blogosphere, and in the political institutions that control public colleges and universities. Americans assert and challenge the value of both with a passion that shows how important they consider the subject and a lack of precise information that shows how little is actually known about it. Sometimes they make me nostalgic for Neugebauer’s secure understanding that the effects of education are always mysterious.

The belief that college matters deeply is both implicit and ubiquitous. It dominates upper-middle-class and upper-class family strategies, it wins buyers for magazines that offer pointless and inaccurate university ratings, it generates income for college counselors, and it sustains alumni loyalty (genetics is destiny, a fellow professor told me thirty years ago, as we thought about which colleges our children might attend and realized that we might have sealed their possibilities by our own choices). Most important, it impels tens of thousands of students and their families to spend vast amounts of money every year.

The belief that college matters very little is also ubiquitous: it echoes through the dingy mansions of American public discourse. We hear such a belief when Rick Santorum criticizes President Obama for trying to ensure that as many Americans as possible should attend college, and denounces universities as snobbish institutions, divorced from reality and focused on indoctrinating the young with left-wing dogmas; when the billionaire businessman Peter Thiel offers prizes for top-ranked students willing to drop out of college and try to succeed as entrepreneurs; when writers argue that the college premium in wages is overrated and the American concern with selective admissions rests on erroneous beliefs about the practical value of higher education. These people are all, in their various ways, arguing that higher education has become a strange ghost world, whose practices and beliefs are foreign to those of most ordinary Americans, and whose benefits, intellectual or practical, may be few.

What’s clear to everyone on both sides is that American higher education rests on shaky economic foundations. Since the campaign for Proposition 13 in California in the late 1970s, governors, regents, and voters in state after state have abandoned the old idea that higher education is a public good for which all should pay. Private universities flew high in the prosperity of the 1990s and 2000s—but the crash of 2008 has cut deeply into many endowments. Many trustees and administrators have lost their former confidence that future economic expansion would finance present expenses and the borrowing that sustained them. Large gifts are hard to find, though some universities continue to receive them. Big grants are becoming rare too, as government support for scientific research declines.

Both private and public universities have seized on the only source of income within their control, tuition payments, and pushed them higher, year after year—much higher than the rate of inflation, to say nothing of family incomes, which have been flat for a decade. A few rich universities have made highly publicized efforts to contain costs for their students, providing scholarships for a larger and larger percentage of them (Harvard and Yale guarantee substantial support for students whose families earn $200,000 or less; even before they acted, Princeton ceased requiring students to take out any loans). President Obama and the Democrats tried, before the 2010 elections, to enhance the federal program of Pell Grants—though they did not succeed in attaining most of the president’s goals.

For the most part, though, students and their families have covered these increasing costs by borrowing more money. Students and former students owe more, at this point, for their educations than is owed in either credit card or automobile debt. Yet many fail to find profitable employment after graduation. Traditionally lucrative professional careers like law and medicine no longer promise a firm stairway to top incomes. Even finance, on which Ivy League graduates have been descending for some years like hunger on a loaf, generates fewer jobs than it did. In the long term, consumers will not remain willing to fund a system that loads them with debt and provides few visible financial benefits in return. At the least, a shake-up is coming, and possibly something more dramatic.


In circumstances like these, it’s not surprising that observers, participants, and educators have begun to wonder what the value of a college education actually is. Andrew Delbanco, a distinguished student of American literature and longtime Columbia university professor, offers some answers in College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be. His book gives a brief and lucid overview of higher education’s current precarious state. Like the public-spirited humanist he is—Delbanco received one of 2011’s National Humanities Medals—he does not indulge in the polemics that mar so many other recent entries in this field. And he offers at least two cheers for the American college, as it is and as it might be reformed.

Like a number of other professors of English who have addressed the problems of higher education in recent books—notably Christopher Newfield and Frank Donoghue—Delbanco takes a genetic or historical approach to his subject. He traces the history of the American college from its origins, the collegiate system created in medieval Oxford and Cambridge, to the present, in which more than four thousand colleges and universities enroll some 20 million students.

Delbanco’s overview, though brief, is lucid and well informed. He reviews the different stages through which higher education has passed, from the tiny colleges of the colonies and the early republic to the great knowledge factories—research universities—that came into being in the Reform Era and after. He follows the student body from its all-male and all-white beginnings to its multigendered, multiethnic, and multicultural present. He shows the curriculum evolving from the study of the classics, mathematics, and morality required for all students in the early days to the immense buffet table of electives that students sample nowadays. And he argues, reasonably and cogently, that the college has been both improved and damaged by this long and complex history.

Historians of the modern university traditionally described the colleges of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as pretty benighted places. Small, overworked faculties dealt out rote instruction, unconnected with advanced thought in the sciences or the humanities. Students concentrated less on Greek or mathematics than on—as a contemporary account of Princeton in 1853 had it—“the calculation of Chances” (the chance, that is, of being called on in class; when it loomed, they prepared). Cheating flourished, and crammers provided help for those who could not be bothered to study hard enough to pass the exams, which were at once lackadaisically administered and arbitrary in content. Excitement was generated less by intellectual issues than by such memorable pranks as the Princeton students’ sinking of P.T. Barnum’s painted “car of Juggernaut” in the Delaware and Raritan Canal.

No wonder that Charles William Eliot, who became president of Harvard in 1869, insisted on freeing students from archaic requirements and allowing them to follow their interests through the byways of a new system of hundreds of electives. This was the only way to bring college education up to date, to engage the new, research-minded faculty of the later nineteenth century in teaching, and to turn students, by treating them as adults, from passive auditors into active learners.

In recent years, Caroline Winterer and others have shown that the old colleges were actually much livelier places, intellectually, than reformers like Eliot claimed. Delbanco agrees, noting that their required uniform curricula forced students to work on many disciplines at the same time, long before interdisciplinarity became a word at all, much less a buzz word. For all the sterile traditions and practices that witnesses like Henry Adams complained of, the old colleges offered a good many students the chance to feel real intellectual excitement. They produced abolitionists, for example, at a great rate: of a sample of 250 abolitionist leaders, almost 80 percent had attended college, at a time when less than 2 percent of the population as a whole did so. Evidently, the antebellum colleges either made boys think about the great issues of their time, or attracted boys who wanted to do so, or, most likely, both. And that, for Delbanco, is one of the great purposes for which colleges exist at all: not to prepare people for jobs but to set their minds alight.

But Delbanco also makes a further argument—one aligned with the views of historians of the university like Julie Reuben and James Turner, and consistent, as he notes, with the tablets displayed in the Victorian grandeur of Memorial Hall that bear the names of Harvard’s Civil War dead. The old colleges set out not only to inform their students, but to form them: to teach them moral science, after the model of the Scottish colleges (to whose importance Delbanco does not do justice), and to make them see that they had a duty to serve the society that had brought them up in comfort and allowed them to smoke their pipes, drink their wine, and enjoy their male bonding through four years of college.

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