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Can the Colleges Be Saved?

‘Oh, father and mother pay all the bills, and we have all the fun’; illustration by Frederick R. Gruger from Owen Johnson’s Stover at Yale, 1912

This training didn’t work all the time, but it had an impact. The fictional undergraduates in Owen Johnson’s Stover at Yale were obsessed by their desire to lead lives worthy of their alma mater. The real products of Yale and its sister schools willingly fought and died for their country, generation after generation. And it was this emphasis on moral education that a traditionalist like Princeton’s James McCosh defended when he argued, against Harvard’s Eliot, for retaining the old, required curriculum. Even in the twentieth century, the products of the old colleges learned moral lessons, and to that extent they remained the inheritors of the ancient clerical idealism of the eighteenth-century founders.

For Delbanco, the moral sensibility, the sense of responsibility that college instilled in men like Franklin Roosevelt and Kingman Brewster, inspired them to transform American society as a whole, and their own beloved almae matres in particular. Yale men were never truer to Mother Yale than when they insisted, after World War II, on admitting Jewish and Catholic and African-American men, and then women, to what had been the paradisal retreat for generations of Aryans from Darien.

At times, Delbanco believes, the modern college still takes stands in the old ways, and still carries out some of its traditional tasks. In class and outside it, in casual conversations with other students and in intensive bouts of reading deep in the bowels of the library, a light still goes on for no reason anyone can supply, and a young person or a whole class suddenly sees a poem or a work of art illuminated in a new way. Though Delbanco says less about the moral than the intellectual world of the contemporary college, he could also have noted that colleges still manage to teach lessons about duty—if not to most of their students, at least to the substantial minority who still choose to pursue ill-paid careers in which they serve others.

For the most part, though, Delbanco sees the true college as threatened in many ways. In research universities, passionate and effective undergraduate teaching offers no prestige, no profit, and no prospect of permanence. A governing scientific ideal, which emphasizes the ongoing transformation of all fields of knowledge, relegates the transmission of knowledge to at best a secondary status. Humanists, whose subjects do not show progress—Charles Mee, who adapts such plays as The Bacchae, is a fine tragedian, but you mustn’t confuse him with Euripides—are marginalized in academic life unless they adopt a kind of parody of the scientific method, and begin tabulating all the forms of plot used in Victorian novels as if they were a literary counterpart to the human genome.

Saddest of all, the serious courses on the bases of the Western tradition that Delbanco sees as best adapted to opening minds and building characters are rarely required. And even at Columbia and Chicago, where students have to take them, they are mostly taught by younger faculty and graduate students who can be assigned to them, along with a few true believers from the older faculty. Most younger professors look forward to their release from this sort of required generalist teaching, for which they have neither the training nor the taste.

In the outside world, by contrast, pragmatism reigns. As college costs rise and job prospects for graduates dim, parents, officials, and students themselves view education more and more as a matter of profit and loss. All that really matters in evaluating an education, from this point of view, is the first job a new graduate obtains. Other considerations are seen as airy-fairy—pointless repetitions of familiar phrases about humanism and other traditions, which are exposed as meaningless as soon as they face the pitiless judgment of the market that evaluates everything at its true worth. The professor of the humanities is left, like the ex-drunkard humanist S. Levin in Bernard Malamud’s A New Life, faintly murmuring “The liberal arts feed our hearts” to deaf ears.

In theory, elite colleges and universities have tried to maintain a commitment to the liberal arts. In recent years, moreover, they have emphasized the importance of making these treasures available—as in principle they should be—to a “diverse” student body. They have tried to attract students of color and from poor families by offering far larger scholarships than in the past, and by transvaluing the terms that were created, a century ago, to keep Jews and Catholics out of the best schools.

Once upon a time, admissions officials emphasized character traits and athletic achievement in order to explain why they were accepting white Anglo-Saxon Protestants while rejecting students of higher academic ability from other ethnic groups. Now they emphasize character traits and athletic achievement in order to explain why they still don’t apply exclusively academic criteria when choosing students.

Systematic effort has brought more poor students to some elite colleges—Delbanco singles out Amherst, where the devoted work of former president Anthony Marx wrought major changes in the student body without compromising the college’s academic quality, and he might also have mentioned its sister school Smith, with its long-running Ada Comstock Scholars Program, aimed at older women. But admissions policies are rife with hypocrisy, as Delbanco makes clear. Rich colleges give both tacit and explicit preference to the children of celebrities, potential donors, and inhabitants of wealthy zip codes, even as they claim to be fighting for equality. In the end, very few of the poor gain entrance to most bastions of the liberal arts—so few, Delbanco tells us twice, that these colleges “are doing more to sustain than to retard the growth of inequality in our society.”

Delbanco’s book lives up to two thirds of its subtitle. He offers a clear and useful vision of what college has been in America, and of what it is now. And he is perfectly right to chastise the elite institutions for their unexamined claims to cherish diversity. As a student of mine from Crown Heights once remarked, at a time when Princeton seemed chiefly interested in extending the range of communities it drew on, “There’s more diversity in one block where I live than in a dozen suburbs with their country day schools.” If we really wanted diversity of experience in our students, as Delbanco observes, we could achieve it by seeking out able military veterans—a realm in which Columbia, thanks to its School of General Studies, has outdone its fellow Ivy League schools (my own university currently has two undergraduate veterans enrolled, a number I do not cite with pride).

Worst of all, he argues that the ludicrously competitive admissions process, through which only 5 or 6 percent of applicants gain entrance to the most selective colleges, leaves the winners with a sense that they have earned their places by their own abilities and efforts. Unlike the Roosevelts and Kennedys who knew that their social position had won them their places, they do not feel the humility and gratitude that they should—and that made their well-born predecessors embark on lives of service.

Here, perhaps, Delbanco goes farther than his evidence warrants. Plenty of college graduates in the old days learned little more than to wear the right clothes to set off their Porcellian pig or fraternity pin—and denounced Roosevelt and Brewster as class traitors. When Inky Clark, Brewster’s chosen director of admissions, set out to open up the Yale class, he was asked to explain his policies to the Yale Corporation. A prominent banker bluntly told him the facts of his own, older, generation’s life: “Look around you at this table. These are America’s leaders. There are no Jews here. There are no public school graduates here.” Not much sense of guilt or humility either.

In this and other cases, College tries to do too much in too narrow a space. At times Delbanco himself seems uncertain about his principal goals. Sometimes he makes clear that he is addressing the problems and prospects of elite institutions—for example, the little group of traditional liberal arts colleges, all of whose students could fit in the football stadium of a single Big Ten school. Sometimes he seems to be worrying about the majority of American students—the six million and more who attend community colleges, for example. But the problems that afflict community colleges—most of which practice open admissions and spend, on average, something like $10,000 a year per student—are quite different from those that afflict flagship state universities and elite private colleges.

In the last few years, the enrollments of public community colleges have risen steeply, but their budgets have been cut—cut even more than those of other classes of institutions. At the same time, many of their faculty members, like schoolteachers, have found themselves under pressure to meet statistical goals, sometimes at the expense of more profound kinds of education. The distance from this world to the one that Delbanco and I know best is very great, and it receives less light from his torch than the Ivy League does.

More seriously, Delbanco offers no real solutions to the problems he identifies. To begin on the practical level, following the money: elite private colleges and universities are afflicted, as any number of observers have noted, with the disease of rising costs named after the economist William Baumol. Like a string quartet, a good college becomes more expensive over time, as increasing general prosperity requires that its professors receive higher salaries. Like a string quartet, too, the college cannot improve its productivity if it goes on doing what it has always done: for example, putting small groups of students into classes run by full members of the faculty, or requiring every senior to write a thesis based on original research, supervised by a professor. Hence the always-rising cost of a system that seems immune to change—and hence the difficulty of really reengineering the system so that it exemplifies the democracy that it preaches.

At public universities, by contrast, rising professorial salaries haven’t caused the deepest problems. The faculty in many state systems have had no raises for several years. Even at the greatest public research universities, such as Berkeley and Michigan, average professorial salaries are around 25 percent lower than at private universities of comparable quality. Rather, the withdrawal of state funding has pushed these institutions into difficulties—and, in some cases, into what may be irreparable decline. Only a political decision to treat higher education, once more, as a public good would save the situation. It seems unlikely that many state legislatures will see the light in the near future.

To be sure—as Delbanco recognizes—universities can increase productivity and lower costs. Technology can bring some kinds of content to students more inexpensively than traditional forms of teaching. And transforming tenure-track jobs, which can lead to life employment, into contingent positions, whose occupants can stay for only a limited period, or adjunct positions, whose occupants are paid by the single course, can lower the cost of small classes.

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