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Can the Colleges Be Saved?

The problem with these remedies is simple: one ends up destroying the village in order to save it. Online teaching can work very well—but doing it properly, with skilled consultants available to help students personally at any time, is not cheap, and doing it cheaply does not yield good results. Online education, when provided without such backup, is another and a nobler word for extorting tuition money for nothing. Adjunct and contingent faculty often do an amazing job. But faculty working without job security, without benefits, and without offices of their own necessarily have less time and fewer resources to devote to students than permanent faculty.

As the tuition spiral continues, even very wealthy schools are moving down the paths of online or other solutions (some are far down them already). Delbanco argues that traditional small classes deserve to be saved, and should be made available to all students, and I agree with him. But he doesn’t suggest how to achieve this, or even make clear that their survival may be connected with the very admissions practices that he complains of. After all, the children of rich parents don’t receive preference in admission because university administrators like them better. They receive it because gifts from their families may temporarily ease the financial pain that their university is suffering—and help to preserve tenure-track jobs and small classes. Such undemocratic expedients are distasteful, but they enable some poor students, along with many prosperous ones, to receive a better and more rigorous education. As Delbanco points out in another connection, the dilemmas are easier to identify than to solve.

Higher education, finally, is a moving target, and at times Delbanco’s brief account omits important changes. He argues that the concentration on research has distorted graduate education, as it often has. Most professors are trained at research universities, but spend their careers at very different institutions. If they find jobs at community colleges, the one expanding area of the not-for-profit higher education sector, they teach five courses a semester. At many four-year colleges and universities, though loads are lighter, teaching is still a professor’s main job, and course assignments are heavy enough to discourage research. Yet graduate students are admitted to doctoral study on purely academic grounds. Their training, by Delbanco’s account, is wholly, or almost wholly, devoted to their research. The lack of fit between graduate school and work seems painful—as if surgeons or dentists could qualify for working inside other people’s bodies without ever demonstrating fine motor skills.

Graduate education was once exactly as Delbanco describes it. My own training in the 1970s, and that of most of my contemporaries, included no practice or discussion of teaching. In recent years, however, universities have created mentorship programs in which faculty work with students beginning to teach, and founded centers for teaching and learning whose staff can attend or videotape classes and offer expert criticism and advice. What’s missing is not training in teaching, though this could certainly be improved and made more systematic, but something at once tenuous, essential, and difficult to create: a sincere belief that teaching should play a substantive part in choosing university faculty, and a grasp of how to evaluate and promote it in a rigorous way. Though Delbanco tells stories of great teachers of the past and gives a few examples of programs he admires, he never makes clear how universities locked in competition for preeminence in research can be induced to take teaching seriously, or how they would go about improving their offerings.

College, in other words, doesn’t really tell us how to make higher education what it should be. But if it’s short on solutions, it gives a lucid, fair, and well-informed account of the problems, and it offers a full-throated defense of the idea that you don’t go to college just to get a job. Delbanco’s brevity, wit, and curiosity about the past and its lessons for the present give his book a humanity all too rare in the literature on universities.

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