Magazine

The Learning & Earning Issue

3 reasons college still matters

As universities struggle to adapt to a new academic world, they can’t forget the things they do best.

Illustration by Shout

The American college is going through a period of wrenching change, buffeted by forces – globalization, economic instability, the information technology revolution, the increasingly evident inadequacy of K-12 education, and, perhaps most important, the collapse of consensus about what students should know – that make its task more difficult and contentious than ever before.

For a relatively few students, college remains the sort of place that Anthony Kronman, former dean of Yale Law School, recalls from his days at Williams, where his favorite class took place at the home of a philosophy professor whose two golden retrievers slept on either side of the fireplace “like bookends beside the hearth” while the sunset lit the Berkshire Hills “in scarlet and gold.” For many more students, college means the anxious pursuit of marketable skills in overcrowded, underresourced institutions. For still others, it means traveling by night to a fluorescent office building or to a “virtual classroom” that only exists in cyberspace.

It is a pipe dream to imagine that every student can have the sort of experience that our richest colleges, at their best, provide. But it is a nightmare society that affords the chance to learn and grow only to the wealthy, brilliant, or lucky few. Many remarkable teachers in America’s community colleges, unsung private colleges, and underfunded public colleges live this truth every day, working to keep the ideal of democratic education alive. And so it is my unabashed aim to articulate in my forthcoming book, College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be, what a college – any college – should seek to do for its students.

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What, then, are today’s prevailing answers to the question, what is college for? The most common answer is an economic one. It’s clear that a college degree long ago supplanted the high school diploma as the minimum qualification for entry into the skilled labor market, and there is abundant evidence that people with a college degree earn more money over the course of their lives than people without one. Some estimates put the worth of a bachelor of arts degree at about a million dollars in incremental lifetime earnings.

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For such economic reasons alone, it is alarming that for the first time in history, we face the prospect that the coming generation of Americans will be less educated than its elders.

Within this gloomy general picture are some especially disturbing particulars. For one thing, flat or declining college attainment rates (relative to other nations) apply disproportionately to minorities, who are a growing portion of the American population. And financial means have a shockingly large bearing on educational opportunity, which, according to one authority, looks like this in today’s America: If you are the child of a family making more than $90,000 per year, your odds of getting a BA by age24 are roughly 1 in 2; if your parents make less than $35,000, your odds are 1 in 17.

Moreover, among those who do get to college, high-achieving students from affluent families are four times more likely to attend a selective college than students from poor families with comparable grades and test scores. Since prestigious colleges serve as funnels into leadership positions in business, law, and government, this means that our “best” colleges are doing more to foster than to retard the growth of inequality in our society. Yet colleges are still looked to as engines of social mobility in American life, and it would be shameful if they became, even more than they already are, a system for replicating inherited wealth.

Not surprisingly, as in any discussion of economic matters, one finds dissenters from the predominant view. Some on the right say that pouring more public investment into higher education, in the form of enhanced subsidies for individuals or institutions, is a bad idea. They argue against the goal of universal college education as a fond fantasy and, instead, for a sorting system such as one finds in European countries: vocational training for the low scorers, who will be the semiskilled laborers and functionaries; advanced education for the high scorers, who will be the diplomats and doctors.

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Other thinkers, on the left, question whether the aspiration to go to college really makes sense for “low-income students who can least afford to spend money and years” on such a risky venture, given their low graduation rates and high debt. From this point of view, the “education gospel” seems a cruel distraction from “what really provides security to families and children: good jobs at fair wages, robust unions, affordable access to health care and transportation.”

One can be on either side of these questions, or somewhere in the middle, and still believe in the goal of achieving universal college education. Consider an analogy from another sphere of public debate: health care. One sometimes hears that eliminating smoking would save untold billions because of the immense cost of caring for patients who develop lung cancer, emphysema, heart disease, or diabetes. It turns out, however, that reducing the incidence of disease by curtailing smoking may actually end up costing us more, since people who don’t smoke live longer and eventually require expensive therapies for chronic diseases and the inevitable infirmities of old age.

In other words, measuring the benefit as a social cost or gain does not quite get the point – or at least not the whole point. The best reason to end smoking is that people who don’t smoke have a better chance to lead better lives.  The best reason to care about college – who goes, and what happens to them when they get there – is not what it does for society in economic terms but what it can do for individuals, in both calculable and incalculable ways.

  The second argument for the importance of college is a political one, though one rarely hears it from politicians. This is the argument on behalf of democracy. “The basis of our government,” as Thomas Jefferson put the matter near the end of the 18th century, is “the opinion of the people.” If the new republic was to flourish and endure, it required, above all, an educated citizenry.

This is more true than ever. All of us are bombarded every day with pleadings and persuasions – advertisements, political appeals, punditry of all sorts – designed to capture our loyalty, money, or, more narrowly, our vote. Some say health care reform will bankrupt the country, others that it is an overdue act of justice; some believe that abortion is the work of Satan, others think that to deny a woman the right to terminate an unwanted pregnancy is a form of abuse. The best chance we have to maintain a functioning democracy is a citizenry that can tell the difference between demagoguery and responsible arguments.

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Education for democracy also implies something about what kind of education democratic citizens need. A very good case for college in this sense has been made recently by Kronman, the former Yale dean who now teaches in a Great Books program for Yale undergraduates. In his book Education’s End, Kronman argues for a course of study that introduces students to the constitutive ideas of Western culture, including, among many others, “the ideals of individual freedom and toleration,” “a reliance on markets as a mechanism for the organization of economic life,” and  “an acceptance of the truths of modern science.”        

Anyone who earns a BA from a reputable college ought to understand something about the genealogy of these ideas and practices, about the historical processes from which they have emerged, the tragic cost when societies fail to defend them, and about alternative ideas both within the Western tradition and outside it. That’s a tall order for anyone to satisfy on his or her own – and one of the marks of an educated person is the recognition that it can never be adequately done and is therefore all the more worth doing.

There is a third case for college, seldom heard, perhaps because it is harder to articulate without sounding platitudinous and vague. I first heard it stated in a plain and passionate way after I had spoken to an alumni group from Columbia, where I teach. The emphasis in my talk was on the Jeffersonian argument – education for citizenship. When I had finished, an elderly alumnus stood up and said more or less the following: “That’s all very nice, professor, but you’ve missed the main point.” With some trepidation, I asked him what that point might be. “Columbia,” he said, “taught me how to enjoy life.”

What he meant was that college had opened his senses as well as his mind to experiences that would otherwise be foreclosed to him. Not only had it enriched his capacity to read demanding works of literature and to grasp fundamental political ideas, it had also heightened and deepened his alertness to color and form, melody and harmony. And now, in the late years of his life, he was grateful. Such an education is a hedge against utilitarian values. It slakes the human craving for contact with works of art that somehow register one’s own longings and yet exceed what one has been able to articulate by and for oneself.

If all that seems too pious, I think of a comparably personal comment I once heard my colleague Judith Shapiro, former provost of Bryn Mawr and then president of Barnard, make to a group of young people about what they should expect from college: “You want the inside of your head to be an interesting place to spend the rest of your life.”

What both Shapiro and the Columbia alum were talking about is sometimes called “liberal education” – a hazardous term today, since it has nothing necessarily to do with liberal politics in the modern sense of the word. The phrase “liberal education” derives from the classical tradition of artes liberales, which was reserved in Greece and Rome – where women were considered inferior and slavery was an accepted feature of civilized society – for “those free men or gentlemen possessed of the requisite leisure for study.” The tradition of liberal learning survived and thrived throughout European history but remained largely the possession of ruling elites. The distinctive American contribution has been the attempt to democratize it, to deploy it on behalf of the cardinal American principle that all persons, regardless of origin, have the right to pursue happiness – and that “getting to know,” in poet and critic Matthew Arnold’s much-quoted phrase, “the best which has been thought and said in the world” is helpful to that pursuit.

This view of what it means to be educated is often caricatured as snobbish and narrow, beholden to the old and wary of the new; 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.”

In today’s America, at every kind of institution – from underfunded community colleges to the wealthiest Ivies – this kind of education is at risk. Students are pressured and programmed, trained to live from task to task, relentlessly rehearsed and tested until winners are culled from the rest. Too many colleges do too little to save them from the debilitating frenzy that makes liberal education marginal – if it is offered at all.

In this respect, notwithstanding the bigotries and prejudices of earlier generations, we might not be so quick to say that today’s colleges mark an advance over those of the past.

Consider a once-popular college novel written a hundred years ago, Stover at Yale, in which a young Yalie declares, “I’m going to do the best thing a fellow can do at our age, I’m going to loaf.” The character speaks from the immemorial past, and what he says is likely to sound to us today like a sneering boast from the idle rich. But there is a more dignified sense in which “loaf “ is the colloquial equivalent of contemplation and has always been part of the promise of American life. “I loaf and invite my soul,” says Walt Whitman in that great democratic poem “Song of Myself.”

Surely, every American college ought to defend this waning possibility, whatever we call it. And an American college is only true to itself when it opens its doors to all – the rich, the middle, and the poor – who have the capacity to embrace the precious chance to think and reflect before life engulfs them. If we are serious about democracy, that means everyone.

Excerpted from College, by Andrew Delbanco. Copyright©2012 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission. Andrew Delbanco, who was awarded the National Humanities Medal last month, is the Mendelson family chair of American studies and the Julian Clarence Levi professor in the humanities at Columbia University. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.