The Idea of an American College

One of the most difficult things about trying to think about higher education today is that it’s not immediately clear what it is even all about anymore. I’ve just finished reading Andrew Delbanco’s College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be and he himself confronts the fact that a lot of confusion about college today comes from the fact that we tend to use the word “college” to designate institutions ranging from community colleges, commuter schools, and research universities even though the differences between them are far from trivial.

These differences are something that I am experiencing first-hand as I spend this year dealing with people who come from all sorts of backgrounds, even if many of them are “college-educated” or “college students”. I’ve run into people who have essentially not made any new friends at school because all they basically do there is take classes, study, and then return home to hang out with church or high-school friends. If they’ve been displaced from their home community, some of them have problems finding a new one because pretty much no one sticks around on campus after classes are over.  This is possible because what they are studying is purely technical, a matter of professional training aimed towards accreditation. This is not even to mention the many who now study online or via distance learning programs.

Delbanco, however, himself has one particular ideal in mind when he uses the word “college”: the vision of a community of learning dedicated to the pursuit of contemplation for its own sake. It is the liberal arts education that Delbanco is concerned with, as well as the uniquely American development of the tradition; whereas the liberal arts has traditionally been the province of the societal elite, it was in the U.S. that the ideal was democratized.  Based on this definition, however, the number of students who are actually getting a “college” education is a lot lower than one would think: maybe fewer than one out of fourteen “college” students would actually be attending “college” as the word originally meant to the Puritan founders of America’s first colleges. This discounts the even larger numbers who don’t attend attain to any form of higher education at all. This, so it seems, serves the role of the call-to-action in Delbanco’s narrative.

But how the heck did we get here in the first place? Delbanco offers a different glance at the situation compared to the jeremiads of religious authors like Alasdair MacIntyre (Catholic) and George Marsden (Reformed), who mourn the fragmentation that has characterized our institutions of higher learning ever since their unifying religious visions were abandoned. The story that Delbanco tells is one of expansion and reaction. Whereas Marsden characterizes the McCosh-Eliot (Princeton v. Harvard) debates over curriculum in the late 19th century as a clash between a losing attempt by McCosh to reserve for religion a special role in education and Eliot’s promotion of the non-sectarian ideal that was to be the “religion of the future”, Delbanco sees both men as trying to deal differently with the new reality confronting every institution at the time: more students than ever before.

For those of you who might be unfamiliar with the McCosh-Eliot debates, it was a heated discussion at the turn of the century (1885) over whether or not students should be allowed to “elect” their courses or be forced to take classes that make up a certain “core curriculum”. In other words, it was the moment in which “electives” were born. George Marsden, in The Soul of the American University, suggests that the core issue was whether or not colleges had a right to demand that there were certain things that all young men ought to learn – a question of religious authority. McCosh was the defender of Calvinism, which held to certain revealed tenets about the world and human nature; Eliot was a child of Emersonian Transcendentalism, a product of a Unitarianism which celebrated individual self-reliance and creativity as the means through which the divine unveiled itself. For Marsden, the debate was as much theological as it was practical, the difference a question of whether the Calvinist conception of freedom – submission to God’s order – or a modernist conception – individual self-legislation – would win.

For Delbanco, on the other hand, the question of curriculum was not so much a question of theology as it was of immediate practical concerns. Both could recognize the problems immediately confronting them – growing enrollment numbers – and both formulated strategies to confront it. The disagreement between McCosh and Eliot was not a matter of educational philosophy so much as an anthropological evaluation: Eliot simply believed that Harvard’s admissions process would only admit those self-thinking individuals capable of choosing the course of study best for themselves; McCosh, on the other hand, was a bit more skeptical about the capabilities of young men emerging from their teenage years. For all the rhetoric about freedom in choosing one’s classes, Delbanco merely points to the fact that an elective system makes economic sense when confronted with an increasingly specializing and professionalizing caste of teachers and enlarged enrollment. Increasing class size – exploding upon the push for co-education in the 20th century and search for international students in the 21st – makes it more difficult to maintain a compulsory curriculum as it means having to find more teachers who must both be prepared to teach it as well as willing to take time away from their research to work on it together with other faculty. For Delbanco, it is the democratizing impulse of American higher education, pushing to expand higher education to the masses, not the theological tension between two differing interpretations of the role of tradition in faith, that led to the loss of the core curriculum.

Though Delbanco himself teaches at a university which supports a core-curriculum (Columbia), it is not the actual content of that curriculum that interests him, but the role it serves in preserving what he calls “lateral learning”, the ideal of communal learning which insists that learning is not simply a vertical transfer of information between teacher and student but also a horizontal experience of engagement with one’s peers. For the wealthy colleges that could afford it – Harvard, Yale, and Princeton – the construction of residential colleges that could bring students together into community would preserve the communal ideal central to Delbanco’s conception of college. For those that couldn’t – Chicago and Columbia – core curricula serve a similar function.

Delbanco’s concern for the success of the democratization of higher education causes him to highlight the many ways in which our colleges serve more to perpetuate social hierarchy rather than promote mobility today. He is especially concerned that the rise of “meritocracy” (which, Delbanco wryly notes, was first coined in a dystopian novel of the order of Brave New World) has only served to hide the underlying inequities behind the admissions processes and quash the sense of social responsibility among those who are admitted.  Interestingly enough, he appeals to a recovery of religious concepts of “grace” – the conception that God does not discriminate between persons when bestowing his gifts – as a resource for pushing back against meritocracy.

Delbanco’s book is impressive in its breadth and brevity: it covers a wide vista of important moments in the history of the American college while nevertheless remaining around 200 pages (by comparison, Marsden’s The Soul of the American University is a whopping 480 pages). For those of us planning to participate in the continuing experiment that is American higher education, Delbanco’s emphasis on the importance of lateral learning  having a peer community – and the social responsibility that comes with democracy is one that resonates with religious emphases on the importance of friendship and justice. I suspect that the connection is no accident. The Emersonian tradition from which Delbanco hails is essentially a secularized Christianity which replaces church with the American nation and God with the American people. The realization of “democracy” and the kingdom of God are one and the same. The theological virtues of faith, hope, and love are replaced by secular versions which call for faith, hope, and love in “the system” and “the American people”.

Insofar as the absolute transcendence of God is effaced, Emerson’s Transcendentalism is idolatry. But insofar as it nevertheless affirms some of what is good and right and true, we have found allies in our own attempts to grapple with the meaning and significance of American higher education. He brings attention to various aspects of the religious past that, on his own admission, many of his secular colleagues would be embarrassed by.  He, on the other hand, tries to appropriate these ideas and virtues for his own purposes. There is much to be applauded in Delbanco’s book, but his reading of the McCosh-Eliot debates reveals his commitments: for him, Eliot embraced the pluralistic democratic future ahead of him while McCosh resisted it. We who follow in McCosh’s footsteps in affirming the importance of faith and education might discern a valid concern in McCosh whereas Delbanco sees only stubbornness.

And in the end, what is perhaps most disappointing about Delbanco’s book is the scant attention paid to what ought to be done. For a book with “What It Should Be” in its title, little is said about the historical sources and course content that really ought to be taught in such schools, the canonical texts and decisions which have shaped the tradition of liberal democracy as it has taken shape in America today. As Peter Berkowitz said in his recent article on improving higher education:

“Liberal education is not neutral. When true to itself, it encourages gratitude toward free societies for offering the opportunity to study fundamental ideas and seminal events, and for maintaining—by means of customs, laws, and political institutions—a framework that allows individuals and their communities a wide sphere in which to organize their lives as they think best.”

This is the core curriculum which McCosh defended, though, of course, McCosh might be a bit broader in his choice of texts so as to include that contemporary pariah we call Christian Theology – indeed one of the required classes at McCosh’s Princeton was a class in Christian apologetics. In this sense, Delbanco’s Emersonian celebration of self-discovery and creativity may have blinded itself to the fact that its individualism is not universal but a very particular brand of individualism, one with a history and tradition that by its very nature it tends to ignore, an irony that Princeton professor Jeffrey Stout chronicles in his book Democracy and Tradition. This canon of saints might include figures such as Locke and Rousseau, Emerson and Thoreau, Whitman and Dewey.

But we, too, have a great cloud of witnesses that we would do well to remember, and – even more – insist that others do as well. But Paul and John and Moses and Isaiah have long been relegated to classes which are not so much interested in their continued viability so much as their historical contingency. The study of Augustine and Aquinas, of Calvin and Barth and Luther has been shoved into those cute pre-professional schools we know as “seminaries”. What things might these who have gone before have to say to us today? How might they call us out of ourselves into the responsibilities that God has set before us? These, and other similar questions, are among the casualties of the triumph of Eliot’s ideal.

Andrew Delbanco opens his final chapter with a reflection on what genre of literature his book might best be archived as:

I have tried in this book to tell a story of ideas and institutions while keeping people – students, teachers, academic leaders – at the forefront of the tale. I did not want to stick to any one of the genres to which such a story usually conforms – jeremiad (invoking the past to shame the present), elegy (gone are the greats of yesteryear), call to arms (do this or that and we will be saved) – so the result, no doubt, is a messy mixture of them all. In fact, if there is one form to which most recent writing about college belongs, it is none of the above, but, rather, the funeral dirge.

But we hope in a God who gives life to the dead and calls the things not being into being. Have mercy on us, we pray.

Note: I have majorly over-simplified this book in this presentation. Also, there are other issues that I have not discussed for brevity’s sake. Consider, for instance, that the liberal arts ideal comes from a Greek anthropology that sees detached contemplation as the true end of man. This is a conception that Christians, for whom both work and rest are proper to humanity, might want to push back against. Nicholas Wolterstorff has perhaps the best reflections on this in his essay collection Educating for Shalom, in which he tries to articulate a vision which finds some middle ground between the liberal arts and the technical college.

Also, for some more reflections on why the elective system might not be so bad, I’ve written another blog post elsewhere.

One thought on “The Idea of an American College”

  1. Here’s a quote from Eliot’s (the poet, not the president) essay, Tradition and the Individual Talent I found marginally related:

    “Tradition is a matter of much wider significance. It cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour. It involves, in the first place, the historical sense, which we may call nearly indispensable to anyone who would continue to be a poet beyond his twenty-fifth year; and the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order. This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional. And it is at the same time what makes a writer most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his contemporaneity.
    No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead.

    the difference between the present and the past is that the conscious present is an awareness of the past in a way and to an extent which the past’s awareness of itself cannot show.

    What happens is a continual surrender of himself as he is at the moment to something which is more valuable. The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.”

    I think Eliot has a similar view towards the importance of tradition over the individual, seeing it as a sign of a mature poet.

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