Andrew Delbanco

Andrew Delbanco on Purpose

Andrew Delbanco is director of American studies at Columbia University and the author of College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be. He opened with a quote that seemed to capture the current handwringing about higher education: “Education has never been in a worse state.” When Delbanco revealed that the statement was actually made by Abigail Adams in 1776, the irony wasn’t lost on Summer Seminar attendees, many of whom have weathered a few education “crises” over the years. “There’s nothing new about any of this,” said Delbanco of the latest disruption facing higher education.

Indeed, he demonstrated that the identity crisis facing American colleges has been building for decades. Expounding on the topics addressed in his latest book, Delbanco showed that the identity and purpose of college has been diluted by a variety of factors.

First, we’ve lost sight of the important distinctions between colleges and universities. In fact, Delbanco said, the two terms have become virtually interchangeable in our culture. Yet the historical purpose of colleges, he reminded attendees, was wholly different than that of universities. Whereas universities have traditionally prepared students for professions through an array of research activities, colleges impart broader knowledge and prepare students for a good life: “College is about transmitting knowledge of and from the past for undergrads as a living resource for the future,” he suggested.

But our colleges, lamented Delbanco, are increasingly suffused with university culture. Faculty members no longer take seriously the calling of professorship, instead seeking research appointments or authoring opportunities as means to career advancement. We promise prospective students “cutting-edge” research opportunities and “state-of-the-art” facilities—university-speak that would have been unthinkable at colleges even 50 years ago.

Second, the mind-boggling evolution of technology has tilted the emphasis in higher education toward the university model, said Delbanco. Having lived through rapid advances in medicine and science, we have ceded our colleges to the university’s progressive understanding of education: to store up knowledge and pass it on, so that each subsequent generation can continue its advancement.

Though this is a worthy goal, Delbanco put forth his belief that there are problems with the university’s faith in perpetual advancement. While science and technology appear to progress inexorably, cultures and people do not. The 20th century saw both the greatest technological gains in history and some of its cruelest barbarism—a conundrum that cannot be explained away.

Colleges have traditionally grappled with questions of morality, ethics, and self-identity that can’t be easily understood through the scientific method alone, said Delbanco. Colleges have been places of intellectual discourse, where students have time to contemplate their place in the world—a commodity that Delbanco noted is increasingly rare in our frenetic culture.

He also argued passionately for preserving opportunities for college students to wrestle with life’s core questions. Yet he acknowledged that the traditional liberal arts college faces significant obstacles—including a “digital tsunami” as universities expand and become Internet-driven “comprehensive knowledge enterprises.”

“We must fight the good fight,” urged Delbanco, “and preserve space in this brave new world.” He identified three ways to convince a skeptical society of the value of college and its mutually edifying approach to education.

First, the economic argument: Higher education is important for national competitiveness in the global economy. You need a highly educated population to compete.

Second, you cannot have a functioning democracy without an educated citizenry. Now, more than ever, we need adults who can navigate the growing complexities in our world.

Finally, college prepares us for a richer, fuller life. Delbanco conceded that this is a difficult argument to make, because it’s nearly impossible to explain to someone why college is enriching if he or she hasn’t attended college. So he suggested quoting Judith Shapiro, former president of Barnard College: “You want the inside of the your head to be an interesting place to spend the rest of your life.”