Reviewing _College_

Andrew Delbanco, _College_A very engaging yet deeply frustrating book, Andrew Delbanco’s College tries to offer a grand vision of higher education, but falls into the error of mistaking a niche for the whole.

College is, mostly, a pleasure to read. Delbanco is passionate about his subject, and keenly committed to learning. His account of academic history draws nicely from primary sources, yielding humorous quotes and echoes of the present. Delbanco’s prose is thoughtful and elegant.

His overall claim for a specific form of higher education is also appealing. He envisions small classrooms led by engaging professors, spaces where inquiry and discussion range freely. I agree with the excellence of this vision based on my work as a teacher and from my memories of being a student. Delbanco’s additional claim that colleges can boost citizens’ democratic engagement is one I’m sympathetic to.

However, this vision is so partial and limited as to constitute at best a kind of special pleading.  At worst the book is a grossly inaccurate depiction of higher education in reality.

To begin with, Delbanco openly admits that his focus is on a handful of Ivy League campuses (mostly Yale, Harvard, Princeton, and Stanford). “[M]y focus is on the so-called elite colleges” (6). The experience of more than 4500 American institutions counts for little or nothing in College. Towards the book’s end the author observes that many new trends (see below) don’t really apply to “the old and prestigious colleges that have been at the center of this book” (153)… then changes the subject.

The classism of this move is a bit breathtaking. Delbanco even observes that “our ‘best’ colleges are doing more to sustain than to retard to growth of inequality in our society” (26-7; repeated 122), and stays silent about ways of addressing the problem. Moreover, this strategy follows the hoary cliche of every campus wanting to be Harvard, and the unfortunate media trope of paying too much attention to Harvard and Yale at the expense of the rest of American academia. Delbanco has said elsewhere that many Americans envision college life based on a dream of the 1920s, failing to grapple with a century of development; his book is predicated on a similar problem. He admits that there is a “[growing] disparity among institutions”(7), only to plunge onwards.

For instance, adult learners are simply not an issue in College. The book is all about the traditional-age undergrad: “At its core, a college should be a place where young people find help for navigating the territory between adolescence and adulthood” (3). That this doesn’t describe the majority (!) of college and university students is a serious weakness for the book.

This focus leads the book away from any serious consideration of college economics. Yes, College sketches the development of financial aid over the 20th century (ch. 4), but stops before our current decade of the Great Recession and our present funding crises. Funding a transformation of American higher education into four thousand Princetons stocked with seminars is a colossal problem, one the book sidesteps. Delbanco tentatively suggests “in theory, at least” that governments could spend more money, but fails, remarkably, to note the political reality of governments moving in the opposite direction (160). It’s “encouraging” when a wealthy institution reduces the number of huge lecture classes in favor of small seminars, but the lack of describing how to fund the additional number of instructors (“[s]uch a faculty is expensive to recruit and retain”) is discouraging (88-9).

Similarly, Delbanco’s imagined classroom is not taught by a part-timer, non-tenure-track faculty member. In reality adjuncts now teach the majority of classes, and there are no signs of that changing in the near future. The adjunctification of the professoriate makes scant impression on College (6, 123, 153), and no solutions to the problem appear. Let me expand the passage cited earlier: “my focus is on the so-called elite colleges, which have so far been relatively immune to the gutting of the faculty that is already far advanced at more vulnerable institutions” (6). This is especially galling for a book claiming to depict, as its subtitle claims, “College: What It… Is, and Should Be.”

Beyond economics, College downplays a host of other disciplines. The STEM world barely appears in this book. Instead the humanities dominate on multiple levels. Delbanco quotes beautifully from literary and philosophical writers, but never from scientists. His curricular examples are usually, if not exclusively, found in the humanities (57-60, 100-101, 173); in one case, they are explicitly against the sciences (99). His pedagogical model is solely that of discussion, not the lab. Students engage by writing papers, never by composing lab reports or completing problem sets. Undergraduates take classes from “a grab bag of unrelated subjects” (85) – sometimes true for humanities majors, but impossible for science students.. As a humanist, I know too well the tendency of humanists to mistake their part of the academic world for the whole; it’s unfortunate to see it happen in as thoughtful and well-researched a book as this. Seeing computer science described as “narrowly vocational” (12) is not so much insulting as depressing.

Speaking of STEM, Delbanco calls his approach to technology “skepticism”, but that is really a misnomer for ignorance. He touches on MOOCs and online learning, only to rapidly shunt them aside. The digital humanities appear in a single paragraph, unnamed, and framed in mockery and marginalization (98). Delbanco doesn’t do anything with blended learning, the flipped classroom, digital multimedia, social media, open education, cMOOCs (as opposed to xMOOCs), open access publication, the crisis of scholarly communication, the rise of the digital public intellectual, information literacy, etc. He would have done better to exclude technology entirely for reasons of space, or else take it seriously.

In sum, I’m disappointed in the book, and expected more from an author I admire.  Is there a better current work on higher education?

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9 Responses to Reviewing _College_

  1. rmbenson says:

    Really fine review, Bryan. I have ordered this for my library’s collection in hopes that it might contribute something useful to the conversation on my campus. You can’t, it seems to me, talk about higher ed without addressing both adult learners, the impact of the internet and the appropriate use of learning technologies.


  2. Thank you, Robert. I’m curious about the conversations which might occur there; will you blog ’em?


  3. Pingback: Jobs of the future aren’t what you think | Bryan Alexander

  4. Thanks for your nuanced critique of this book, Bryan. It seems from your report to be so wrapped in rose-colored elitist glasses as to be breath-taking. And discouraging. Education seems to me to be a phoenix being both consumed in flames and rising from those ashes all in one confusing glorious and inglorious moment in history; what a complex and magnificent potential theme for a writer/researcher of Delbanco’s stature and abilities. But it’s as if his mind got kidnapped by a runaway vine of Ivy Beleaguered. Sigh.


  5. Nicely put, Sandy.
    Can you recommend any current books on the topic?


  6. The book I am currently reading is Changing Lives: Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema, and the Transformative Power of Music. This is the blurb I read on that convinced me it might be worth reading:
    “In Changing Lives, the maestro’s story becomes the entry point to an equally captivating subject: El Sistema, the music education program that nurtured his musical talent, first as a young violinist and then as a budding conductor under the mentorship of its founder, José Antonio Abreu. What began in Venezuela has now reached children in Los Angeles, New York City, Baltimore, and cities around the world. No matter the location, the overarching goal of El Sistema is unwavering: to rescue children from the depredations of poverty through music. Part history, part reportage, this book reveals that arts education can indeed effect positive social change.”

    If you find other resources, I am very interested!


  7. That sounds fascinating, Sandy. Thank you.
    I’m halfway through William Bowen’s _Higher Education in the Digital Age_. There’s a good discussion of college economics, and an important exploration of blended learning.


  8. Pingback: How not to write against MOOCs and education reform | Bryan Alexander

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