Book Reviews

To Get the Soul Out of Bed

Can an element of secular transcendence be returned to the American college curriculum?

By Scott McLemee

Tagged CollegeEducation

College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be By Andrew Delbanco • Princeton University Press • 2012 • 229 pages • $24.95

John Dewey, the philosopher of American liberalism par excellence, distinguished between “education as a function of society” and—viewing the same landscape through the other end of the binoculars—“society as a function of education.” This may sound like a man chopping the semantic nuances just a little too fine. But Dewey was hardly a thinker prone to indulging in wordplay. For him, making a distinction meant creating a tool. The contrast between “society as a function of education” and its opposite was, to his mind, real and consequential—and the distinction operates in public life in ways that are typically about as subtle as a shouting match.

Andrew Delbanco marches into the middle of the fray in College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be. A few words of elaboration seem in order, starting with the older of the two perspectives. “Education as a function of society” tends to be a conservative point of view, at least culturally. It regards norms and tradition with respect. Schooling, from this angle, is fundamentally a way for society to reproduce itself over time by ensuring that a sanctioned core of knowledge (skills, ideas, information, myths, and values) is transmitted from one generation to the next.

Here a couple of things go almost without saying, starting with the existence of authorities who judge what ought to be transmitted and ensure that it actually is. The other assumption is that the authorities do, in fact, know what they’re doing.

When “the principles and directives of a society are operating smoothly . . . education prepares the minds of the young by equipping them to maintain these same principles and directives.” So wrote the American cultural critic Kenneth Burke in comments on Dewey from the late 1930s, which was, of course, a time when things were definitely not operating smoothly. Education’s role in reproducing the established social order looked more like a bug than a feature.

But suppose the malfunctioning “principles and directives” could be changed. Suppose we shifted perspective and began thinking of “society as a function (i.e., a product) of education” instead—recognizing, in other words, that our ability to understand, describe, and act on the world depends on what we know and have been taught to do. For example, if familiarity with geometry or the multiplication table is limited to a small group of people near the top of the social pyramid, those skills will be of limited practical consequence, and the pyramid will remain fairly stable. But when the same skills are in the hands of a wider population, all kinds of innovation and wealth creation become possible. Old ways of life yield to those created by the new problems that come up. The Pythagorean theorem transforms from something Plato demonstrates in a dialogue about the soul to a tool for engineers.

In that case, there might be grounds for optimism. Social dysfunction would be the product of ignorance, then, or of learning the wrong things—mastering tools and following blueprints unfit for the job at hand. Not all social ills could be traced back to failures in schooling, of course; not by a long shot. But for Dewey, liberalism meant confidence in the possibility of applying human intelligence to the solution of social problems; it demanded a citizenry able to keep up with a world in which the competence of authorities was limited and provisional, since change had become the norm.

Now, outside the seminar room—or the pages of a journal of ideas, such as the one you are reading—people do not often talk about education at this almost metaphysical level. (“Which came first, the social chicken or the educational egg?”) They argue about concrete things instead: budgets and test scores, curricula and faculty competence, what new databases to subscribe to and whether the library should continue to have shelves with books on them.

But beneath those pressing debates are assumptions about which framework makes more sense. That is probably not because folks are reading John Dewey. (Hardcore right-wingers regard him as a devil figure, but almost everyone else thinks of him as the inventor of the decimal system for shelving books, though that was a totally different guy, actually.) No, the duel between society-creates-education and its mirror opposite persists because, in the end, it really does come down to whether our best bet is to preserve and transmit the elements of an established common culture, or to prepare the next generation with the best tools available for the problems at hand.

Which side does Andrew Delbanco come down on? While reading College, I found myself wondering, and I found myself annoyed to find myself wondering. In principle, a book on higher education ought to be exempt from such a judgment call: Dewey was writing about the schooling of children, for the most part, while postsecondary education has its own problems and dynamics. The twenty-first-century university assembles and disseminates so many kinds of knowledge under one institutional roof (which also covers the libraries, laboratories, archives, and so on needed to create more knowledge) that Dewey’s dichotomy seems a little naïve, if strictly construed.

Yet we’ve now had a quarter-century’s worth of conservative polemical literature, beginning with 1987’s The Closing of the American Mind, arguing that the contemporary university is under the sway of extreme Deweyism, committed to extirpating tradition and socially engineering the nation along dystopian lines. Typically the authors focus on a narrow range of trends in select portions of the humanities and an even narrower swath of the social sciences, and estimates of tens or even hundreds of thousands of radical professors are sometimes conjured from a fact-free void. The trusting reader of such books might well picture the average campus as a Maoist indoctrination camp where the guards speak only Swahili and jab with pointed sticks anyone found reading Homer or Hayek.

Now, in reality, that sort of indoctrination almost never happens. But if it did, Delbanco would certainly be among those menaced. He is the author of, among other titles, The Death of Satan: How Americans Have Lost the Sense of Evil and Melville: His World and Work, the acclaimed biography of a writer as dead, white, Euro-American, and male as the canon gets. Nineteenth-century U.S. literature is not just an area of academic specialization for Delbanco, a professor of American Studies at Columbia, but, to a surprising degree, the compass guiding him in exploring what higher education “was, is, and should be,” as the subtitle of his book puts it. The critical perspective informing College is more strongly influenced by the Transcendentalist reflections of Ralph Waldo Emerson than the Marxist theorizing of Antonio Gramsci or Louis Althusser, which will no doubt delight cultural conservatives, as long as they don’t read much Emerson.

Delbanco’s mission is to defend liberal education—the open-ended, horizon-expanding, and fundamentally nonvocational training of the mind through a sustained grappling with the artistic expression and philosophical arguments of people who are foreign and/or dead—as an essential responsibility of the university, and as something that ought to be available to every student, rather than treated as a luxury good provided at elite schools. But “defend” may be too resigned a word for what Delbanco has in mind: He’s ardent about the need for committed teachers of the humanities at an undergraduate level and about the problem of access to liberal education.

Neither can be taken as a given. The default American attitude toward just about anything—the university most definitely included—is how well it approximates a midsize business in providing a marketable product at a reasonable yet profitable cost. The value of studying King Lear is difficult to record on a spreadsheet, and I know at least one philosophy professor whose introductory course on critical thinking would be removed from the curriculum if state legislators from a certain political party had their say. Delbanco makes his case for liberal education as a democratic necessity with a calmness that is itself both eloquent and exemplary of the virtues he sees menaced by forces outside the university and within it.

Delbanco posits that higher education’s problems are local variations of the strains endured by the rest of society. He sees the American college

going through a period of wrenching change, buffeted by forces—globalization; economic instability; the ongoing revolution in information technology; the increasingly evident inadequacy of K-12 education; the elongation of adolescence; the breakdown of faculty tenure as an academic norm; and, perhaps most important, the collapse of consensus about what students should know—that make its task more difficult and contentious than ever before.

With the obvious exceptions of one or two of those items, this list applies to almost any established institution in America (church, newspaper, hospital…). Even issues around tenure and core curriculum have their analogues elsewhere. The “adjunctification” of college teaching—the use of instructors hired with short-term contracts to handle classes that once would have been taught by faculty members on the road to a position with job security, or who already had it—is a variant of the worldwide trend toward “casualized” labor.

Out of the two hundred courses of instruction which stand on the list of Harvard University this year,” Delbanco quotes one prominent figure saying, “it would be difficult to select twenty which could have been given at the beginning of this century with the illustrations, materials, and methods now considered essential to the educational quality of the courses.” The tipoff that this was said some while ago (by Harvard president Charles William Eliot in 1885, to be exact) is the reference to 200 courses—an impressive figure at the time, but roughly what you might find offered by a decent community college today.

Eliot’s comment shows that the university’s tendency to expand and to innovate (to create new, specialized areas of study while also demanding the resources needed to teach them) was in effect well before the country’s economy generated the need for higher education on the scale it reached over the course of the twentieth century. (Only at the end of the Great Depression did the high school graduation rate for 17 year olds reach 50 percent.) Delbanco indicates that there are, at present, about 4,000 colleges in the United States—“rural, urban, and suburban; nonprofit, for-profit; secular, religious.”

It was a proliferation born of demand. And Delbanco says that “one of the great strengths of America’s educational ‘system’ is that it has never really been a system at all”—its heterogeneity well suited to the population that uses it. Much of higher education comes down to credentialization, also known as getting your ticket punched: the earning of the documented competence necessary to qualify for a job, albeit without any guarantee of finding one. To revisit our terms from Dewey, this is an example of “education as a function of society.”

At the same time, College is written in defense of a specific mode of higher learning that Delbanco values and wants to see prevail: the humanities regarded as a practice of soul-making, a secular encounter with the possibility of transcending the particular view of the world you happen to have acquired through the accident of being born in a particular kind of body in a given society at a certain time. He quotes a remark from Emerson’s journals about the teacher’s effort to “get the soul out of bed, out of her deep habitual sleep.”

The trace of religious language here is appropriate, in that Delbanco’s understanding of the liberal arts is consistent with his appreciation for an aspect of American higher education’s early history that, when it is remembered at all, is not often celebrated: the role of religion, especially the Protestant sects that fostered colleges to serve their denominational needs. The mind-narrowing effect of church on intellectual life is easy enough to stress. (More has been said on that score since Richard Hofstadter wrote about it decades ago, though probably not said better.) But there is also a case to make for moral self-scrutiny as part of higher education.

A study of 250 abolitionist leaders shows that “nearly 80 percent had either been graduated from, or spent some time in, a college—and this at a period when less than 2 percent of the overall population was college educated.” Compare that with the record of the past 30 years, which is how long Wall Street firms have been a constant presence on Ivy League campuses, recruiting graduating seniors to work as analysts. In Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street, Karen Ho shows how readily the “best and the brightest” students adopted the ethos of brokerage firms and investment banks: one in which restructuring companies to increase profitability at whatever cost to employees is perfectly acceptable, since job security is a drag on the sublime efficiency of the markets.

Delbanco writes that higher education was once “an exercise in self-examination, self-discipline, and self-abnegation. Or so, at least, it was supposed to be.” But he is not calling for a religious revival. The benefits of soul searching when rendered keen by the threat of hellfire are, all in all, limited. He is dead serious, though, about the need for some kind of secular equivalent to the old “moral philosophy” course that a student took during the senior year—usually taught, he says, by the university president, and dedicated to making sure the graduate had at least some notion of civic virtue and public duty. It was the capstone of the curriculum, the course that sought to draw together the lessons implicit in what the student had been learning from the rest of his studies.

“They had their own kinds of blindness, self-deception, and cruelty,” he writes of the old moralistic educators.

Yet when they were true to their convictions (are we sure we are more so?), they tried to honor their cardinal belief that God in his omnipotence, not man in his presumption, determines the fate of every human being, and therefore that no outward mark—wealth or poverty, high or low social position, credentials or lack thereof—tells anything about the inward condition of the soul.

At the risk of making the book sound preachy (which it isn’t), I want to suggest that this passage pretty well sums up what Delbanco sees as the biggest, most persistent failure of higher education now: the increasingly widespread notion that mind-opening encounters with challenging ideas is fine for those who can afford it and/or prove themselves, through meritocratic sifting and winnowing, to be made of the right stuff; but the absence of such encounters is no great loss to those who don’t get such access, since for most of the populace education is purely vocational.

“Students are pressured and programmed, trained to live from task to task, relentlessly rehearsed and tested until winners are culled from the rest,” Delbanco writes, “and too many colleges do too little to save them from the debilitating frenzy that makes liberal education marginal or merely ornamental—if it is offered at all.”

This isn’t just a plea for the humanities to keep its place at the table, though College is certainly that. Nor is Delbanco exactly making an argument for the liberal arts as the medium through which new, socially critical ideas can take hold and be propagated, a la Dewey—despite his clear belief that an education that has not produced an accountable, critical mind has failed. Rather, he’s concerned about the deeply anti-democratic implications of what is happening—the undoing of Emerson’s vision of scholarship and serious discussion coming down from the ivory tower and joining the fray, rather than polishing the manners of a happy few.

Thorstein Veblen told friends that while writing The Higher Learning in America: A Memorandum On the Conduct of Universities By Business Men, he wanted the subtitle to be “A Study in Total Depravity.” While reading College, I found myself wondering from time to time if the author had not done something comparable to what Veblen did in making that revision: channeled and subdued an element of anger and despair at the scene before him into something much calmer than it might have been, and perhaps ought to have been. Delbanco does a fine job at making his case for liberal education as a public good that should be preserved and fostered; his concern about how social inequality undermines democratic cultural values strikes me as utterly justified. But he wants to be encouraging—first of all, to parents and students trying to judge the value of studying the humanities while in college. Perhaps there is a gloomier draft of the book on his laptop? Both versions would be true, but as Emerson says, “Our moods do not believe in each other.”

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Scott McLemee is a former contributing editor for Lingua Franca and senior writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education, and writes the weekly column "Intellectual Affairs" for

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