College: ‘The Best Rehearsal Spaces We Have for Democracy’

College: ‘The Best Rehearsal Spaces We Have for Democracy’

August 26, 2019 0 By Stanley Isaacs


bjbj”9″9 GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight, as students
line up to receive diplomas and head out in search of work in a tough economy, we turn
to one author’s assessment of the value of a college education. Jeffrey Brown recorded
this book conversation earlier this month. JEFFREY BROWN: On the one hand, an article
of faith, a college education is a goal to be sought for all Americans; on the other,
a growing question, is college still worth it? A new book looks at this great and troubled
institution. It’s titled “College: What it Was, Is and Should Be.” Author Andrew Delbanco
is a professor at Columbia University. His many books include a biography of Herman Melville,
and last year he was awarded a National Humanities Medal by President Obama. And welcome to you.
ANDREW DELBANCO, professor, Columbia University: Thank you. JEFFREY BROWN: Now, you make a
case in this book that something has been lost, or at least in danger of being lost,
even a kind of moral center for our colleges. How do you define the problem? ANDREW DELBANCO:
Well, I think we want to remember that through much of our history, a very small percentage
of the college-age population went to college. And for those people, either they didn’t need
a job or they had a job waiting for them. College wasn’t so much an institution for
preparing people for the marketplace, but it was an institution for helping them discover
who they were. In fact, I d say that the American college which we take for granted is actually
a unique institution in the world of higher education. In most countries, the relatively
small number of people who go on to university are expected to know what they’re after, what
they’re good at, what their competence is. In our country, we have always wanted to believe
that there might be a chance for young people between adolescence and adulthood to take
some time to reflect, to discover who they are. JEFFREY BROWN: So your sense is that
we ve lost this place of exploration, I think, or we’re losing that sense, and turning more
towards a kind of credentialing, utilitarian. . . ANDREW DELBANCO: It’s not lost, but I
think it’s under threat from many directions. And much of that is understandable. The anxiety
that parents feel about the cost of colleges. . . JEFFREY BROWN: I will say. You could hear
somebody saying right away, right, but it costs so much. ANDREW DELBANCO: It’s a well-placed
anxiety. And the anxiety that young people feel, especially those who are trying to get
into selective colleges, what’s this going to do for me, what’s it’s going to be about,
all of that is understandable. But I don’t think it should be an either-or. I don’t think
colleges should be expected exclusively to provide sort of job training services, though
they should graduate students with competence and with the ability to read and to write
clearly and to think and to work hard. But they should also try their best to preserve
this space for self-reflection that has been so important to us. JEFFREY BROWN: Part of
the focus of this book, of course, is that the most elite schools, which is where you’re
coming from, but also you’re making a case for a much broader sector, the entire educational
sector? ANDREW DELBANCO: I am. I think so much of the conversation is about a small
handful of institutions. And that’s understandable on a number of scores. And we want to remember
that most college teachers are trained in research universities, so that small group
of highly esteemed research universities is important. But, of course, the glory of the
American education system is its breadth and its diversity. And we have an enormous number
of different kinds of institutions. The community colleges are every bit as important for the
future of our country as the Harvards and the Yales. JEFFREY BROWN: One of the pieces
of the economic puzzle that you point to as a problem today is access to schools, that
the better off you are, the far greater chance you have of getting into especially top schools.
So, is there less upward mobility now? You’re making a case that this problem is exacerbating
economic and social divisions in the country. ANDREW DELBANCO: I think that’s right. I mean,
it’s one of the glorious stories of American civilization that we opened up the opportunity
for college to an unprecedented number of young people, much more widely than any society
ever had done before. That story, I think, is slowing, it’s stalled, it may even have
gone into reverse. And we don’t acknowledge this frankly as we should how steep the barriers
are for kids who come from families that are struggling economically. JEFFREY BROWN: And
so what’s happening? What do you see happening? A division? ANDREW DELBANCO: I see a stratification
of the higher education system. I see in the elite, selective colleges a much too high
percentages of students from affluent families. And I see too many resources going in that
direction and too few resources going to the institutions that serve low-income students
and children of immigrants and first-generation college-goers. JEFFREY BROWN: How much do
you blame the top-echelon colleges themselves? I note — I went back. During the campaign,
Rick Santorum made a statement about calling colleges indoctrination mills. You wrote an
op-ed piece. And, of course, you didn’t agree with him on that, but you pointed out that
there is a — I think you used the word smugness, a certain smugness on the part of elite schools.
ANDREW DELBANCO: Well, I didn’t agree with him. And I thought he misrepresented President
Obama to some degree. But I don’t like the rhetoric that greets the incoming class at
the most selective institutions, which is almost invariably, you are the best ever.
And it encourages young people — a lot of them resist it. There are a lot of wonderful
students at these institution, but it encourages them to think that, well, I must be better
than all those thousands who didn’t get in. I think that’s a bad message. And I think
there are reasons for the winners to doubt that they won altogether because of their
own virtue and merit. JEFFREY BROWN: So, what would you do? What would you — even a single
thing to improve college, given that we have only touched on some of the problems that
you raise here? ANDREW DELBANCO: I don’t have a sweeping answer to that. And that’s going
to disappoint some readers of my book. But I think every institution has to tackle this
on its own terms. One of the glories, as I said, of our system is that it’s not really
a system. Every institution has a different constituency, different alumni, different
cultural values. But I think that we want to keep in mind as firmly as we can and we
want to defend this historical function of the American college, which is to help students
discover themselves and to become citizens, not just competent employees, but thoughtful
citizens. And that includes self-criticism. There are ways to do that by, I think notably,
having those students participate in classes which are, in my mind, the best rehearsal
spaces we have for democracy. The college classroom should be a place where students
learn to speak with civility, to listen with respect to each other, to know the difference
between an argument based on evidence and an opinion, and most of all to realize that
they might walk into the room with one point of view and they might walk out with another.
That adds up to a certain kind of humility. And I think all of our colleges have the responsibility
to try to inculcate that as much as possible. JEFFREY BROWN: Of course, most of the rhetoric
one hears from politicians, the president included, as well as parents sitting around
their tables now trying to figure out how they’re going to pay for this, is that there’s
got to be something at the other end, right? ANDREW DELBANCO: Yes. JEFFREY BROWN: It’s
got to lead to something that benefits my daughter or son and, most of all, it’s put
in economic, job terms. ANDREW DELBANCO: Yes. And the economic argument is indisputable.
We need a competitive population in the global knowledge economy. The evidence is clear that
young people who go to college even for a year or two tend to do better than people
who don’t. But the argument for democracy is, I think, at least as important. JEFFREY
BROWN: All right, we are going to continue this conversation online. And I’m going to
invite our viewers to join us there later on. But, for now, Andrew Delbanco’s new book
is “College: What It Was, Is and Should Be.” Thanks so much. ANDREW DELBANCO: Thank you.
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PlaceName urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags place GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight, as students
line up to receive diplomas and head out in search of work in a tough economy, we turn
to one author’s assessment of the value of a college education Normal Microsoft Office
Word F*|8 F*|8 GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight, as students line up to receive diplomas and
head out in search of work in a tough economy, we turn to one author’s assessment of the
value of a college education Title Microsoft Office Word Document MSWordDoc Word.Document.8