Andrew Delbanco opens this book describing a faculty meeting early in his tenure at Columbia where the end of “needs blind” admissions was being debated. He described this debate as the beginning of a journey of thinking about not only his chosen discipline but the whys and wherefores of the university, of which this book is a product.
The book follows the schema of the title. He looks at the origins of colleges in this country, particularly dwelling on the church-related character of their beginnings, the changes in college education post-Civil War driven by our industrial economy and the influence of the German research university model, and the current state of the collegiate world.
In contrast to some, he is not a doomsayer, although he reckons seriously with the trends of for-profit schools, online education, and the cost pressures in modern education, particularly post-2008. Nevertheless, he argues for the continued importance of college as a place where undergraduates do not simply learn a skill, but wrestle with the big questions that “make life interesting”. He ultimately comes down against a “merit-driven” admissions process alone–arguing for a kind of “grace” that permits those who might not otherwise enjoy the college experience to have a place at the table. In this, he consciously cites the early college ethos that recognized the undeserved privileges of those who obtain such education and the requirements of noblesse oblige that follow. I discuss this last point further in a blog post found here: https://rtrube54.wordpress.com/2013/11/07/meritocracy-and-the-modern-university/
It is fascinating for me as a collegiate ministry worker to see his references to Christian influences in the university, that in some way provide the basis for a love of learning that is not simply pragmatic, yet consider these as anachronistic beliefs no longer relevant to the current scene. He even remarks at his surprise when he attended a Veritas Forum at Columbia and discovered a large lecture hall full of intellectually earnest and thoughtful people considering the relevance of Christian truth claims to the university world.
I noted in his acknowledgements several people of faith in university leadership positions. It is my hope that Delbanco and others recognize that the love of God and the love of learning need not be at odds with one another. Some of the people who may indeed be his most serious co-belligerents in seeking the flourishing of the 21st century university are those very people of faith.
There was much that I appreciated in his treatment, particularly the evident love of learning, love for students, and conviction about the importance of the university in the formation of students for lives of meaning, of fruitful citizenship, and useful work.