Review: College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be

College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be
College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be by Andrew Delbanco
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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:

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.

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Meritocracy and the Modern University

Do you think of your life achievements as something you have deserved because of hard work, or as something that has come through accidents of birth, upbringing, social class and educational opportunity which obligated one to “pay it forward” to society for the benefits one has enjoyed? The former stance defines what is known as “meritocracy”, a term, according to Andrew Delbanco did not exist prior to 1958. The latter stance is known under the term noblesse oblige or the obligation of the nobility to use their standing for the larger good.


Delbanco, in his book College: What it Was, Is, and Should Beargues that we have witnessed a shift from the latter to the former in the university world. Admissions at many universities no longer favor either wealthy alumni nor minority students but look more at test scores and academic resumes. Delbanco observes that in former days, students from wealthy families like those of Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy knew they weren’t at one of the elite Ivies because of their academic talents but because of their family’s wealth. What Delbanco observes is that this privilege often engendered a corresponding sense of responsibility to devote oneself to the public good. I won’t argue here whether the Roosevelts or the Kennedys achieved public goods, but it was clear that these were at least some of what motivated their public service.

In a discussion with some graduate students, I asked a question Delbanco as a Harvard grad was asked–do you deserve to be here? Many, in really being honest said “yes”. And it is true that those who were in the room had worked, and were working hard. They’d studied when others played, took AP courses, were serious undergrads. What they seemed less aware of in some (not all!) cases were the opportunities that they had no choice in–the families into which they were born, the schools they attended, the access from an early age to educational resources, the affluence of parents in many (not all) cases, the help they received from parents and school counselors in choosing good undergrad institutions, the incredible fortune to work on taxpayer funded research projects and receive taxpayer funded stipends, and on and on.

Delbanco says that while there is much to commend meritocracy with its focus on personal excellence, if it loses sight of the fact that all who enjoy such opportunities are also blessed with undeserved favor, it can lead to a dark side of an attitude that says “each one for themselves, and devil take the hindmost”–that forgets those, in our country and others who haven’t had the same opportunities and privileges.

Delbanco self-identifies as a secular Jew but makes a striking observation that should give the religious among us pause:

“The shared point here is that our oldest colleges have abandoned the cardinal principle of the religion out of which they arose: the principle that no human being deserves anything based on his or her merit….To the extent that human beings are capable of worthy actions, they are unmerited gifts from a merciful God, and should be occasions for humility rather than pride.” (pp. 138-139)

I wonder if this gets to the heart of much of the polarization in our society. How do we hold together the quest for personal excellence and the rewards that accrue thereto, and yet also recognize that our very lives, gifts, and circumstances are “graced” things that are never ours alone?