College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Andrew Delbanco, Director of American Studies at Columbia University, explains why he worries that the traditional four-year college experience—a time for students to discover their passions and test ideas and values—is in danger of becoming a thing of the past. In his book College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be, he offers a defense of such an education, and argues that making it available to as many young people as possible remains central to America's democratic promise.

Share your thoughts: Did you find college worthwhile? Do you think the standard four-year college education should change?


Andrew Delbanco

Comments [20]

Peter Talbot from Harrison, NJ

Mr. Delbanco blithely advises that our aptly named not-for-profit colleges do better than they are credited with in teaching people how to think. True, but irrelevant. Unlike most of the rest of the world, the US seems determined to defer any actual education in primary texts until freshman college year or later. I have Brooklyn Tech's own 1940's text books for it's history, literature and other classes, including extensive readings in primary sources. These high school texts are rarely touched in most US colleges until graduate work begins.

The fact is that our public education system has been dumbed down by a host of ill-advised philosophical claptrap: no learning by rote; no testing that might be biased against some poorly defined group; no accelerating of individuals in favor of raising whole class averages by mixing better with poorer students to pad teacher and school standardized test evaluations and many other nonsensical things, all attendant on three monstrous lies:

1. teachers are more concerned/professionally capable than parents to determine what children need to study and be tested on. Bunk. We have Al Shanker and a host of other cynical NYC sachems to thank for this palaver that first hurt us all during Ocean Hill/Brownsville, or do I digress?

2. that technical "STEM" field training and "great books" reading lists are mutually exclusive. Balderdash. In fact, STEM training is silly and dangerous unless a certain amount of wider reading and discussion precedes it.

3. that schooling is an unalloyed good in itself. Ivan Illich was correct ("Deschooling Society"): the gnostic clubs of higher education are often neither elevated nor educational: they are mostly normative and socially stultifying.

On the whole, we would do better with less schooling and more libraries, but there's no money in that so we're closing them down in favor of Wikipedia access in phone booths. I may set up a used bookstall in front of the Main Branch lions in protest.


Aug. 15 2012 02:33 PM

Jay from NYC,

Don’t despair…
Only $10,000 in loans for an Ivy League Education is not so bad! And yes, disillusion can occur with exposure to the inequities of our world… Higher Education can sometimes be a double edge sword. But more importantly, Higher Education provides the prospect and tools for changing the causes of your disillusionment throughout your professional career.

I prefer to be disillusioned with knowledge than oblivious in bliss!

Stay the course and hopefully you can navigate the financial aspect of our higher education system. At the end, it’s worth it.

Aug. 14 2012 01:24 PM

It might be a good idea to have a show on how to get folks educated for the jobs that Bloomberg is wanting to bring immigrants in for, and how to get currently unemployed people, who have education and experience in those jobs, up to speed so they can fill those job openings.

Aug. 14 2012 12:48 PM

So if most professors are all now part time and earning very little as Andrew Delbanco just stated, where is all of this ever escalating tuition money going? It's a money grab and institutions are spending unknown amounts on things like smart boards and state of the art gyms to attract more and more students with more and more money. The price for this to our society will be steep.

Aug. 14 2012 12:47 PM
Sharif Karni from Forest Hills. NY

I am a First Gen Bangladeshi American. Came to the US when I was 13. Went to High school but dropped out. Took The GED went to a community college then transferred to a private University. Racked up student loan debt over a 100K. But I still think It was completely worth it because the competitive advantage it gave me. I started my career in 2010 when most fresh graduates were having difficulty finding jobs. I likely got my job as a chemical engineer because the VP of the firm who first interviewed me was also a graduate of the same university. It's true nearly 1/5th of my monthly income goes towards my student loan payments but when I consider the alternative I can't help but feel lucky.

Aug. 14 2012 12:45 PM
CK from Yorktown

Peter B: you sound like a man with personality, skill and talent that made the most of what he has. Good for you! Not everyone needs to go to college and we will always needs skilled craftsmen. That said, the world is different today and not earning your HS degree at minimum is a recipe for low wages for the rest of your life. So while this was a good approach at that time for someone with gumption, I don't think it's an option in this era.

Aug. 14 2012 12:42 PM
Jay from NYC

As a freshman who started off bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, I am now entering my junior year bitter and disillusioned. I attend an Ivy League school where I applied early decision and received a generous grant (something that seemed wonderful as a child from a solidly middle class family). Everything seemed well, until every financial aid package my grant dropped and loans went up. Now I have about $10,000 in loans, and have had to give up a dual degree because I can't afford to spend extra time in my undergraduate. My friends in other institutions have other similar experiences--one friend lives off loans and her credit card, working two jobs while attending her school.

Yes, college is a wonderful time to find myself, who I am, and what I'm interested in--but it has hurt my wallet (but not wealthy classmates' wallets) and ultimately turned me into a very pessimistic person. I feel I am coming out with no skills, and the only way to receive a job is to continue onward to graduate school. I believed in higher education, but I'm not so sure if I do anymore, my faith has surely been shaken.

Aug. 14 2012 12:38 PM
oscar from ny

College and parents are racist institutions that play out like lottery..

Aug. 14 2012 12:38 PM
Melissa Berry from Los Angeles

I just earned my MA in Humanities at the age of 63. My BA was in 1972. Being in grad school the last three years has revived my emotional life. Although having taught for 17 years and being a published author, what I gleaned in the academic surroundings of Mount St. Mary's college these last three years, created a new and improved me. My son and my friends will be the first to agree. It wasn't just the coursework, it was the atmosphere and the people I met. Both faculty and students.

Just now on the show, whoever said his(her) degree means nothing in life may have had false expectations of achieving knowledge and experiences.

Chacun à son goût and I'm a glutton.
Melissa Berry

Aug. 14 2012 12:37 PM
J from Westchester

My son has asperger sydrome and is very smart and intellectual. The liberal arts experience at Sarah Lawrence College has given him a chance to focus his attention on his interests and to have wonderful professors. I am so happy he is having this chance and am so happy that he is learning to write, think, and argue about ideas.

This said, financing needs to be addressed and jobs availability for this age group must be addressed.

Aug. 14 2012 12:37 PM
Peter Brownscombe from East Village

I dropped-out of organized education when I was 16 years old. That was back in 1967 and I have never regretted it.

I earn more money than many collage graduates and I have more fun.

Aug. 14 2012 12:35 PM
Steve from Jersey

One of the biggest problem with colleges, which causes tuition to go up, is the fact that most colleges feel the need to bring in entertainment rather than leave it to the students to seek their own needs of entertainment. If my peers feel the need to go see Kesha in concert, more power to them, but I don't want my tuition dollars being allocated to student organizations that organize those events- I hate Kesha and I am going to school to learn and have fun on the side in whatever way I choose.

Aug. 14 2012 12:35 PM

I had plenty of great teachers at Columbia who valued formative thought, however they did not receive tenure, while professors who were very poor teachers received tenure. What would you say to President Bollinger to keep the high quality teachers from leaving Columbia?

Aug. 14 2012 12:35 PM
Hugh Sansom

The caller whose child went to Scotland is onto something that would set of alarm bells if the US were civilized. Paul Krugman and other liberals have noted that the US has some great, underappreciated export strengths. One is higher education. Bit it is becoming so expensive in the US, that we are going to cease to be an exporter. People will go abroad. Even Americans will go abroad, just as people are beginning to do in health care.

Aug. 14 2012 12:32 PM
CK from Yorktown

I did four years of undergrad in Art. I had a great time but never got a job in art. What I learned in school was more about leadership, organization etc. Of course I had to go back to get an MBA to put a serious degree on the art degree. I think for the price of a degree you should come out able to get a job.

Aug. 14 2012 12:32 PM
Anonymous from New York, New York

I would be curious to hear how your guest thinks a new generation of academics can influence the direction of American colleges when there are so few opportunities. I am about to start a PhD program in the humanities at Columbia and realize there are only a small number of tenured teaching positions in my field. My plan is to try to find a position in a number of years, but I'm prepared to leave the country if I have to do so in order to find a secure teaching job. Are any of the goals your guest is suggesting possible with the adjunct system operating the way it does today?

Aug. 14 2012 12:32 PM
Mark from Newark, NJ

I help manage an occupational apprenticeship program in Newark, NJ, where we recruit, train and place recently-graduated high school students into paying jobs within 8 months. The students are given an intensive academic enrichment program, soft skills training such as interview techniques, and pre-apprenticeship training in entry-level employment in either nursing or physical therapy. Our model, which educates students for less than $8,000, could be replicated nationally, and indeed is part of the USDOL's registered apprenticeship programs. I don't understand why we can't take a more critical look at effective cost effective occupational training in the US. Why saddle students right off the bat with tens of thousands of college debt? We are going about it all wrong, and the time to market occupational apprenticeships is now. Thank you

Aug. 14 2012 12:31 PM
Mary Copeland from The Bronx

My daughter will be attending Goucher College this fall following a grueling college search including several small liberal arts colleges and several SUNYs. The liberal arts schools all included a freshman curriculum with special focus on thinking and learning and being a citizen of the world. The SUNY presentations emphasized acquiring job skills, like how to interview, how to create a resume, how to look for a job. Even presentations by individual departments like Communications and Creative Writing emphasized these same things. It wasn't until I asked the writing professor to describe her classroom curriculum including authors studied and workshop writing, did she discuss her program. The comparison of the private and SUNY presentations was startling.

Aug. 14 2012 12:29 PM
tim from nyc

i have interviewed many many people over my 25 year career. any time i review the resume, i am looking for skillsets. when i ask them questions, if they know answers or respond articulately, this is important. i have never once in this entire time concerned myself with where they received their degree, or how many years they went to school, or where they worked before.

Aug. 14 2012 12:21 PM

How silly. More and more course material is being made free at institutions such as MIT. Universities need to add real value such as stepping up their teaching quality to undergrads. I went to NYU and in some classes, all homework and exam grading were relegated to grad students (some were not pursing PhDs) who did such a cursory and sloppy job as to be useless; the whole do homework/get feedback loop was destroyed.

Aug. 14 2012 12:21 PM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

Get the WNYC Morning Brief in your inbox.
We'll send you our top 5 stories every day, plus breaking news and weather.