Why college works

College at Risk – The Chronicle Review – by Andrew Delbanco (may be behind a firewall)

Delbanco takes issue with the instrumental view of education that we see in policy statements, such as the idea that education is about producing “a work force that’s productive and competitive” (former President Bush).

But in several important respects, the American college is a unique institution. In most of the world, students who continue their education beyond secondary school are expected to choose their field of specialization before they arrive at university. In America there has been an impulse to slow things down, to extend the time for second chances and defer the day when determinative choices must be made. When, in 1851, Herman Melville wrote in his great American novel Moby-Dick that “a whaleship was my Yale College and my Harvard,” he used the word “college” as a metaphor for the place where, as we would say today, he “found himself.”

He mentions that the trend towards inclusion in American higher education has also been a unique contribution, including the “California plan”, which unfortunately is under attack.

He also argues that it might be hard to preserve the liberal arts experience that is so special:

One of the difficulties in making the case for liberal education against the rising tide of skepticism is that it is almost impossible to persuade doubters who have not experienced it for themselves. The Puritan founders of our oldest colleges would have called it “such a mystery as none can read but they that know it.”

There is a lot more to his defense of the American liberal arts tradition and I recommend it. As he notes, we are under a lot of pressures to change, but there is much that deserves preservation.