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Sex & Low Beach
American studies professor Andrew Delbanco was awarded the 2011 National Humanities Medal by President Barack Obama last February. His biography of Herman Melville was highly acclaimed and, most recently, he published a book called College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be. Delbanco sat down with The Eye to talk about transparency in Columbia’s administration, the Core, and who should be going to college.
From your point of view, what is one of the discrepancies between what college was, is, and should be?
My sense of the American college is that it’s a unique institution in the world, based on several principles that are peculiar to American culture. One of them is that young people between adolescence and adulthood should have a kind of interval, a time for reflection—a time to try to figure out who they are, what kind of life they want to make for themselves. As a place for self-discovery, the American college has been a very special institution in the context of higher education.
In most of the rest of the world, when young people go to a university, they’re expected already to know the answers to those questions. In this country, traditionally, that’s not been the case. I think there are a lot of pressures on colleges of all types, including our own, that are shrinking that space for self-discovery—pre-professional pressures, pressures to acquire marketable skills. These imperatives are understandable in many ways, but I don’t think that our colleges are doing as good a job as they should to resist the demand to retain their identity as institutions for facilitating self-discovery.
In October, you gave a speech in which you said that you believe there’s a very real threat to the Core. The size of classes and the diminishing amount of small discussion sections—is that the biggest threat? Are there other pressures that you see?
It’s a secondary problem. The main challenge is to provide incentives and rewards for faculty who engage in teaching, not only in the Core, but teaching undergraduates in other courses as well. This is a great research university, and it will always be the case that there’s a tension between the research mission and the teaching mission.
I think that as we make investments in our new research campus up in Manhattanville and as we attempt to compete with other great research universities, we don’t want to lose the Columbia tradition whereby faculty are very much engaged in undergraduate teaching—particularly in the
You talk about people who are the first in their family to come to college or come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Where do you feel Columbia is with this? Are we doing a good job making college available to everyone?
Well, my impression is that Columbia does quite well in upholding its commitment to socioeconomic and racial and ethnic diversity by comparison to our peer institutions. However, this is only an impression, and the reason I can’t be more confident about how we’re doing is that there’s no place anymore where concerned faculty can actually have an informed discussion of our financial aid policies. We’re told that we’re doing fine, but we have no data. I don’t have any idea whether the percentage of our students receiving financial aid has been going up or going down or remaining steady. I think there’s an urgent need for greater transparency and greater information so that the whole community understands what conditions we’re operating under and what problems we might be facing.
You are quoted as saying that college is essential to a functioning democracy, like knowing how tell demagogues from leaders and having a sense of history. How do you think we’re doing this year?
Well, I think this is a principle that President Obama understands and believes in. But his ability to improve college access is extremely limited. I applaud his efforts to provide additional support for our community colleges, which are very important entry points into higher education for first-generation students—children of immigrants, for example. But there’s actually, in the present mood of budget-cutting and deficit anxiety, relatively little that the government can do.
We need some creative solutions to these problems, and I don’t pretend to have these solutions. I think every institution has to take some responsibility because at the end of the day, we don’t really have a system of higher education in the United States—we have about 4,000 colleges of one kind or another, and they’re all very different from one another.
What are your thoughts on the article written by Charles Murray in 2008 about how increased accessibility to college might lead to too many people going to college?
Mr. Murray is one of these people who asserts very confidently that only a small percentage of high school graduates are capable, to use his phrase, of college work. I have no idea how he knows that. I also find that, in general, people who argue that not everybody should have the opportunity to go to college tend to be talking about other people’s children rather than their own.
So it’s not as if there aren’t some severe problems with our K-12 school system—it’s not as if every young person should go to college, or certainly not to the same kind of college—but that there are many bright young people with great potential in this country who don’t have the opportunity to go to college for one reason or another: poor schooling, inadequate resources, poor counseling and advice about what college you might be able to go to and how you could finance it. I have no doubt that there are many more young people who could benefit from a college education than are currently doing so.
Do you think that someone who might not have done as well in high school could benefit from a college experience?
I do, and I think colleges have a responsibility to serve students, whatever their needs are. We should be more aware of that responsibility. And
I think, across the board, to say that the problem lies with the K-12 system—our secondary schools are failing us—may have some truth in it, but if we wait for the secondary school system to fix itself in this country, then we’re going to have a diminishing number of students coming to college. And for all the reasons that I try to put forward in this book, that’s not a good idea. Colleges need to deal with reality, which they are not doing as well as
they should be.
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