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Sep 29, 2007

Andrew Delbanco and Derek Bok on the Purposes of College

Should the mission of college go beyond imparting skills and handing out a useful credential? In his 2003 book, “Universities in the Marketplace,” Derek Bok, the former Harvard president, made the shocking observation that “faculties currently display scant interest in preparing undergraduates to be democratic citizens, a task once regarded as the principal purpose of a liberal education and one urgently needed at this moment in the United States.” Bok was right on both counts — the neglect and the urgency — but he relegated his statement to a footnote. It should have been a headline.

-- Andrew Delbanco, Academic Business, New York Times, 30 September 2007

05:28 PM in Quotables | Permalink


Okay, Phil. I like you too much to accuse you of "grenade-tossing." But . . . the problem with this post is a problem I have seen too often in my young staff officers. "Here's the problem," they say, and then stop.

Delbanco doesn't quite do that as much as your selected snippet might suggest. And while I might say that it generalizes a little too much as well, even that problem is not as rampant as the snippet suggests. Indeed, most of the offense comes from Bok, rather than Delbanco. Bok seems to imply that this problem is epidemic and universal. It is not. He also seems to place the blame on "faculty" as opposed to "administration." The latter (and its policies) tends to drive the actions and priorities of the former, if not through direct policy statements on what will be taught and how, then through more subtle but even more effective means, such as policy statements on who will be granted tenure and why.

There are many different reasons for attending college. For some students, the beer and the sex is actually the goal. Others have higher aims. And only occasionally will the goals of parents and children be the same. That said, it is probably fair to say that most parents could stand to be far more involved in shaping their children's preferences. With that in mind, I find the closing paragraph of Delbanco's article more useful.

As our children go through the arduous process of choosing a college and trying to persuade that college to choose them, it will be a sign of improved social health if we can get to the point of asking not about the school’s ranking but whether it’s a place that helps students confront hard questions in an informed way. If and when the answer is yes, that’s a college worthy of support, and all the alumni gifts and tax breaks can never be enough.
Those colleges exist. The more parents and students demand them, the more prevalent they will become.

Posted by: Doc | Sep 30, 2007 3:19:59 PM

Doc -- thanks for your thoughtful comment. Not that it should matter, but I realize that I forgot to add something I intended to the quote, namely a line that said:

"Hmm.. Interesting. What do you think?"

Which is to say, I for sure don't have a natural agreement with Derek Bok's comment.

Your choice of the later Delbanco quote is a nice one with which I agree with wholeheartedly. (And you remind me that I need to write a followup comment to the nice entries folks put on my Teachers/Teaching blog a couple of weeks ago.) Granted, Delbanco once again points out something that is less than a solution. Before, you pointed out how folks sometimes point out a problem, then stop. In his last paragraph, Delbanco points out what a better world would look like, then stops. But in neither case does he point to how to GET to that better place.

I'm not saying that it was responsibility to do so, but I do agree with the idea that while talking about happy wishes is a useful first step, it's just that -- a first step.

Speaking geographically, Antioch College up near you was considered by many (though not all) to be the kind of college that tried to help students think about tough problems in an informed way. And now they are closing.

Posted by: Phil | Sep 30, 2007 6:41:16 PM