Has the democratic ideal of a classical education, open to rich and poor alike, become a thing of the past?
That’s the scenario proposed by esteemed literary scholar Delbanco (Humanities and American Studies/Columbia Univ.; Melville: His World and Work, 2005, etc.) in this engaging assessment of how American higher education has lost its way. He starts with the American ideal, dating back to the Puritans, of college as a place that trained the whole person, taught students “how to think and how to choose” and how to question received wisdom. The examined life, in essence; a process of “growing out of an embattled sense of self into a more generous view of life as continuous self-reflection in light of new experience, including the witnessed experience of others.” In modern America, that focus has shifted: Now it’s less about the eternal verities than chasing after dollars, more about filling seats than heads and more about science than the humanities. The research university is now regarded as “the most evolved species in the institutional chain of being.” The greater purpose founders, while “literature, history, philosophy, and the arts are becoming the stepchildren of our colleges.” Given his pedigree, Delbanco may sound like he’s protecting his own turf, but he makes a strong case that the purely materialist approach to education assures that the disparity between rich and poor students only widens, with “merit-based” financial aid and scholarships all going disproportionately to students from families with money. Scholarship reform, a classical curriculum, more real teaching (and less lecturing to crowded halls) are all in order.
Although stronger on diagnosis than cure, this is an impassioned call for a corrupt system to heal itself.