Andrew Delbanco, the director of American studies at Columbia, is the author of the forthcoming book “College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be.”
The Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum recently set off a ruckus when he attacked America’s colleges as “indoctrination mills” from which God-fearing Americans should keep their distance. Calling President Obama a “snob” for urging all Americans to go to college, he joined a long tradition that runs from Andrew Carnegie, who more than a century ago described colleges as places that prepare students for “life upon another planet,” to Newt Gingrich, who has claimed that alumni donations are often used “to subsidize bizarre and destructive visions of reality.”
Mr. Santorum’s remarks have been widely, and justly, rebutted. Yet defenders of college should do more than respond to its critics with reciprocal contempt. We should seize the opportunity for introspection. Why does the anti-college mantra still touch a nerve among so many Americans? Some of the reasons are doubtless ugly (sheer envy) or unfounded (fear of exposing one’s children to moral corruption). But it is also true that our colleges — especially the most selective and prestigious — bear some responsibility for the perception that Mr. Santorum and others have expressed and exploited.
Consider the fact that SAT scores (a big factor in college admissions) correlate closely with family wealth. The total average SAT score of students from families earning more than $100,000 per year is more than 100 points higher than for students in the income range of $50,000 to $60,000. Or consider that a mere 3 percent of students in the top 150 colleges, as defined by The Chronicle of Higher Education, come from families in the bottom income quartile of American society. Only a very dogmatic Social Darwinist would conclude from these facts that intelligence closely tracks how much money one’s parents make. A better explanation is that students from affluent families have many advantages — test-prep tutors, high schools with good college counseling, parents with college savvy and so on.
Yet once the beneficiaries arrive at college, what do they learn about themselves? It’s a good bet that the dean or president will greet them with congratulations for being the best and brightest ever to walk through the gates. A few years ago, the critic and essayist William Deresiewicz, who went to Columbia and taught at Yale, wrote that his Ivy education taught him to believe that those who didn’t attend “an Ivy League or equivalent school” were “beneath” him. The writer Walter Kirn recalled that at Princeton he learned to “rise to almost every challenge ... except, perhaps, the challenge of real self-knowledge.”
It is demonstrably clear that universities are in the business to do two things:
- generate people capable and certified to perform specific tasks in the labour market, especially those at the top end of that market like medicine, law, nursing, engineering, and more recently finance, accounting and business and
- conduct research in as many fields as they have doctorates on faculty to supervise such research.
That means, that even in such faculties as theology, the academic approach is to objectify whatever it is that is "under the microscope" so to speak.
We have learned from the quantum physics departments that, of course, one's imprint is all over whatever experiment one is conducting, leaving the absolute certainty of the empiricial method somewhat in doubt. So what is clearly absent from the university is the acceptance of subjectivity as a legitimate component of both content and method, except for a very few colleges and universities that embrace the subjective as a legitimate "component" of the curriculum.
Burlington College in Vermont and Graduate Pacifica Institute are two that come to mind, where the works of Jung and James Hillman, Marion Woodman and others are "studied" reflected upon and written about in an atmosphere of something approaching community...both on campus and as part of the global community.
For example, there is an integration of what in other institutions of higher learning would be "subjects" or disciplines, for example in such studies as "transpersonal psychology*" which attempts to embrace both the subjective and the objective in its intellectual/emotional/spiritual/psychic/organic approach to learning. Of course, such approaches represent only the fringe of the intellectual community in the U.S. and hardly find their way beyond the 49th parallel. Certainly, Jung finds a home in very few, if any, psychology departments in Canada.
Self-knowledge is so significant and important to the individual learner as to trump much of the ideological meanderings of many academic campuses even though the argument is made quite reasonably that there must be some "relationship" between the objective data one is "learning" and the person's growth who is doing the absorbing.
However, to champion objectivity, and in the last three or four decades especially, the acquisition of as much personal wealth as one can accumulate, as the "prize" for a university education, especially one that includes a doctorate in such arcane subtleties as "credit defaults" (merely an offshoot from the mathematics curriculum) is to render much of the universities' claim to "excellence" mere disaster, both in the life of the nation (United States) and in the individuals who have driven with such ambition and obsessive compulsion towards those "megamansions" of 10,000 square feet that would house a full town in the underdeveloped world, and house merely a family of four or five in many of the gated communities in many U.S. cities, as the example of those cities' elites.
It is the "kind" or quality of the university education that is under fire, and Mr Delblanco is correct to point the finger at the need for universities to reflect on the criticism that is coming at them.
Where, for example, are many of the liberal arts courses that at least reflect upon the personal experiences of many of the greatest writers in our history, even in emotional terms, in their novels, their plays and their poems, or on their canvases. Many of those courses, along with the subjects like Latin and other even more steeped in history languages, have gone the way of the dodo bird, as endangered species, finding few if any recruits, and the universities and thereby our communities are the lesser for that loss.
There are minimal examples of "training in teams" in some faculties like medicine, through which experiences one is exposed to how one "fits in" to the group culture, and while relevant to "sefl-knowledge" it is another example of function trumping content...we need "group think" to better diagnose the complexities of disease...not enhanced self-awareness.
Back in the mid-eighties, I considered entering a doctoral program, and made the decision that I already knew how to read and to write papers which skill would merely be enhanced through such enrolment and decided to enter theology as one route to enhanced self-knowledge only to fin that much of that curriculum was of the "academic" genre, that is objective, empirical and "other"....except for the part that included "clinical pastoral education" which focused on reflection, guided and deepened by experiences like autopsies and operating room surgeries in which and through which we were exposed to the emotional, psychic and intellectual edges of human existence.
And for that decision, and learning experience, I will be forever grateful.
*For more on Transpersonal Psychology, see my wife's blog, Gaia Compass. She received her B.A. in Transpersonal Psychology from Burlington College, Vermont, in 2004.