What is the future of the American college? It’s uncertain, according to a recent book by Professor Andrew Delbanco, as well as a panel discussion featuring Delbanco and several other students and prominent professors Thursday night.
The panel, moderated by Columbia College Interim Dean James Valentini, focused on the place of a liberal arts education amid preprofessional pressures. Delbanco’s book, “College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be”—which was published last month—served as a springboard for the discussion.
Delbanco, the director of the Center for American Studies, said that the “idea of college as a place for reflection, a place where you can take a breath—that’s not happening very much anymore.”
“This is a mild version of the problem where college is conceptualized as a vocational institution,” he said. “They’re not endangered institutions, but the question is what kind of place they will become.”
Director of the Center for the Core Curriculum Roosevelt Montas and political science professor Ira Katznelson, CC ’66—a onetime interim executive vice president for Arts and Sciences—also served on the panel with Ganiatu Afolabi, CC ’12, and Samuel Roth, CC ’12 and former Spectator editor in chief.
“When we ask about the future of the college, we’re taking about a particular idea of the college that is developed in the American context,” Montas, CC ’95, M.A. ’96, and Ph.D. ’04, said. “And that is to put at the center of the college the idea of a liberal education. That’s pretty unique in the United States.”
Delbanco discussed some of the issues that he believes students and faculty should be concerned about, including increases in class sizes, the difficulty of staffing courses, and the challenge of navigating complicated university bureaucracies. He talked about similar issues, specifically as they pertain to Columbia College, in an on-campus speech in October.
“None of these problems is new, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t complain about them,” he said. “That’s our job as critics of the present.”
The panelists also spent time talking about Columbia specifically. Afolabi said that the administration’s lack of transparency concerns her.
“It’s really interesting that, in general, we educate students so we can take part in this democracy,” she said. “How am I supposed to be a responsible student when I don’t even know how the democracy of my own school works?”
One problem at Columbia, Delbanco said, is that several important committees keep their work confidential, limiting public discussions and debate. He cited the Committee on Instruction, which is responsible for approving new courses and reviewing degree requirements, as one example.
Still, Delbanco said that some professors remain dedicated to the Core Curriculum. Political science professor emeritus Douglas Chalmers—a member of the Society of Senior Scholars—told the panel that faculty should spend more time refining the Global Core requirement, as students are “living in a very different world” than the world that the Core was created in.
“The world is changing. The United States is fading away as a major power,” he said. “The West is being confronted with all kinds of new sorts of things—the word is ‘globalization.’”
“The Core Curriculum is kind of stuck on teaching the Western Core and being very prominent,” he added. “I think we need to think seriously about how that should change.”
Delbanco responded by saying it is ironic that many East Asian universities are considering implementing the four-year American version of college, rather than the three-year British version. He emphasized the importance of discussing the style of the American college.
“My primary motivation is that we need more conversations like this,” Delbanco said. “The community that cares about the college should be talking about these issues and not grumbling privately.”
Valentini, the moderator, stayed silent for much of the panel. He said that “the way to have good ideas is to have a lot of ideas, and the way to have a lot of ideas is to have a lot of people thinking,” but that implementing ideas is always a challenge.
“One does not have to be dean very long to realize that in this community, the porridge is not just too hot or too cold—the porridge needs to be an individual, specific temperature for each of us,” he said. “And each person would like the dean to establish that temperature for everyone.”