Cardinal Newman Lecture Raises the Question: What Is College For?

Students may jokingly ask themselves the question, “What’s the point?” in regards to their college education in the last few hours before a final exam, but Columbia University professor Dr. Andrew Delbanco gave serious thought to his answer of this question at the fifth annual Cardinal Newman Lecture on Sept. 9.

Dean of the School of Arts Keith Brower introduced the Cardinal Newman Lecture, which originated in 2010, the same year that Pope Benedict XVI beatified Cardinal John Henry Newman whom Brower called a “prolific writer” who supported the “idea of a university” and the “key elements of a broadly based education.”

Delbanco, a local who attended the Fieldston School and learned to drive from an MC professor, has written many works, the most famous and pertinent to his lecture being College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be, which he wrote in 2012.

Delbanco began his lecture with the cover of Newsweek from 2012 featuring two students strolling along a perfectly manicured college campus with the words “Is College a Lousy Investment?” strewn across the front. Delbanco admitted, “That is not an unreasonable question.”

The next image that Delbanco discussed was a cover of Boston Magazine from 2012 that featured a young man in his pajamas sitting in front of his laptop with a Harvard mug beside it. “This image implies that class is on his schedule, and it is a rather positive image of the college of the future,” Delbanco said.

Delbanco suggested that from online classes to MOOCS to blended learning opportunities, the college of the future “is coming. This could represent a solution to the increasing costs of college for some” Delbanco said.

Delbanco then asked, “What is the problem with this image? I’ll tell you. This man is alone.”

He then dissected the picture in a similar way to the first image, suggesting that because the young man is on the computer, his experience of college has become one that is done in the same forum that he shops, seeks entertainment, and interacts with his peers via social media, making college learning just another item on his online to do list. Looking at this image, “the idea of human to human interaction is at risk here,” Delbanco said.

“I am here to talk about not the future or the present, but about the past. There are some elements of this (past) that we ought to come to terms with,” Delbanco said.

Delbanco began to speak on the first American higher education mission statement written in Cambridge, MA. The first mission statement was written to “advance learning and perpetuate it to prosperity” according to the founders of Harvard University, who wanted to found the institution to train clergy. “This statement is melancholy, it recognizes our mortality” Delbanco said. “To advance meant to them to evangelize, or spread knowledge. I’ll get back to advance later.”

Delbanco then went on to quote Thomas Jefferson upon his proudest achievement, not being the President of the United States, but rather, on founding the University of Virginia. “You cannot have a democracy without an educated citizenship,” Jefferson said.

He then continued to tell the “story of relentless expansion” that is the American story, including the Morell Land Grant that was passed to create the land-grant colleges, along with the rise of the private institutions. He discussed the GI Bill as it allowed for veterans to get as well as the first public university systems in California with the purpose of allowing “every high school graduate to go to college,” Delbanco said.

Delbanco then explained how the expansion of the American college has made it so that half of first generation citizens are typically unable to get into the classes they need and that public universities are now basically private ones.

Delbanco then revealed some startling statistics about the relationship between chances of attending college and the household income that a person grows up with.

“If your household income is over $90,000 a year, you have a one in two chance of graduating from college,” he said. “If your household income is less than $35,000, your chances are one in 17 that you will graduate by the age of 26.”

Infographic by Cara Ledwidge.
Infographic by Cara Ledwidge.

“Parents want economic viability,” Delbanco said. “They believe education is about job readiness, or how much money will you make, but these measures leave out a golden opportunity.”

“The prime and key function of the American College is to learn from each other.”

Delbanco explained that on that masthead, Melville asked himself the questions, “How can I make meaning? Who am I?” and in that vein, “University should be a place of contemplation,” Delbanco said.

Delbanco gave the example of having two students in a class with highly different backgrounds reading the same text. “A paratrooper veteran from Iraq is going to have a much different experience reading the Iliad than another student who has never come close to knowing war.” Without that personal connection in the classroom, these students would never learn each other’s readings of the same epic.

“The case for college I would like to hear more of is that college is the best rehearsal space for democracy,” Delbanco said. “Here you can learn between an opinion and an argument, learn to look at the two sides and walk away with another point of view.”

Delbanco ended with the story of a young man from 1850 who left a seminar, quite like the one he was giving, worried and upset at something the minister had said. He wrote “Oh that the Lord would show me how to think and how to choose.”

“That’s what it’s all about” Delbanco said. “I see college as “an aid to reflection, a place…to sort out lives true to ourselves and to others.”

Ironically, or maybe not so ironically in response to Delbanco’s concluding sentiments, a student from the audience asked him what was the best thing that happened to him in college, and he said “Honestly, I met my wife. But in regards to what I learned from college, I learned some humility and the dangers of being too full of myself.”

When asked further about the increasing cost of college, Delbanco said, “There is no such thing as a free lunch. Education is expensive. In other places people pay taxes and subsidize the elite who will go on to university. We’ve tried a different model here, one closer to mass higher education. The system worked well for a while, but the past 20-25 years call for a very serious debate with ourselves about this for-profit situation.”

Alyssa O’Braskin, who attended the lecture, said “My favorite part of the lecture might have been that his highlight of college was meeting his wife, but I was also moved by his personal reference to his father and his dealings with what it means to advance. As someone who loves science so much I’m willing to teach it, I completely saw his point on being fearful of pushing for advancement of knowledge as opposed to learning through living and how to be a good person.”