Citing the current national conversation about whether or not college is worth it, Andrew Delbanco told a Washington and Lee University audience Friday that we should not lose sight of the mystery of higher education.
That mystery, Delbanco said, involves those catalysts in a classroom that cause the sparks to fly and the students to catch fire.
Delbanco is the Mendelson Family Chair of American Studies and Julian Clarence Levi Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University, and the author of the 2012 book “College: What It Was, Is and Should Be."
He addressed W&L's annual Founders' Day/ODK Convocation, during which the University's Alpha Circle of Omicron Delta Kappa, the national leadership honor society, held its initiation. By charge of the W&L Board of Trustees, Founders' Day is held each year on the birthday of Robert E. Lee, the institution's president from 1865 to 1870.
Watch the archived event
Delbanco told the Lee Chapel audience that today's discourse about higher education tends to look for a purely monetary or numerically measureable answer to the question of whether or not college is worth the investment.
The economic arugment for the importance of college is real and legitimate, he said. But college offers other values that do not receive as much prominence in the national conversation.
Among those is the belief that college is a place for young people between adolescence and adulthood "to take time for reflection, self-discovery, contemplation. For thinking about the questions, 'Who am I? Who do I want to be?' This is a bedrock American principle. We want to be a society where you aren't told who you are, and are not constrained by the circumstances of your birth, that you have something to say about who you will be in the world."
A second important value of college that Delbanco believes is not getting enough attention is the conviction that students learn not only from their professors but also from each other. He referred to this as "lateral learning" and noted that a true college is a place of all kinds of diversity, which makes the classroom experience especially rich.
"The third thing about college that I think doesn't get sufficient air time is that the college classroom is the best rehearsal place for democracy that we have yet invented," he said, calling the classroom a place where students learn to speak with civility, listen with respect and learn the difference between opinion and argument.
"Most of all," he added, "the classroom is a place where you can walk into the room with one point of view and walk out with another, or at least with some productive doubt of what you were sure of when you walked in."
Delbanco spoke of what teachers experience in every classroom. "It doesn't matter what the subject is. Sometimes the sparks will fly and the students will catch fire," he said. "Other times it's like you're pouring water down the proverbial well or talking into the void. It's as if there is a third force in the room that makes the decision about whether the student will catch fire or not. It's a mystery."
He concluded by saying he had seen that the mystery is understood, respected, alive and well at W&L. "This is a true college, based on the faith that there is an incendiary capacity in every teacher and a flammability in every student."
In opening the Convocation, Washington and Lee President Kenneth P. Ruscio said that no one should take the University's rich history for granted.
"I have long thought of Washington and Lee as a repository of strong values, shaped by many individuals, most notably George Washington, who, with his gift to Liberty Hall Academy, sought to promote literature and the arts in what he called the rising empire; and of course Robert E. Lee, who saw the value of what he called practical education, but who also thought colleges had a role to play in healing the moral and intellectual culture of a deeply scarred country in the aftermath of the Civil War," Ruscio said. "How we enact those values in a very different time with very different challenges is up to us. We honor the past by building for the future."
Ruscio went on to mention the ongoing conversation about higher education in America that Delbanco addressed. He referred to predictions of a "disruption of higher education," arising largely from advancements in information technology.
But, he added, such predictions come from those who assume a college education is a transfer of information and nothing more. "If a college education were only that," said Ruscio, "our lives as teachers and educators would be so much easier. And so much less interesting. And so much less meaningful."
ODK inducted, or "tapped," 24 Washington and Lee juniors and seniors along with seven Law School students. In addition, the four honorary initiates were Loranne Ausley, a 1990 graduate of the School of Law, of Tallahassee, Fla., and James J. Livesay, a member of the Class of 1969, of Houston, along with two current members of the W&L faculty — Mark H. Grunewald, the James P. Morefield Professor of Law, and Pamela K. Luecke, Donald W. Reynolds Professor of Business Journalism.
Jeffery G. Hanna
Executive Director of Communications and Public Affairs