during the eighteenth century, it was commonly thought that colleges
were little more than “disorderly burlesques,” a place where young men
went to chase after pleasure and power.
Delbanco reminds us that despite the continued complaints of the
failings of higher education, our universities and colleges have remained
the envy of the world. Ninety-three percent of respondents to a recent
survey in the United States considered our academic institutions a
national treasure, and on the international list of the world’s best universities, fourteen of the top twenty are American.
Despite the debates, Americans still believe in college. Postsecondary
education remains in high demand, with over 18 million people attending
four-year and two-year institutions. And while some seek to diminish its
personal and professional value, others decry the fact that the lower and
middle classes are being priced out of the market. As we know, the odds
of going to college and getting into a competitive institution are closely
linked to family income. Children from families who make more than
$90,000 have a one-in-two chance of getting a bachelor’s degree. From
there the numbers quickly plummet; students from families who make
less than $35,000 have a one in seventeen chance of going to college.
There’s a very real fear that the opportunity to learn will be available
only to the wealthy, brilliant and lucky few.
In 1776, in a letter to her husband, Abigail Adams complained that
“education has never been in a worse state.” Complaints against higher
education have never quieted. Ellsberg’s diatribe mimics the derision of
the largely self-educated Andrew Carnegie a hundred years ago: “College
as it exists today with its focus on antiquated ideas and dead languages
is suitable only for life on another planet.” There have always been those
who see college as hopelessly backward and irrelevant. And the public
and educators alike have always quarreled over the “types” of education
offered: knowledge versus skill, inspiration verses discipline, insight versus information. Yet, in truth, these “types” of education have coexisted
for some time in the college environment.
After fifteen years in the classroom, I’ve come to realize that teaching is a mysterious profession. The best you can say is that it’s a living,
breathing, untamable creature, but one worth wrangling with. At the
end of Professor X’s confession, he concludes that a few of his students
will thrive, even flourish, a few will fare okay, and even more will wither.
This was true when I was in college as a student and later as a professor.
But it’s a chance worth taking, and a price worth paying.