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College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be by Andrew Delbanco

“The university is the key institution that nurtures, exemplifies, and promotes a fundamental idea of modern culture: the idea of progress.”

As the economy fumbles and college tuition soars, society has become more and more frustrated with our colleges and universities. These institutions of higher education are supposed to be accessible to all and produce fresh-faced leaders for the new world. However, the concept and reality of higher education seem farther apart than ever before.

In Andrew Delbanco’s College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be breaks down the nation’s seemingly apparent disgust with higher education. I think a more appropriate title for this book would be The History of America’s Disdain and Dissatisfaction for Higher Education.

The notion that today’s colleges are missing the point is not a new concept, in fact, it is a centuries old American tradition. When present-day politicians and pundits frequently dispute the value and relevance of higher education, they are partaking in a longstanding national debate. Abigail Adams, wife of President John Adams, once wrote to her husband objecting to American education, claiming it has “never been in a worse state.”

Higher education is a difficult thing to assess and evaluate. Richard Riley, secretary of education under President Clinton, summarized the unique challenge of higher education. “We are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist using technologies that haven’t been invented in order to solve problems that we don’t even know are problems yet.” How do you accurately calculate the value and relevance of a system that is designed to figuratively predict the future?

There will always be a debate concerning the focus of higher education. Students and parents alike seek lower tuition yet demand universities to provide a country club atmosphere complete with full access fitness centers, gourmet espressos shops, and cutting edge technological capabilities. Additionally, students want independence and freedom from the institution, yet demand the university to take full responsibility in protecting students from any harmful behavior that arise from such freedom.

It is very difficult to recount the history of higher education without sounding like a textbook, however Delbanco holds your attention with a great balance of historical perspective and funny anecdotes. The recommendations listed at the end of book are short, sensible, yet rather obvious. If you are looking for the key to saving higher education, you won’t find it here, but you will discover the history of a debate that will persist as long as higher education does.