BOOKTALK: Four Years for What?

by Michael B. Shavelson
College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be
By Andrew Delbanco, Mendelson Family Chair of American Studies at Columbia
Princeton University Press
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CM: You worry about the well-being of humanities studies.
AD: As numerical measures are applied more and more as tests of the quality of a college — what’s the graduation rate, what’s the job-attainment rate, what’s the performance on standardized tests — the subjects closest to my heart are coming under even more pressure. The percentage of students majoring in the humanities at virtually all elite colleges is already declining. Yet a book like Moby-Dick has the power to transform a life — as it did mine.

CM: Over the years, you have suggested several reasons why people go to college — pragmatic reasons, philosophical reasons. In your book you describe the experience of running into an older alumnus who said you had missed the point.
AD: He said Columbia College had taught him “how to enjoy life” — and I was knocked over. Columbia had opened his mind and his senses to the world, which was very moving. We need to make sure that kind of education persists.

But how do you measure that power? How do you know about the joy of music or the arts if you have not experienced it? If the College gives up telling students at least to some degree what they ought to try out, students will tend to stick with what they are already familiar with. There are students who have never seen a play by Shakespeare. If the College doesn’t provide that opportunity for them, who or what will?

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