Andrew Delbanco has argued that, as innovations go, the American university is a pretty distinctive one. Right up there with abstract impressionism and fast food.

But Delbanco, a professor of American Studies at Columbia University, worries that higher education has increasingly moved away from one of its core obligations: to help students think deeply and collectively about life’s most profound questions. 

Instead, he says, “colleges and universities — without quite saying so — have begun to think of themselves more and more as vocational training institutions.”

The fate of higher education has long captivated Delbanco, author of the 2012 book College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be. And to be fair, as he notes in College, folks have been complaining about American higher education pretty much as long as it’s been around. 

In 1776, Abigail Adams wrote to her husband that professors too often shirked their teaching duties; the state of education, she said, had never been more dire.

Still, for all the hand-wringing, colleges and universities in the US have been distinguished by their willingness to allow students to explore various interests, rather than — as in many other countries — immediately hone in on a very specific course of study. It’s an environment where folks from Condoleezza Rice to Bill Bradley have encountered people and ideas that changed their lives.

“Young people want an experience of self-discovery,” says Delbanco. “They want to figure out what they’re going to do with their lives. And it’s a betrayal of the American promise to expect young people to know exactly what they want to do, what they’re fit for, and what their life is going to look like at the age of 17 or 18.”

Delbanco has spent more than 40 years as a professor, penned books on everything from Herman Melville to the Puritans, and received the National Humanities Medal from President Obama. But he says he’s not concerned that fewer students now major in the humanities. Nor is he surprised that young people are drawn to science and technology.

What does worry him is that while a student is pursuing a degree, they “should be having an experience in college that allows for some kind of reflection, that allows for learning... Learning how to listen to other people with different points of view. Learning the difference between an argument and an opinion. Learning that debating with somebody is not the same thing as fighting with that person. And the classroom where those lessons are most likely to be learned is the humanities classroom.”

But as college sticker prices have skyrocketed, haven’t the humanities become an increasingly unaffordable luxury? No, Delbanco argues. “One of the things that employers are telling [colleges and universities] is: We want people who can actually work together with people with whom they disagree. We want people who understand that there are multiple perspectives on the world.” 

“It’s a betrayal of the American promise to expect young people to know exactly what they want to do, what they’re fit for, and what their life is going to look like at the age of 17 or 18.”

“In an increasingly diverse society, in an increasingly global economy, we don’t only want people who can code or do actuary tables. We want people who can work productively with other human beings, and who can think creatively.” 

“And as the humanities majors have been emptying out, general education becomes all the more important. Because it’s going to be the only place where students will have an experience of reading a great novel or seeing a Shakespeare play or grappling with a philosophical concept.”

Beyond that, as institutions diversify, there are more opportunities for students to splinter into identity-based groups and organizations. Foundational humanities classes provide a place to transcend those differences, a place where everyone comes together around a common text.

Over the last few years, a wave of schools have brought back core courses designed to engage with questions around meaning and purpose. In 2020, for example, Stanford instituted a requirement for first-year students: Civic, Liberal, and Global Education (COLLEGE). The program echoed a century-old compulsory course introduced at Stanford in the 1920s, amidst the backdrop of global and national upheaval (post-WWI realignments, women’s newfound right to vote, and an enormous surge in foreign-born Americans).

“An educational model that leaves no room for a core curriculum shaped by the demands of 21st-century democracies leaves students woefully ill equipped for dealing with disagreements,” Stanford’s Debra Satz and Dan Edelstein recently noted in The New York Times.

In his role as president of The Teagle Foundation, Delbanco has sought to support these sorts of efforts around the country — at Stanford, Vanderbilt, Purdue, and nearly sixty other schools. It’s worth keeping an eye on, he says, “because I think this could be the beginning of a real change.”

Melinda Zook, a history professor who leads the Cornerstone Integrated Liberal Arts program at Purdue, agrees. “This should have always been the job of the liberal arts... To me, the point of college is to challenge you.”

The Cornerstone Program requires that first-year students — who, at Purdue, often plan to major in engineering, computer science, or business — take a sequence of two courses on transformative texts. There are usually about 30 students in each class, and texts can range across time and place, from Plato to Frederick Douglass to Virginia Woolf. 

But Zook emphasizes that great texts only come alive in the hands of great teachers. So when she preps professors — who are drawn from the ranks of liberal arts faculty — she tells them to “create the class you always wanted to teach. So it gives them a lot of flexibility, and you know it’s going to fill up. It fills every time.” 

Zook notes that while technical knowledge can become outdated, certain skills never will, like learning how to think, communicate, and interact with a wide range of people. One day, she recalls, “I’m walking back to the parking garage, and I bump into one of our basketball players, who you cannot miss because he’s so tall. And he’s in transformative texts. And he says to me: ‘who would have thought Plato would have been so relevant?’”

“We in the liberal arts! We thought of that,” she tells me, laughing.

But Purdue’s program has a significant, additional upside, says Zook. It creates a space in which a faculty member gets to know a small group of students. “One of the things that we do at Cornerstone is we use it as sort of a hub, where we have eyes on the students. We know their names. We know how they’re doing. And none of their other classes do, because they’re huge.”

Zook notes that, while there was a mental health crisis among students prior to the pandemic, it has gotten much worse. And building strong relationships with faculty early on can be crucial to getting students the support they need.

In Delbanco’s view, a small class that tackles big questions around a text or piece of art “can become a safe space where you can trust the teacher to teach you like a person... The teacher is not in the room fundamentally because he or she wants to show off how much they know about a given subject. They’re not in the room on behalf of the discipline. They’re in the room on behalf of the students.”

The Teagle Foundation now seeks to envelop even younger people in this effort to read great authors and ask big questions. Their “Knowledge for Freedom” program offers grants to colleges to create on-campus, humanities-focused programs for local, low-income high school students. And there are now more than 30 such programs around the country.

Delbanco sees the program changing kids’ lives. And, he says, it’s a way of “reminding them that when you go to college, you should expect this kind of experience. You should be able to ask yourself questions about justice, about how society should be organized, about what kind of life I want to lead.”