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BUT SOFT
March 7, 2012 - 4:17pm

Any book written by a humanities professor defending a traditional liberal arts education had better be well-written and incisively argued.  It had better have some verve to it, something original to bring to the table (since Allan Bloom's 1986 best-seller, The Closing of the American Mind, hoards of humanities professors have written books defending the humanities). The energy, language, and quality of thought of such a book is itself a defense of this form of education - a kind of advertisement.  It says If you take your education seriously in the way I'm advocating in this book, you'll be a liberally educated person, like me.  You'll have my independence of thought, my clarity and forcefulness of expression, my capacity to analyze a thing and to argue a point.  These are the goods of a good college education (there are others), and if they're not on show in a professor's polemic about college, the book will do something worse than fail; it will give ammunition to people who argue that expensive liberal arts educations aren't worth it.

Andrew Delbanco's brief and bootless College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be, fails in this way.  It fails to make any case at all for studying the humanities at a serious liberal arts college; and its lazy, clichéd style of writing confirms whatever prejudices are out there about publish or perish, out of touch professors, elitism, you name it.  Delbanco in this book embodies the bland, well-meaning, polemic-phobic, authority-worshiping academic writer of our day - a person whose fear of strong statement and strong argument has him hiding behind less frightened people, from whom he quotes and quotes and quotes, as if hoping that citation-stuffed pages will somehow, at some point, solidify into a thesis. 

Delbanco's quoterrhoea extends to quoting things that everyone else has already quoted to death: "In an often-quoted comment, Robert Maynard Hutchins described the University of Chicago... as a miscellany of schools and departments 'held together by a central heating system...'" 

Even as he quotes strong writers with strong views, Delbanco's own dithery peaceableness ("One can be on either side of these questions, or somewhere in the middle..."  "Both versions have a share of truth and there is little to be gained by refighting the old battles...")  has him administering spanks on their bottoms for damnable presumption.  It's a bizarre rhetorical style.  A few examples.
 

A number of writers have lately taken us on a tour of the dark side [of meritocracy].  Among the liveliest is Walter Kirn, who... sums up his Princeton classmates... in the figure of "the mental contortionist, able to rise to almost every challenge placed before him at school or work except, perhaps, to the challenge of real self-knowledge."  It is hard to write this way and stay on the right side of decency...

Delbanco quotes Henry Rosovsky complaining about the "me-first ethos" of Harvard professors who care little about the institution and lots about their own visibility in the academic world, and then Delbanco immediately says,  "Unfortunately, this sort of critique, accurate and salutary as it may be, can also give aid and comfort to those who charge the whole professoriate with selfishness and self-indulgence."  He quotes the "bracingly polemical writer Walter Benn Michaels" saying that our leading colleges "have become our primary mechanism for convincing ourselves that poor people deserve their poverty" and then scolds him: "Few people inside or outside academia would say such a thing openly, at least not without softening it..."

There's been "an explosive growth of for-profit institutions," he writes, leaning on one of his countless clichés, "which defy classification, though at least one critic thinks they deserve a category all their own: 'marketing machines masquerading as universities.'"  Now that's a phrase - it's got alliteration, tough-mindedness, style... Only it's not Delbanco's phrase, and he doesn't bother telling us whether he agrees with it.  Just putting it out there.

When Delbanco does dip a toe in strong language, he's quick to withdraw it: "[W]e might say that the most important thing one can acquire in college is a well-functioning bullshit meter. ... Putting it this way may sound flippant..."   He's clearly more comfortable using up half a page quoting Santayana and then contributing this comment: "In this passage we get not only a portrait of a great teacher but a glimpse of what college at its best can be."  End of chapter section.

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To those who think the traditional liberal arts college is archaic, Delbanco responds with a bookful of archaic language.  To those who think English professors are sweet goofy types constantly breaking into literary quotation, he offers paragraphs constantly breaking into literary quotation.

College is our American pastoral.  We imagine it as a verdant world where the harshest sounds are the reciprocal thump of tennis balls or that clatter of cleats as young bodies trot up and down the fieldhouse steps.  Yet bright with hope as it may be, every college is shadowed by the specter of mortality - a place where, in that uniquely American season of 'fall and football weather and the new term,' the air is redolent with the 'Octoberish smell of cured leaves.'"
 
To whom, pray - beyond the writers of hymnals - is this writing addressed?  And who in the world thinks of college this way?  Prep school, maybe.  College?


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The reason I say Delbanco offers no defense of the humanities in this book is that he's so sketchy, so derivative, so softening about the whole thing, that he never really takes on the fundamental questions of what educated people should know, and how colleges in particular offer this crucial knowledge.  Compare his take on curricular chaos with  Allan Bloom's.  Here's Delbanco:

Over the past half century or so, this expansion of freedom has been the most obvious change in college life - not just sexual freedom, but what might be called freedom of demeanor and deportment, freedom of choice as fields and courses have vastly multiplied, and, perhaps most important, freedom of judgment as the role of the college as arbiter of values has all but disappeared.  Relatively few colleges require any particular course for graduation, and the course catalogue is likely to be somewhere between an encyclopedia and the proverbial Chinese menu - from which students choose a little of this and a little of that, unless they are majoring in one of the "hard" sciences, in which case their range of choice is much narrower.

Notice how, just on the level of style, this writing is markedly weak.  Instead of staying with his strong point, he ends with an afterthought about the sciences.  And why is the word "hard" in quotation marks?  Because there might be one reader out there who thinks the humanities are hard and the sciences soft, and Delbanco doesn't want to stir anything up.  The Chinese menu (a reference instantly made hokey by the word proverbial) is a dull, overused image.  And note the many wimpy qualifiers:  or so, might be called, perhaps, all but, relatively, likely to be. 

Bloom:

The third island of the university is the almost submerged old Atlantis, the humanities. In it there is no semblance of order, no serious account of what should and should not belong, or of what its disciplines are trying to accomplish or how. It is somehow the repair of man or of humanity, the place to go to find ourselves now that everyone else has given up. But where to look in this heap or jumble? It is difficult enough for those who already know what to look for to get any satisfaction here. For students it requires a powerful instinct and a lot of luck. The analogies tumble uncontrollably from my pen. The humanities are like the great old Paris Flea Market where, amidst masses of junk, people with a good eye found castaway treasures that made them rich. Or they are like a refugee camp where all the geniuses driven out of their jobs and countries by unfriendly regimes are idling, either unemployed or performing menial tasks. The other two divisions of the university have no use for the past, are forwardlooking and not inclined toward ancestor worship.

This is a famous passage, and rightly so.  It has humor, a relaxed, modern, American idiom, and spectacular images (the Paris Flea Market, the refugee camp) which aren't just plopped down there like chop suey but get elaborated, extended, so that the point can be vividly and precisely made.  And all of this is so that the sensibility of the writer - the sensibility of someone liberally educated - can emerge as one exemplar, one human embodiment, of what a serious college education is about.

 

 

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