Rethinking Success: Andrew Delbanco and Stan Katz

As my loyal readers know, I am in Winston-Salem, NC attending the “Rethinking Success: From Liberal Arts to Careers in the 21st Century” conference at Wake Forest.  (I have been tweeting extensively on the conference at #rethinkingsuccess).

The opening session of the conference, “The Historical Perspective,” featured presentations by Columbia University American Studies professor Anthony Delbanco and Princeton historian Stanley Katz.  As expected, both speakers championed the liberal arts. (Both men have been awarded a National Humanities Medal).  Most of Delbanco’s remarks were lifted from his recent College:What It Was, Is, and Should Be. (Princeton University Press was gracious enough to send me a copy of the book and I got through about 50 pages on the plane.). He stressed the Puritan origins of American higher education and focused on what was unique about the American educational system as compared to Europe.

I realize that Delbanco is a scholar of 17th century Puritanism, but the whole thing was a bit too Whig and Yankee for my tastes.  Certainly there were other early influences on American higher education?  In order to accept Delbanco’s history lesson one needs to embrace the idea, at least to some extent, that America is Puritan New England writ-large. I am not so sure.  Having said that, the Puritans did stress communal learning and were influential in “evangelizing” for the cause of what we might today call liberal learning.

Delbanco was most compelling when he spoke as a scholar who has obviously been shaped by teaching in Columbia University’s Core Curriculum. His view of liberal arts/humanities education is very conservative.  He questioned progressive forms of education, suggesting that students today can certainly learn things from people like Augustine or Homer. He said that one can learn just as much, if not more, from wisdom of older texts. (At one point he said that “progress” was “a sham). Delbanco implied that one of the best ways to move forward is by looking backwards–at great texts and great ideas.  Liberal arts education, he suggested, is not merely education for a career.  The study of history, English, philosophy, etc… is influential in shaping character and equipping citizens fit to participate in American democracy.

Stan Katz took a slightly different approach.  He focused on the way that liberal education helps students overcome provincialism, with particular attention paid to Daniel Bell and John Dewey.  He stressed how the liberal arts counters the kind of provincialism that is resistant to change.  He lamented a form of scholarly or academic provincialism that rewarded narrow and specialized scholarship.  The study of the liberal arts forces students and scholars to be generalists who are capable of engaging the larger world.

While Delbanco talked about ancient texts and character building, Katz, in his use of Dewey, focused on progressive ideals and the “liberal” dimension of liberal education.  In some respects Delbanco sounded like a traditionalist, while Katz sounded like a child of modernity.

Whatever the case, I wonder how this vision of the liberal arts played among the many career counselors and career center professionals in attendance.  As my colleague Pete Powers just wrote, the juxtaposition between this session and the one that followed it was great.  (See my next post).

A highlight for me was getting to chat with Katz about his old Brainstorm blog posts, the 6th edition of Colonial America, and his Messiah College connection as a member of the board of the Boyer Center.

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