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Who’s Going to College and What Are They Learning?

Photo by Eileen Barroso

Delbanco is also the Julian Clarence Levi Professor in the Humanities in the Department of English and Comparative Literature.

Interview by Anne Burt

On Friday, April 13, the American Studies Program will sponsor a day-long conference on the future of undergraduate education in the United States. This conference, which is free but requires registration by April 6 (send an email to educationconference@columbia.edu) offers perspectives from leading educators on the changing composition of the student body, access and equity, curricular reform and preparation for citizenship in the 21st century. Speakers include Christopher Avery, professor of public policy at the Kennedy School at Harvard, and keynote talks by Nancy Cantor, president of Syracuse University, and Anthony Marx, president of Amherst College.

Below, Andrew Delbanco, American Studies Program director, shares his thoughts on why the issues facing universities today are so pressing.

What makes the American Studies Program at Columbia tick?

The driving motivation behind the American Studies program is to give students the opportunity to reflect on and debate the big issues that they encounter in the Core Curriculum—identity, justice, responsibility—in the context of the society in which we live now. Our curriculum focuses on issues of contemporary urgency but approaches these issues historically. And that’s because my colleagues and I believe that the best way to think about problems in the present is to understand their origins in the past. A second goal of our program is to take advantage of Columbia’s location in New York City.

How do you connect classroom learning with contemporary life in New York City?


This semester, I’m co-teaching a seminar with Roger Lehecka, former Columbia College dean of students, on education in American society with an emphasis on equity and access. We look at how students have been selected for college admission over the 19th and 20th centuries and examine the question of who gets to go to college in America—but we believe that learning is most valuable if what you’re studying in the classroom has a direct connection to what you’re doing in the world. Therefore, all of our seminar students are tutoring kids from Manhattan through Columbia’s Double Discovery Center (Lehecka was one of the founders of Double Discovery in 1965) who would potentially be the first generation in their families to enroll in college.

Your seminar, the upcoming conference and much of your recent writing address issues of broader access to undergraduate education and questions of what students should learn. What are some of the insights you’ve gained?

My deepest conviction is that in an increasingly global marketplace where specialized skills and specialized knowledge are imperative, a general liberal arts education is more important than ever. A general education affords students the opportunity to achieve some perspective on themselves, their culture and society, so that they aren’t living in a perpetual present but have a feeling for what has led to the state of the world today. They acquire the tools to think about ethical and moral problems. These imperatives are more urgent than ever before, in part because science and technology have equipped us with unprecedented power either to elevate and improve life or to damage and degrade it. It’s critically important that we educate our future leaders to become not only technically adept but also to have some degree of introspection and ethical sensitivity. Issues of access and equity and learning and financing in higher education are all connected to our basic obligation as educators to try to turn out citizens who believe they owe something to someone other than themselves.

Published: Mar 30, 2007
Last modified: Mar 30, 2007