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(Original book review by Richard Wolin at The Nation...)

"Delbanco’s main objective in College is to redeem the meaning and value of a liberal arts education in the face of superordinate cultural trends—the commodification of knowledge, globalization, the communicative distractions of digital technology and social media—that have compromised the existence of the meditative space necessary for robust character formation and the cultivation of individual autonomy. As Delbanco points out, contemporary students are drowning “in an ocean of digital noise, logged on, online, booted up, as the phrase goes, 24/7, linked to one another through an arsenal of gadgets that are never ‘powered down.’” Nearly a century ago, the poet and philosopher Paul Valéry lamented that the denizens of the modern world had lost the ability to be bored. What he meant was that by becoming so enamored of fleeting sensations and cheap amusements, people had forfeited their capacity for solitude and their appreciation of the virtues of sustained contemplation. Delbanco’s point is that we with our iThings are at risk of becoming, in the words of Valéry’s contemporary, the Austrian writer Robert Musil, men and women “without qualities.”

In his effort to reinvigorate the college ideal, Delbanco surveys several traditional accounts of the liberal arts mission. According to one inherited view, the unique value of the college experience is that it affords a hiatus between adolescence and vocational life to pursue the ends of self-exploration and self-discovery—to “become who we are,” to employ Nietzsche’s adage. In an American context, this noble striving for self-realization corresponded to an indigenous translation of the German philosophical ideal of Bildung, or individual self-cultivation. In the nineteenth century its most prominent exponents were Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman. As Delbanco shows, by the 1830s Emerson was dissenting from the conventions of American higher education, lamenting its heightened insularity, its linguistic turgidity, its disconnectedness from the purposes and goals of “life.” It was, conversely, the visionary Whitman who astutely perceived the interrelationship between individual self-realization and democracy; like no other previous system of government, democracy, by virtue of its endemic aversion to dogmatic authority and gratuitous hierarchy, created a political space for individuals to explore their variegated and rich inner natures. Whitman gave voice to the pivotal idea that democracy is not merely a technique of government or an equitable mechanism of dispute resolution but equally a paradigm of individual self-fulfillment...

...Classic treatises on education, such as Plato’s Republic and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Émile, stress that education should not merely seek to impart a narrow set of practical skills. After all, the latter might just as well be obtained through apprenticeship. Instead, they were firmly convinced that education should address a more fundamental set of moral and ethical questions linked to our core values: who we are and what kind of persons we would ultimately like to become. One of the central problems of undergraduate education today is that it increasingly reinforces the “instrumentalist” view that the major decisions in life concern the efficient selection of means rather than a reflection on ends. It would not be an exaggeration to claim that higher education has been degraded to the status of an enfeebled auxiliary to reigning social and economic interests. In a society such as ours, which, as Alexis de Tocqueville noted, perpetually inclines toward majoritarian tyranny, a liberal arts education must promote training in nonconformity..."


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