READING THE RAPIDS

Delbanco.Bowenbooks

. . . to let me know. I will provide the books and some meals, and you can offer me some reflections on the texts and their possible reverberations for Westmont. I envision a couple groups, probably 5-7 people apiece, with each group focusing on a couple books and an article or two. Here are a few of the readings I have in mind:

There's lots of talk these days about College (Un)bound, a provocative critique of the American academy by Jeffrey Selingo, editor at The Chronicle of Higher Education. Selingo is not afraid to spar: he is quick to jab at colleges for hiding data or ignoring a looming crisis, and he seems ready to laud the expedient as the inevitable. But his book is lucid, insightful and accessible, some fine kindling to fuel the conversation. Part of what intrigues me about Selingo's forecasts is their mixed tone. For nearly two-thirds of the book he demonstrates—often quite convincingly—why small residential colleges face formidable threats. Yet then he offers a précis of the best preparation for the future—student research opportunities, mentoring by faculty, and global study—that could be extracted as a marketing campaign for Westmont. The paradox is not lost on Selingo: he does admit that what employers often say they want is not always aligned with their companies' hiring practices, leaving many excellent liberal arts graduates out of the running for posts at which they would excel.

The cross-currents in Selingo's argument are apparent in the double entendre of his title. There's a rebellious streak in the narrative, not unlike Percy Bysshe Shelley's lyrical drama Prometheus Unbound, with its Romantic longing for freedom from tradition. The title also hints that today's college-bound student may be gearing up for an "unbounded curriculum." In the near future, Selingo implies, the notion of a college degree as a four-year package of academic and co-curricular experiences may be as rare as a vinyl album or CD. Students will assemble their own collage of traditional courses, online credits, transfer units,and employment and internship certificates as independently as they fill their own iPods or smartphones. With the unbinding of the curriculum, college degrees may be rivalled by "badges"—professional confirmations of skills given by all kinds of organizations, not just accredited colleges and universities.

Predictions about the fading value of a degree, though, may be hasty, especially at a time when the government is eager to improve retention and graduation rates in the United States. Even though Moody's has downgraded higher education to a "negative" industry for investors, their analysts still underscore that the marketplace prizes college diplomas. But Moody's also warns that investors should be nervous about the rising costs on American campuses. In another book that we will examine, William Bowen—an economist and former president of Princeton—attempts to reconcile the pressures for "cost containment" with the "tsunami" of online learning. Based on a series of recent lectures at Stanford, Bowen's Higher Education in the Digital Age extols many of the traditional qualities of the liberal arts: "minds rubbing against minds," freedom of thought, and an emphasis on values. But he is adamant that residential colleges must heed the public outcries against escalating prices, or they will lose both their share of the market and their moral standing. Admittedly, the general public—ignited by barbed editorials and eager venture capitalists—may not have a fair understanding of why college costs have risen or what is at risk if higher education gets reduced to mainly the certification of skills and competencies. But he does contend that a bold look at new technologies could help us imagine increased collaboration on teaching, greater freedom from the tedium of grading, more timely feedback on students' work, brisker adaptation to students' learning needs, and—perhaps his central point—a slower rate of increase for institutional and tuition charges. I am sure that we will have a lively discussion about his recommendations.

Some of the texts and articles we will choose as we go along, though I want to save time for a short volume by Andrew Delbanco, one of the most elegant defenders of the traditional liberal arts. In his latest book College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be, Delbanco provides a brisk tour of the origins of higher education in America. A nonobservant Jew, he retains a deep respect for the religious impulses and ethos of early American colleges, occasionally citing the Puritans with favor. At risk, he contends, is the ideal of college as "our American pastoral." This fall only about one in fourteen first-year students will load up the family van to head towards the leafy quads of liberal arts institutions, while less than four in ten American professors are on a tenure-track. For many students, the notion of college as a "community of learning" is "already an anachronism." As Delbanco observes, political and business leaders still idealize the college years as times of "shared self-discovery" with "transformative power," even though more and more of them now accept the "putative realism" that higher education will be profoundly reshaped by low-cost alternatives. That concession, he claims, could "signal the end of America's democratic promise."

Not far from Twain's billiard room in Hartford is a famous (or, for Twain loyalists, infamous) Paige Typesetter. For all of his nostalgia, Twain saw himself as an innovator. After all, his Connecticut Yankee wakes up in King Arthur's court ready to expose medieval superstition with his knowledge of solar eclipses and modern warfare. When Twain was at work on the novel he was also pouring large doses of his savings into the development of the Paige Typesetter, virtually certain that this invention would transform the publishing industry. It failed to do so, rapidly eclipsed by the Linotype machine. Twain's miscalculated speculation—which finally cost him his Hartford home—is often seen as one of the reasons his later fiction turned caustic and misanthropic. It is also a reminder of the consequences of embracing the wrong innovation and the wrong future.

I look forward to some conversations about the future of higher education. Let me know if you would like to be on board with one of the groups.