College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be — A Conversation With Andrew H. Delbanco

This is thinking in public a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about front-line theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I’m Albert Mohler your host and president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. Andrew Delbanco is director of American studies at Columbia University where he has been a faculty member for many years. He has been Columbia’s Julian Clarence Levi Professor in the Humanities since 1995. A widely published author and lecturer, he is a major figure in America’s intellectual life. Dr. Andrew Delbanco now joins me for Thinking in Public.


Mohler: Professor Delbanco, in your new book entitled College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be, you talk about the game and perhaps the loss of what you call the college idea. What it is that idea?


Delbanco: Well, it has got a lot of dimensions of course and roots in educational institutions in the ancient world and in Europe, but my contention is that the American College has been a distinctive institution in a number of ways. First of all I think it is based on the assumption which is very deep in our culture that young people between adolescence and adulthood, two stages for which the boundaries are always in motion of course, deserve an opportunity to reflect on who they are and who they hope to become on what their values are and how they might best be able to make for themselves a life of meaning and purpose. And I think although we tend to take for granted this interregnum of four years at that stage of life. That is actually a rather unusual notion when you put it next to educational ideas in other societies. In the old world those who go to university who have historically been a smaller portion of the population than in our country are expected to know already what they’re about. They go there to study a particular subject. They are already specialists, and the many who don’t go, it has been determined relatively early in their lives that this is not for them – that heading into this trade or that profession. There is something to be said for that for that system. I suppose you might say takes the pressure off of young people in some ways but I think in our country we’ve always wanted to believe that people can define themselves and redefine themselves that they’re not doomed or designated by their past. They don’t have to become the same people their parents were. Their opportunity shouldn’t be constrained by the circumstances of their birth, and I think the institution of college in America has been very important in trying to make that ideal become a reality.


Mohler: You describe your new book as something other than a jeremiad, and elegy, or for that matter a call to arms, but you clearly do want to defend the proposition. And I’m reading your own words back to you here that “the college idea still has the power to motivate young adults more than any other form of education we know.”


Delbanco: Well, right. I mean I didn’t want to join the funeral dirge. There are a lot of pressures on the institution I have just haltingly tried to describe. Economic pressures, concerns, very understandable concerns on the part of people as to what exactly they are going to get for their investment when they send their children to college, and as we all know we hardly need to be reminded, we have a cost problem in this country – the cost of higher education is becoming insupportable for a lot of people. So, the institution is under a lot of pressure and it is rather tempting to sort of look and define some point in the past designated as a golden age and say it’s gone forever or maybe there are a couple of places that might hold on to it. I didn’t want to write that kind of book. I wanted to write a book that would try to distill what I think the essence of the institution is and should be. And just kind of put it out there in order for us to keep those in view as we move into the future and these institutions are inevitably going to change in all kinds of unpredictable ways, but we don’t want to lose the most precious parts of them, and I have to say that this doesn’t sound self-serving that despite the oceans of ink or whatever the equivalent is of online discourse spilled on the subject of college, almost all of it is in one way or another about the economic dimension of the question. Why does it cost so much? What is the return on your investment if you go to college? As some of our public figures are we are worried about the future of the institution and the question of keeping it accessible to people with fewer financial means. That is a bad thing for our country because we need an economically competitive population. We need an educated population particularly in the so-called ‘stem field’ science technology, engineering, mathematics as we watch the rising powers of the East China and India and so on. All of these are perfectly good and appropriate concerns, but it seems to me that there’s something missing from this conversation, and I wanted to try to do something to remedy that. There are other important services that the college performs for us collectively as a nation and for individuals that don’t get talked about so much. One of them is the future democratic citizenship. Mr. Jefferson believed, and this was what motivated him to found the great University of Virginia, which he regarded as one of the proudest achievements of his life, along with writing the Declaration as serving as president of United States. Mr. Jefferson believed that you cannot have a democracy without an educated citizenry so we need to keep that in mind and we need to bring that aspect of the importance of higher education into sharper focus. And one of the things I say I don’t know if I say it in quite these words in the book is that I can’t think of a better rehearsal space for democracy than the college classroom. When a college classroom functions well and with whatever subject is under discussion in the classroom is not necessarily the central issue when functions well it’s a place where students learn to speak with civility, to listen to one another with respect, they learn the difference between an argument based on evidence and an opinion based on prejudice, and perhaps most important of all they learn that it is possible to walk into the room with one point view and to walk out with another or at least with some fruitful doubt about what you believed when you walked in. And I would think that wherever a person is on the political spectrum in our country in the very divided politics of our country today, wherever you stand on the issues right, or left, or center, I think everybody could agree that our public discourse could use a bit more of those qualities.


Mohler: Well absolutely. And you also have the reality that just about everyone is for education, and no one is willing to speak against it but it seems that few are willing to define what we’re talking about here and you do define the college of your concern here in some detail and I think  exhilaratingly so. Y ou talk about an educational ideal, which you root it in a British model or at least in an Anglo-American model of a residential space in which you have the ingredients of a teacher and students in the experience of learning and there’s something clearly thrilling about that to you.


Delbanco: Yes, and you know we have to be flexible, we have to be realistic, we have to be flexible about what we mean by ‘residential space.’ Very few colleges relative to the large number we have, we have about 4000 institutions now that call themselves undergraduate institutions in this country, relatively few are going to be that idyllic tree-lined campus on the hill with the shady pathways and well appoint a dormitories where the students can kick back and talk about big philosophical questions over dinner. Though I think colleges that do fit that description, which are very distinctive American inventions, that is the liberal arts college that is not part of a big university really doesn’t exist in other countries, are very important institutions and we should value them and we should do everything we can to preserve them. But for the rest of the institutions and for the many great majority of students who can’t go to such an institution, we still want to keep in mind that at the heart of the college idea is another distinctively American notion and that is students have a lot to learn from each as well as from their teachers. That is kind of a peculiar idea if you run that by a lot of people, which used to be called the “old world,” which has a much more hierarchical notion I think of the transmission of knowledge from generation to generation. That doesn’t mean that it is not an important part of learning but there is something that I call the book ‘lateral learning’ which is also import and that is why I think the value of diversity, which has become a controversial word in our time and which has a rather narrow meaning for a lot of people that is if you’re going to put students together it is logical to assume that they are going learn more from one another if they are not all the same. If there are different perspectives, different experiences represented in the classroom and in other settings in the college and I actually make the argument in the book that you can you can see that ideal of lateral learning all the way back in the gathered churches of colonial New England from which the earliest American colleges emerge where the criterion for church membership was to quote one of my favorite Puritan ministers, “the aptness to edify another.” In other words, what give you claim on a place in our community? What gives you claim on a place in the community is your ability to make it a stronger community, to strengthen and support your fellows, your neighbors and that is a version of the question that every admissions officer in every selective college in our country theoretically still asks, right? They look at the application and they say,  “Okay what is the student going to bring to the class how will the class be poorer without the presence of this student and how will it be richer we hope not exclusively in financial terms financial terms for the presence.


Mohler:            As much as you do valorize and point to the value of what you call “lateral leraning” you also clearly hold to be very important the role of the teacher and I found much of of your discussion about the teacher really very interesting. You affirm Max Weber notion that one could be a preeminent scholar at the same time, an abominably poor teacher. Then you go on with Rob Waldo Emerson making the suggestion to quote, “the college professor should be elected by setting all the candidates lose on the miscellaneous gang of young men taken at large from the street. He who could get the ear of those youths after certain number of hours should be the Professor.” I think just about every student has been in a bad class experience resonates with that.


Delbanco: You know this is complicated stuff. I mean for various historical reasons the research mission of the American University and the teaching mission have become intertwined and closely interconnected and although most of our colleges are not inside research universities virtually everybody who teaches in the college to earn the necessary credential to teach in a college, mainly a PhD degree, is a product of a research university so my point which is hardly unique to me is that there’s something weird going on here where we evaluate prospective college teachers on the basis of the quality of their research but we do very little to test them or prepare them to be teachers of young people. There are some people who are very good at both but, when that happens it’s almost accidental. This is as most matters are in my mind when one doesn’t want to go to one extreme or the other. There is good reason to say that we want to put in front of young people scientists, literary scholars or philosophers who are tremendously excited about the field that got them interested in going into academic life in the first place. They are excited about new ideas as they look for her new discoveries and the best of them will have the excitement and it will be very infectious. The best kind of teacher is often the one you sort of watch him or her, thinking through a problem. Emerson speaks about the scholar as man thinking as opposed to the bookworm. So when it worked well, this marriage of research and teaching is the best possible combination but I think that things have gotten rather out of balance and it is astonishes me frankly that we give the PhD degree in put out onto the job market people who have had very little experience in the classroom very little mentoring for more experienced teachers. So it all boils down to the point that we need to take teaching more seriously because at the end of the day, again wherever you stand on questions of educational reform K-12 charter schools versus public school, teachers union versus the teachers unions, at the end of the day everybody knows the key relationship in the educational environment is that between the teacher and the student. So we need to do everything possible to have the best and most committed most dedicated and most respected teachers we can at every level of American education.


Mohler:            And that means teachers who understand, the miracle of learning, of education and of the something very special and effable and unpredictable that happens when all of a sudden there is one of these rather luminous moments for a student when something just absolutely sets him or her a fire. In one of your chapters you cite the Rector of Justin the well-known novel from the 1960s in which the fictional character of Frank Prescott is modeled after Endicott Peabody, who was for many years the headmaster of the Groton school and he is cited as saying this,  “the older I get,” and he is speaking to a younger member of the faculty, “the more I recognize that the only thing a teacher has to go on is that rare spark in a boy’s eye and when you see that you’re an idiot if you were to worry where that comes from, whether it’s an ode of Horace, or an Icelandic saga, or something that goes bang in a laboratory.”


Delbanco: Absolutely, look those of us who are parents, this is what we want for our children, isn’t it? We want our children to have a passion, something they believe in, something they want to pursue something that makes them feel good about getting up in the morning and this is what teachers want for their students and it is going to be something different for every student I mean I think there’s a place for a certain amount of prescription in the curriculum that I’m somewhat sympathetic to the traditional end of the spectrum but they’re certain books that all students should read and certain ideas with which they should be familiar, but at the end of the day what’s much more important is that they should find something that they get excited about and we hope it’s something more than the opportunity to make as much money as possible the day they leave college. You know you can make the argument that our country is a better place for the opportunity, the entrepreneurial opportunities we make available we have had a lot of very generous people who’ve given back after they’ve done well in life. I’m not antagonistic to creativity in the marketplace, but we also know that that’s not the only value that we can’t be a healthy society with a commitment to one another if we devalue everything else. So college is a place where those opportunities should be incubated and encouraged and to go back to the way you put the question, teaching is not something you can do formulaically or by coloring in the boundaries by following the numbers. Teachers have to be experimental with different kinds of teaching techniques, work with different kinds of students. Teachers have to find ways to make the subject fresh for themselves and for their students. So teaching is a very creative and very demanding activity and we should value it and valuing it means that we should reward it in measurable ways.


Mohler: Now when you’re thinking about the University and then more precisely the college, and you talk about this college idea, one of the things that you document in your book is that that idea was once deeply theological and you talk about how theology lost its primacy in how nature history and human psychology came increasingly to be viewed from a scientific rather than a religious perspective tell a bit of that story and how that changed the nature of the college and of the college idea.


Delbanco: Well of course, if you follow that story inside the world of higher education, you’re really only looking at a small sector of what is a much larger story this is not to say that there aren’t still in this country of course many people with deep religious conviction, but the institutionalization of religion at the center of American life has come over a period of centuries and has been weakened and been displaced by a kind of tolerationist ideal which I have a lot of respect for and the rest of the world have a lot of envy for and we forget all the religious strife we see around the world which was basically says that religion is a private affair and we don’t interfere with people’s religious convictions. They can associate with whoever they want in  their religious institutions, but in the public space of the public square is sometimes called when we come together to debate issues that concern us in common we leave religion out of it except to the extent that we want to it be safe to express itself. Now as I say there is a lot to be said for that but one of the consequences has been that many of the leading American institutions of higher education arose from religious motivations as quasi-seminaries and even if as that identity changed, as late as the late 19th century it was conventional in many American colleges that the capstone course that every student took, in his or her it was almost all always ‘his’ senior year, was a course on moral philosophy taught by the college president. Now there’s still some sectarian institutions and some very good institutions of this country associated with one denomination or another where the centrality of religion remains in the bones and the marrow of institution but in the leading institutions that produces the scholars that go out and become the teachers that that is no longer the case. Now and I don’t think there is any profit in speculating about turning back the clock and there are a lot of good things about this change. We don’t want to go back to the era where members of certain religious groups like Jews and Catholics for instance, were simply excluded from the most desired institutions in the United States. But there’s also something that’s been lost and that is a kind of moral center in these institutions. And I think we’ve been struggling ever since to figure out ways to keep discussion of values of ethical principles of truth at the center of the discussion both curricular and extracurricular in these institutions and it’s a never-ending struggle and there’s no easy answer to it but we don’t want to give-up on it. We don’t want to think of our colleges and universities and exclusively delivering cognitive capabilities to their students. They should remain, in my view, in the business of trying to help students sort themselves out as ethical creatures and figuring out what their responsibilities are to their fellow human beings. That’s a tall order.

Mohler: One of the most interesting sections of your very interesting book, is to me is where you describe the context of the modern college, the contemporary college where you describe it as a mostly post-theistic academic world, but then you go to say there is a mysterious third force present in every classroom and I’d not seen it expressed this way before. You speak about this interval, this indivisible interval between the mind of the teacher in that of the student how does that work in the classroom?


Delbanco: Well this is something that has always struck me, and I was fortunate to have a great teacher who helped me understand the importance of religion in American history and religions that are outside my own tradition, to which I have a rather attenuated relation. I invoke in the passage that you’re referring to the Puritan concept of grace and the idea of the doctrine of means, which was their way of expressing the point that the minister who is really the ancestor of the teacher, I mean the sermon was pretty closely related to the lecture in my mind, the minister in a certain respect is channeling God from the puritan point of view. God speaks through the minister. The minister is God’s means of communicating to the laity, but there’s no telling who among the listeners in the gathered church on any given Sabbath or Thursday evening when they used to give sermons as well in the early New England, is no telling who in that audience is going to be struck by the spirit. Something is going to pierce the heart and then some biblical passage or some example of a moral choice from the Bible or from some other source is going to make a connection with that person’s life and they are going to wake-up and see the world differently and going to leave the room with a different sense of their relation and obligations to other human beings than they came in. I mean if you have 100 people sitting there, who can say how many of them will leave completely unchanged exactly as they came in and how many will suddenly have a different view of the world? My point is that that’s the way the classroom works. I mean it we would like to reach all our students but we won’t know that some of them are sleeping, some of them are daydreaming, increasingly some of them are surfing the web on the laptop or the smartphone and there are things you can do to try to get their attention and make that less likely to be a problem, but at the end of the day you can’t force the transformative educational experience on anyone. You can offer it. You can put it out there and you can do your best to make it exciting and make mistakes seem high and make it feel urgent. That’s what good teachers do whether they are teaching biochemistry or the classics but you can’t coarse a student to learn. We all know that. So to me the way in which the Puritans talked about the experience of the transmission of grace is really quite analogous to what happens or doesn’t happen in the classroom.


Mohler: No when you survey the public idea in America today is one question that came to my mind that you didn’t exactly address or answer in the book is where in this perilous world for the college idea do you expect that idea to have its greatest opportunity for continued honoring and flourishing? Where do you think the college as you describe it is most likely to survive?


Delbanco: That’s a tough one and since I wrote the book I’ve actually been trying to educate myself about what a lot people are talking about these days, the growth of Internet education and the coming transformation that a lot of people expect of the institutions that you and I have been talking about by the by the online presence of a whole new educational world. Some people’s answer to the question you just asked is what would be that the colleges would survive in what they might describe as the ‘virtual world’ that we’re on the verge of finding ways to create the kind of community I’ve been talking about, to foster lateral learning through online discussion groups in ways that the old fogies like me can barely imagine. There’s an explosive opportunity for expanding knowledge and enlarging the reach of educational institutions through these new technologies. I would actually like to believe that they are right I have a lot of skepticism about it maybe just because of a failure of imagination but I think the kinds of things we’ve been talking about the way in which the teacher looks a student in the eye and you know I should just say parenthetically, sometimes the best teachers are the ones who make the students most uncomfortable.

Mohler: Absolutely. Absolutely.


Delbanco: Those [teachers] who put you on the spot and making you realize that you’re not thinking about what you’re saying, and you are glib about your convictions. So I have a lot of trouble imagining all of that getting translated into an online environment but that is one place where there were some people think the future lies or where the hope lies.


Mohler: Excuse me, if I could just say, in terms of the online context, you make a very interesting observation, credited to someone else, that is the online learning experience can work fairly well in disciplines in which there is only one and obviously only one right answer. It’s much more difficult perhaps at some level of mathematics just to generalize, but when it comes to ideas, it’s a much more perilous place.


Delbanco:  I think so. I mean my scientist friends would have objected to that way of formulating it on my part by saying look in real science, there is rarely one clearly right answer. But, we all know what we what we mean by that. I mean if you’re learning to perform certain mathematical calculations, if you’re studying statistics, you know you either get it or you don’t know. You know how to do it or you don’t know how to do it. And I don’t think it’s accidental that online pioneers are in places like Carnegie Mellon University, MIT, Stanford where there’s a very heavy presence of technology and science. And these are great institutions and the sum of the people doing this are great people, but I do have a lot of trouble understanding how what you and I have been talking about, the ethical development of young people, the study of the questions to which there are multiple answers competing with one another, I have a lot of trouble understanding how that’s going to get translated to the online world. But what I wanted to say that whatever the future of online education may be, we don’t give up on the existing institutions and you know I think probably if your listeners choose to go out and read my book, as I hope they will, I would make the prediction that the chapter they will be least satisfied by is the last one where I take a stab at making a few suggestions about what might be done about some of the problems we face such as the training of good teachers, like we’ve been talking about. The reason they will find it unsatisfying is that I don’t think there are any silver bullet broad gauge solutions to the problems we face. One of the great strengths of the American system of higher education is that it has never been a system.


Mohler: True.


Delbanco:  That is we have all kind of institutions and we don’t have some central authority telling them how to behave. So to me the inference to be drawn on is that each institution has to come to terms with itself with its own cultural traditions, understand his own constituency, its own mission and its own resources and work out for itself how it is going to find a way to preserve the values that we’ve been talking about. So at every stratum of the system the problems are different. I mean in the elite of highly selective institutions where I’ve had both the privilege in some ways, the problem of spending much of my life, that I think the problem in those institutions is that they are too pleased with themselves and that they are generally not very interested in new educational ideas and I don’t think they’re doing a very good job of teaching those old values like humility and doubt to their students. Now that’s a big generalization. There are wonderful students in my university and wonderful faculty as well. But in any case, that is the generalization that I would stand behind.


Mohler: Yes.


Delbanco:  If you go to the other end of the spectrum, and I don’t like the hierarchical implication that they are the lesser institutions, but if you go to the community colleges which serve as such a huge percentage of students in our country who are increasingly adults returning veterans people who have been laid off or looking to learn the skills to get a new job, these are tremendously important institutions and they are absolutely starved for resources. Their faculty are overworked. They are more and more reliant on part-time faculty. I mean one of the things I really hope to convey in this book is that the public, the caricature of the college professor is the tweedy, lazy person who spends most of his or her time in airports, rather than in the classroom,  applies to a very, very small fraction of the people teaching in our colleges. Most of the people teaching in our colleges are extremely devoted to their students, overworked and underpaid. So we have a resource problem and one of the terrible ironies is that the institutions that teach the most students and the students who need the most support are the ones with the fewest resources.  Mohler: The very idea of the college is worthy of our examination but the survival of the college idea in our contemporary setting is something that I think many Christians might underestimate as a challenge because even as Professor Delbanco believes that the college is still the optimal context for the education of the young, I think that most of us recognize that there is something distinctively Christian in terms of our college idea that could very quickly be lost in an age of industrial education, in an age in which the very things that make a college a college, can be so quickly lost in terms of making education something that might be marketable and might buy some pragmatic estimation work but that would be at the end of the day, far less tied to soul and heart than the college idea must always be.

I wonder if I might change the trajectory of our conversation for just a moment.


Delbanco: Sure.


And take you back to your own academic career and how you established and found an interest in certain things at some point that spark came into the eye of Andrew Delbanco. And one of those has to do with the role of the Puritans and the making of the American mind how did you come to that interest?


Delbanco: You know that kind of question I am happy to wrestle with it. I would have no problem with confronting it but that’s the kind of question that I think very hard to answer because none of us can quite say it how we became the people we are. It is some kind of weird that a combination of fate, and choice, and accidental encounters with certain people, and opportunities you didn’t and so on and so forth. So in my case I guess I would have to say that I mentioned that my heritage is Jewish. My parents despite the Italian sounding last name that I carry around with me, were Jews born in Germany and so when they were young around the age of the classic college student in 20, 21, 22 years old, a gentleman named Alfred came to power in Germany and suddenly the world was turned upside down and we all know what happened. The nation with the best universities and the most Nobel prize-winning scientists and distinguished museums and so on so forth descended into a barbarism that even Poets like Dante could never imagined. So that is a part of who I am, right? Because my parents had to flee for their lives from that and I think that lead to certain preoccupations I’ve had in my own intellectual life with the problem of evil or the meaning of sin, the tendency of human beings to do things unimaginable to one another. When I encountered the writings of the early in the American Puritan Calvinist tradition the reform tradition that they represent I discovered that it was a very rich literature on this subject and I discovered it with the help of a very great teacher, who convinced me that there was intellectual excitement in exploring those texts and as I was trying to suggest throughout our conversation that they remain highly relevant to our experience today and that you can’t really understand too much about America if you don’t understand something about that religious tradition. Not just the New England Puritans but in all kinds of variations.


Mohler: You make that point very convincingly as you do in terms rather of your work I can see a progression in terms of your thought and in continuing themes in your book published in 1995 The Death of Satan: How Americans Have Lost the Sense of Evil, you take on that very issue that for understandable reasons has been something about of academic and personal preoccupation but you make some interesting observations that when I first read that book I can still remember. For one thing you point out that that much of the language about sin and evil that belong to that to theistic worldview is still pretty close to the American mind, you write, “even for secular liberals it should be said the old religious metaphors are not entirely gone they still simmer below the level of conscious expression and sometimes bubble back to the service of ordinary speech where they can be detected if one listens closely.” That’s a very key insight I think.


Delbanco: Well, thank you. But I think it reflects the basic problem that even if our vocabulary for talking about evil is attenuated, the evil itself is not attenuated. There is plenty of evidence in the world that human beings have not made moral progress to the same extent that we’ve made material and technological progress. That is one of the great ironies of the 20th century, the century of air travel, the beginning of the computer age and wide spectrum antibiotics and so on was the same century as the Holocaust, and the Gulag, and the mass murders in Mao’s China. So my hope in that book was to make the point that we still need to seek for ways to understand the phenomenon that reducing them to merely political problems or some other kind of rationally understandable up kind of problem is it is not adequate. And that’s kind of thing that I think students in college should be thinking about. Because they’re one of the faces some version of this in their lives and if they take seriously the tradition that we’ve been talking about they need to face these capacities within themselves. I mean the real point of that book that you just alluded to The Death of Satan was not that Americans have stopped talking about sin and evil I was misunderstood I think in some quarters as saying that, but rather that they stop talking about it in a productive way that most the most productive way to talk about it is to recognize that it’s not something that outside of ourselves.


Mohler: I can remember almost exactly where I was sitting when I read this book and as a Christian theologian I was struck by so much what you had to say here but for instance this line of your book you say, “but it’s also true that when you discard the old words and symbols you arrive at an unprecedented condition of inarticulate dread.” I think that is the most haunting silences I read it in many a year.


Delbanco:  You are being very kind to me, you’re talking about something that feels so long time ago. But I think people need structures of meaning me they need and they need symbols that represent the best of human possibilities and remind them of the worst human possibilities and we will have this sneaking awareness that those are there but so if we have no way of talking about them with ourselves with others I think we’re in a rather bad place for me and I didn’t come on your program to make an advertisement for film and it is a film that has somethings wrong with it, but I just saw the new film about Lincoln and you know it’s remarkable. Lincoln is a figure whom all Americans who have spent any time at all conforming themselves about the fundamental issues in the history of our country are drawn to him. He was wrestling with the deepest questions you know, what you do in the face of an obvious patent manifest evil and yet you have obligations to constitutional processes and you have people who don’t see it for what it is? So how do you make progress and how do you weigh the huge cost that came in the form of the Civil War merely the latest estimates I think are up to about three quarters of 1 million young men died, how you put that in the balance with the with the lives of the millions of enslaved people? These are very difficult question they were very difficult question for people in and in mid-19th century America and there is something about Abraham Lincoln’s formulation of them, and his great speeches that we resonate to have that week in which we recognize truth.


Mohler: We also recognize the incredible struggle to still to come to terms the things I think by the way to affirm your rock your words of appreciation for the movie of the most effective things that the Tony Christian screenwriter did was to put the second inaugural address voiced into Lincoln’s voice after the assassination a distant to a flashback and it made all the more tragic and yet all the more affirming and it was a very strange thing.


Delbanco: I did mean to suggest this that it is unfinished work, unfinished business.


Mohler: so true.


Delbanco: I mean this is an example of what I think students should be engaging with  in college and I do think this marks me as some kind of a conservative I suppose I do think that students who graduate from American colleges ought to know something about American history.


Mohler: You contribute to that that and I know your academic fields is both English and American studies but I want to take you finally to something you said back in 1998 near Massey lectures at Harvard you took your listeners and then readers of your book that was produced by the real American dream a meditation on how you take into three stages of the development of American civilization the first was at that stage chiefly expressed in the Christian story and then through the Enlightenment and then into this third phase in which you say “the idea of transcendence has detached itself from any coherent symbology ” and then you write this and the last question will post you is where you go from here you write, “this as our contemporary dilemma we live with undiminished need without adequate means for attaining what William  Jame’s called the feeling of elation and freedom that comes only when the outlines of the confining selfhood meltdown.” There we were and there we are.

Delbanco: This may be an evasion of your question. I don’t have a large grand answered to that I think people try to respond to this challenge One Life at a time. We respond to it by finding productive and meaningful ways to relate to our fellow human beings and to try to point out and again it is not something you can do force somebody to understand or more beliefs but to point out some examples of other people’s lives through literary examples through religious principles that kind of life is a life that entails service to others at the event people feel best when they are in contact with something beyond themselves larger than themselves that one of the fundamental principles I think of all religions that deserve our respect and you know there are moments I think in our public life when people feel that something like that is coming back into view and we want to encourage those moments when we want to help young people find ways to live that makes them feel like they’ve got a purpose.


Mohler: President Delbanco thank you for joining me today for Thinking in Public and for helping us all through your writings and lectures to keep on thinking it’s been a pleasure.


There are certain persons with whom you can have a conversation about almost anything. As I began this conversation I pointed out the professor Andrew Delbanco was one of those persons and now you know for yourselves. The reality is that when you look at this however, there is a continual set of themes that runs through his writing and his academic work. It has to do with coming to an understanding of the American mind and of the habits of mind in the context of education that make America and democracy itself possible the kind of educational contexts and the kind of ideals and the formative issues of character that might be endangered in the present hour. His autobiography tells you why he believed those issues to be of vital importance in the 20th century. And by simple reflection we understand they are just as important and perhaps just as vital even essential in the 21st century as well.


The development of a Christian worldview requires an ongoing engagement with those who write from a different perspective and a coverstation with Prof. Andrew Delbanco we come into contact with someone who’s thinking about things in a very different point of both social location and intellectual engagement. He’s writing from one of the most elite universities and context in American academia, Columbia University, where he has not only been a faculty member for many years but has a major program areas well and Columbia courses in the middle of Manhattan there in New York City where it’s a part of the ongoing development of the future of America’s culture as those were the cultural creators and the intellectual elites shape the country in terms of issues not only for their own context but for the entire nation to a considerable extent. But there is something else as his own self verification is a non-observant Jew that there tells you that even if he’s looking these things, he recognizes that there is an essential conversation with those at lead of America’s past who were very much identified with Christianity does his ongoing engagement and interest in the Puritans and his understanding as is made very clear his Massey lectures at Harvard that to understand the American civilization is to understand it began with a direct and inseparable reference to the Christian story and then went through the period of the Enlightenment the second phase of our civilization a very disruptive phase and now into what he calls this new era in which as he says, “transcendence is completely detached from any kind of coherent symbology.” In other words we are not certain we are able to talk about these things in any more.


The conversation with Prof. Andrew Delbanco provides evangelical Christians with a very important and indeed necessary opportunity to think about how others think about these things even with reference to what we believe to be our own story and as think about these things with someone with the skill certainly the teaching skill in the historical inside of Andrew Delbanco were are also reminded of the fact that there’ve been many, many minds at work on these issues and for a very, very long time. To read Andrew Delbanco’s new book on education, College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be as go back into a conversation began in ancient where Aristotle for instance believe the period of time between puberty and age 21 is where you would have the greatest opportunity for a young man’s intellectual development. A time that really does not exist before that nor afterwards in the same way we can understand how college in America became regulated in structure to something basically between the years of 18 and 22 understanding that something of animation in terms of how exactly that came to be defined with what he calls the college idea of developing as the best in a context where the development of that kind of intellect but not only the intellect he makes clear also that character reading someone like Andrew D’Amato by the way has other benefits as well for instance when you start thinking about his background in literature you need to recognize, that almost every page of every one of his books is deeply infused with references to literature and the kind of reference that makes you want to continue the conversation in a very different direction. To have a conversation with Delbanco and his books is actually to have a conversation with dozens and dozens of other persons who as authors have contributed to his conversation that he shares with us. You will read things for instance in his book entitled College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be. You will read things that make you think is exactly right for instant where he cites to the Shapiro the former provost of Bryn Mawr and the than the president of Barnard College says this, “you want the inside of your head to be an interesting place to spend the rest of your life.” Of course we did what aims of education should be the person young are old but especially young, lives and learns in such a way that the inside of his or her head is an interesting place to spend the rest of your life and we have to hope that also means that that individual is thinking, that is very self-consciously thinking what it means to think is a mind. When we think of the development of the Christian worldview can understand that it cannot happen without the kind of engagement with other ideas and with other sources without realizing that there is an ongoing intellectual conversation of which a book like this and indeed even a professor Delbanco is only a part in a very important part and the recognition of the value of this conversation is what should help Christians to be able to develop the skills of intellectual engagement of critical thinking, critical reading, and critical learning and of the developing art of conversation because there are things you can gain by reading. Their many things you can gain by listening but the most important things that many this game are being conversation and the best that a conversation is often that which takes place in public.


Mohler: Once again thank you my guest, Dr. Delbanco for thinking with me today before I close on to direct your attention to the release of my new book, The Conviction to Lead 25 principals for leadership that matters my concern is to develop effective leaders that more than administrative skill and management skill who develop more vision to be able to change hearts and minds the hearts and minds of those they lead in other words they need to develop the conviction to lead. Thank you joining me for thinking of public until next time, this is Thinking in Public.