Book Reviews

Book by: Andrew Delbanco
Review by: Shannon Lynn Burton
Assistant Ombudsperson
Michigan State University


Looking at the history of American institutions, as noted by Delbanco, colleges at one time focused on helping students self-discover: "an aid to reflection, a place and process whereby young people take stock of their talents and passions and begin to sort out their lives in a way that is true to themselves and responsible to others.” (p. 15) However, in today's age of education, educators and students alike often lose sight of those original purposes whether it is due to changing demographics, increasing accountability for numbers, or shifts in organizational culture as a whole. In the landscape of higher education, academic advisors could potentially offer the space that once existed to allow students these opportunities for reflection. While focusing on smaller colleges, Delbanco's work allows all higher education professionals, including academic advisors, to pause and consider the larger context of their institutions and the overall purposes of "college" both then and now with an eye to the future.

Rather than taking one through a series of research articles, Delbanco's book is more of a personal treatise based on his analysis of and experience in higher education where he asks the reader to think critically about the purpose of college and what it means to be an undergraduate student. Although somewhat skeptical of current trends in education, he traces the roots of higher education to help the reader see the possibilities and limitations of its trajectory. His reflections fit well in the field of academic advising's current discussions centering on the purposes of academic advising and contribute additional perspectives on the context in which advisors guide and mentor. As academic advisors often have the 30,000 foot view of the experiences with which students engage in higher education, academic advisors can assist in opening the life of the mind that Delbanco discusses. 

Delbanco centers on the fact that colleges provide a space for reflection unlike any other. In his first chapter, he answers the question: "What is college for?" Here, he focuses on the fact that the role of a college is not only for the benefit of the individual, but for the creation of a civil society.  Chapter Two centers on the history of higher education, paying particular attention to its Western roots. From this historical overview, Chapter Three then looks at the shift from small colleges to large universities and its ramifications. Chapters Four and Five address equity and justice issues paying particular attention to problems related to increasing diversity and entitlement. His final chapter examines the future and calls for solutions. However, here too, he tends to focus attention on more problems. Delbanco does note that those who will be able to solve these problems are those that know their history and the context for these issues.

While Delbanco does generalize in parts and the distinction between colleges and universities is sometimes blurred, his adherence to relying on his background in the humanities, including novels and poems is refreshing. In an era where those examining the purpose of academic advising, Delbanco provides yet another perspective from which to analyze the purposes of higher education, as well as a backdrop for academic advisors seeking to further question critically their work.


College: What It Was, Is and Should Be (2012). Book by Andrew Delbanco. Review by Shannon Lynn Burton, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 229 pp. Price $24.95. ISBN 9780691130736


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