Democracy and Education: On Andrew Delbanco

K9651Richard Wolin in The Nation:

Delbanco is a professor of American Studies at Columbia University and a noted authority on the work of Herman Melville. Although the “savage inequalities” of American higher education are not the primary focus of College, he confronts them head-on in the book’s opening pages. He notes that whereas the child of a family earning at least $90,000 a year stands a 50 percent chance of receiving a BA by the time he or she turns 24, for a child whose annual family income is in the range of $60,000 to $90,000, the odds diminish to one in four. For someone from a household with an annual income of $35,000 or less, they plummet to one in seventeen. These disparities also have ramifications after graduation: Over a lifetime, someone with a bachelor’s degree will earn an average of $2.1 million, nearly twice as much as someone with only a high school diploma.

Delbanco explains further that the children of affluent families are four times more likely to be admitted to a prestigious, highly selective university than students with comparable grades and test scores from families of more modest means. And because elite colleges and universities function as conduits to high-ranking positions in government, business and other walks of life, it becomes impossible to deny that top universities perpetuate the perquisites of privilege rather than ameliorate them in a democratic manner. As Delbanco asserts, “An American college is only true to itself when it opens its doors to all—rich, middling, and poor—who have the capacity to embrace the precious chance to think and reflect before life engulfs them. If we are serious about democracy, that means everyone.” Because in most other OECD nations higher education is largely government subsidized, the persistence of structural inequities of access to higher education has become a distinctly American badge of shame.

Delbanco performs an invaluable public service by deftly dissecting the notion of “meritocracy,” which he aptly characterizes as the reigning ideology of class privilege. The idea of meritocracy suggests that those who have acceded to positions of prominence have arrived there by their own talents and abilities—they have bested their peers on a level playing field and are therefore entitled to success. But with what justification can one speak of a “level playing field” when wealthy parents spend exorbitant sums on SAT prep courses and college admissions gurus?