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Light, Truth and Whatever

Andrew Delbanco must be a great teacher. A longtime faculty member at Columbia, he is devoted to the development of his students as individuals, and recognizes that their time in college should be formative: “They may still be deterred from sheer self-interest toward a life of enlarged sympathy and civic responsibility.” Like most professors devoted to teaching, he has no interest in telling undergraduates what to think, but he does want to draw them toward a sense of skepticism about the status quo and to a feeling of wonder about the natural world. College, he tells us, is a time to learn to “make connections among seemingly disparate phenomena,” to see things from another’s point of view and to develop a sense of ethical responsibility. At a time when many are trying to reduce the college years to a training period for economic competition, Delbanco reminds readers of the ideal of democratic education.

安德鲁·德尔班科(Andrew Delbanco)一定是一位伟大的老师。他长期任教于哥伦比亚大学,致力于把他的学生培养成独立的人,他认识到他们的在校时间应该有助于他们的成长:“彻底的自私可能会阻碍他们扩展同情心,影响他们负起公民的责任。”他跟大多数献身于教学的教授一样,兴趣不在于告诉本科生该思考什么,但他确实希望他们拥有对现状的怀疑精神和对自然界的好奇心。他告诉我们,大学时光真正该学习的是:“把看上去风马牛不相及的现象联系起来”、从他人的角度看待事物、培养道德责任感。现如今很多人想要缩减学院岁月,将其改造成顺应经济竞争的培训期。而在此时,德尔班科提醒读者,不要忘记民主教育的理想。

In “College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be,” he recalls this ­ideal’s roots in English and American Protestantism. In this country, education was never supposed to be only about imparting information. It has long included character development — turning the soul away from selfish concerns and toward community. Delbanco cites Emerson’s version of this turning: “The whole secret of the teacher’s force lies in the conviction that men are convertible. And they are. They want awakening.” Even secular teachers are trying to “get the soul out of bed, out of her deep habitual sleep.”

在《大学:过去,现在,以及应当怎样》("College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be")一书中,他追溯了这一理想在英国和美国新教中的根源。在美国,教育从来不只是传播信息。它一直包含着性格养成——使灵魂离开对自我的关注,转向群体。德尔班科引用了爱默生(Emerson)关于这种转向的叙述:“教师力量的全部秘密在于,相信人是可以改变的。人确实如此。他们希望觉醒。”哪怕是世俗的老师也在努力“把灵魂唤醒,从她惯常的沉睡中唤醒。”

By the end of the 19th century, this commitment to character formation, to sustaining “curiosity and humility,” as Delbanco writes, was in sharp tension with a commitment to professionalization. Colleges were becoming universities, which meant they were getting into the business of research. Community took a back seat to expertise, and schools once exclusively devoted to undergraduate learning sought prestige through the development of graduate and professional schools.


With the substantial increase in the number of students wanting to pursue a college degree and the expansion of the number of fields of learning that schools were expected to cover, the dream of a “common learning experience” for undergraduates faded in favor of offering a plethora of courses from which to choose. Modern universities are meant to produce knowledge through specialization, and they often reward faculty members by giving them “relief” from teaching. Our best universities are adept at steering resources to their most productive researchers, but the undergraduate curriculum gets little more than lip service. “Very few colleges tell their students what to think,” Delbanco notes, and “most are unwilling even to tell them what’s worth thinking about.”


Curiously, the elite universities’ neglect of their core college mission has coincided with a frenzied competition to enter their gates. The desire for learning and character formation seems no longer to motivate a majority of college applicants (or their parents), but the desire to gain access to the schools with the highest rankings certainly does. Selective universities confer status, and their diplomas are thought to bring higher earnings. The wealthy have a much better chance of appearing qualified for admission; high schools for the rich know how to polish those résumés and pump up those SAT scores. At many schools, the so-called meritocracy in admissions is increasingly an excuse for reproducing economic inequality. The class divide grows ever greater; those with money and those without “know less and less about each other,” Delbanco writes.


It’s no wonder that politicians on the right are now exploiting resentment about higher education, even though their own economic policies would increase income inequality. Universities have become complicit in solidifying the class divide by instilling in their students a sense of entitlement: you got in because you deserved to, and once we certify your talent, you’re entitled to whatever you can accumulate in the future.


Delbanco surveys this sad terrain, but he knows it’s not the whole story. Over the last 40 years many highly selective schools have emphasized creating a diverse undergraduate student body in the belief that this results in a deeper educational experience. Liberal arts education has moved away from cultivating homogeneity and toward creating a campus community in which people can learn from their differences while finding new ways to connect. This has nothing to do with political correctness or identity politics. It has to do with preparing students to become lifelong learners who can navigate in and contribute to a heterogeneous world after graduation.

德尔班科考察了这个可悲的领域,但他知道这还不是全部真相。在过去40年间,许多非常挑剔的大学都强调要培养各种各样的本科学生,因为它们相信这会给学生带来更深入的教育经历。通识教育(Liberal arts education)放弃培养同质的学生,转而创造这样的校园:在其中人们能够从他们的差异中学到东西,同时发现新的交往方式。这跟政治正确或身份政治无关。它是要让学生准备好做一个终身学习者,以便毕业后能够在一个混杂的世界中畅行并有所贡献。

Selective colleges and universities ought to be shaping campus communities that maximize each undergraduate’s ability to go beyond his or her comfort zone to learn from the most unexpected sources. To do so, and to deliver on the promise of our ideals, we must maintain robust financial aid programs and end the steep rise of tuition. If we’re to become more affordable and more responsible, we must replace spending for cachet with investments in student learning.


Delbanco stresses that “one of the insights at the core of the college idea” is the notion that “to serve others is to serve oneself by providing a sense of purpose, thereby countering the loneliness and aimlessness by which all people, young and old, can be afflicted.” Like John Dewey, he knows that education is a “mode of social life” in which we learn the most by working with others. Like William James, he prizes those “invasive” learning experiences that open us up to the “fruits for life.” The American college is too important “to be permitted to give up on its own ideals,” Delbanco writes. He has underscored these ideals by tracing their history. Like a great teacher, he has inspired us to try to live up to them.

德尔班科强调,“学院理念的核心洞见之一”是“帮助别人就是帮助自己,使自己获得使命感,从而克服所有人——无论年轻还是年老——都会有的孤独和无所事事心理。”他像约翰·杜威(John Dewey)那样,知道教育是“一种社会生活方式”,我们通过与他人的合作来学习。他像威廉·詹姆士(William James)那样,珍视那些“侵略性的学习经历”,正是这种经历让我们得以畅享“生命的果实”。德尔班科写道,美国学院太重要了,“不能允许它们放弃理想”。他追溯了这些理想的历史,凸显了其价值。跟伟大的老师一样,他鼓舞我们努力去实现这些理想。
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