For many people, Andrew Delbanco is the definition of a public intellectual. With a combination of deep learning, eloquence, and a deft, original way of considering our national history and literature, he documents the human mise-en-scène in a way that matters today. Delbanco frequently speaks throughout the country, appears in television documentaries, and many of his books are found on the New York Times Notable Books lists.
As is so often the case, this illustrious career began with a great teacher.
“I had the wonderful fortune as a student at Harvard to be inspired by Alan Heimert, a mesmerizing professor who insisted that in order to understand America we must take our religious history seriously. Alan asked his students to examine texts from Puritan New England not as curiosities or anthropological artifacts but as responses to human existence that are translatable across time and still have an urgent connection to our own experience.”
Delbanco, now the Mendelson Family Chair of American Studies and Julian Clarence Levi Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University, later collaborated with Heimert on an edited volume entitled The Puritans in America: A Narrative Anthology, which came out in 1985. And his subsequent work, beginning with The Puritan Ordeal, has been predicated on the idea that authors from the past have something vitally important to teach us about how to live in the present. Required Reading: Why Our American Classics Matter Now, for instance, freshly presented a group of American authors who shared a common trait: Each labored to overcome and transcend “the structures of thought into which they were born,” and in the process opened new possibilities for their readers.
The Death of Satan: How Americans Have Lost the Sense of Evil is a meditation on the costs of our attenuated or increasingly simplistic sense of evil, which takes readers on a briskly erudite tour of the Puritans and continues through the anguished theology of Jonathan Edwards, the effect of the Civil War on religion, and the work of Martin Luther King Jr. The Real American Dream: A Meditation on Hope covers a similar historical breadth, but challenges contemporary Americans to rediscover a transcendent belief they might share. His 2005 Melville: His World and Work offers up a searching critical biography of the metaphysical novelist for the new millennium. As Delbanco puts it, “I’ve long been interested in the existential themes with which Americans have wrestled—and no one did so more powerfully than Herman Melville.”
If these interests stemmed from his intellectual apprenticeship with Heimert, so too did another set of preoccupations: teaching and the role of education. “Heimert fostered in me the idea that teaching is a vocation—not just a job—and something to be taken very seriously. Teaching is a moral activity.” This conviction has led Delbanco to interrogate the role of college in American life in a series of penetrating critiques for the New York Review of Books. These pieces have served as a warm-up for Delbanco’s newest book, College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be.
“The college in America has always been distinctly unlike the European university,” Delbanco explains. “In the ideal, the American college is an analogue to the Puritan church—a gathered community to which all members contribute their disparate gifts. At the heart of the institution is the idea that college students have a great deal to learn from each other as well as from their professors—a view of education that is fundamentally democratic.
“Historically, Americans have also believed that young people between adolescence and adulthood should have time for reflection, a time to begin the work of shaping their own lives. America promises that our lives are not predestined, that we have the capacity to reinvent ourselves. We are not doing as well as we should in keeping that promise for all our citizens, but I believe it is still an animating principle of our culture, an aspiration we should strive to keep alive.”
In the book, Delbanco explores how recent arguments for diversity in the classroom are extensions of early beliefs that “people from different backgrounds can learn from one another. Such classrooms can serve as a rehearsal for democracy, a space where students learn the difference between argument and opinion, how to listen carefully to others, how an unanticipated idea can change how we think and act. A good college opens minds, introducing students to art and literature and the natural world. It makes the space between our ears a more interesting place for us to spend the rest of our lives.”
By Randall Fuller
Randall Fuller is Associate Professor of English at Drury University in Springfield, Missouri.