Cover Story

Humanities for Everyone: A Plan

In conversation with Andrew Delbanco of the Teagle Foundation

HUMANITIES, Fall 2020, Volume 41, Number 4

In September of this year, NEH and the Teagle Foundation announced Cornerstone: Learning for Living, a $7 million partnership to revitalize the humanities in American colleges, where the decline of the general education curriculum has diverted countless students away from serious engagement with life-changing texts in the humanities.

Andrew Delbanco is president of the Teagle Foundation and the Alexander Hamilton Professor of American Studies at Columbia University. The acclaimed author of The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul, College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be, and several other books on American culture, Delbanco has been an NEH Research Fellow and, in 2012, received the National Humanities Medal from President Obama. On September 25, he spoke with NEH Chairman Jon Parrish Peede.

JON PARRISH PEEDE: Before we discuss the Cornerstone partnership, I would like to ask about your early life.

ANDREW DELBANCO: I grew up in a suburb of New York City. It was a privileged childhood. There are lots of hazards to growing up under such circumstances, not the least of which is to think that everybody gets to live that way. Fortunately, I was spared that misconception by my parents, who, from their own experience, were very aware that luck and chance play a big role in life.

Books were an important part of life in our home. Despite my Italian-sounding last name, my parents were German Jews who fled from the Nazis—and so I grew up hearing a lot about how suddenly culture can collapse into barbarism, and how literature, music, and art are both precious and fragile.

My mother had been a student of the philosopher Ernst Cassirer and my father was a passionate amateur painter. It was assumed in our family that a reflective life, a respect for the power of the imagination, and an awareness of history and other people’s experiences were essential for living a purposeful life.

I wouldn’t say I was a voracious reader as a child. This might sound strange, but I discovered that I liked to write earlier than I threw myself into serious reading. Very early on I liked writing (and diagraming!) sentences. I liked the feeling of finding the right word and almost hearing it click into place. I also realized pretty early that I loved to teach, which I did in an Upward Bound program in the summer, starting in high school.

As for when I truly discovered the power of reading to take you outside yourself, I have a vivid memory of reading Katherine Anne Porter’s story Noon Wine when I was maybe sixteen and was expected to join some family event, and being so enthralled by it that I arrived very late. I have another memory of sitting by myself in my college dorm room swept up by Graham Greene’s novel The Power and the Glory. I began to see that, through books, I could travel in the imagination to places—physical and spiritual—where I had never been.

The War Before the War book cover
Photo caption

Writing his most recent book required Delbanco to deepen his knowledge of African-American history. 

—Penguin Press

PEEDE: Many passionate readers become professors, but they rarely engage in larger societal issues as public intellectuals and grantmakers as you have. How did you become focused on the importance of a strong infrastructure of higher education to the nation?

DELBANCO: Well, I don’t mean to make myself sound like Mr. Virtue, but from my parents I was made aware that my privilege was exceptional and that this country is filled with creative, curious, good, searching people, most of whom did not have the opportunities I had.

After I finished my PhD and taught for a few years at Harvard, I had the good fortune to land at Columbia as a professor. Although Columbia’s also an Ivy League institution, it has the great merit of being in the middle of an enormous city where once you walk through the gates out onto Broadway, nobody is impressed that you’re a Columbia professor, and that’s very healthy.

Living in New York, riding the morning subway with hard-working people of all colors and economic circumstances who get up very early to go to work, helps to induce a little humility and maybe even protects a bit against the academic occupational hazard of feeling pleased with oneself. And as I got interested in the history of American higher education, I began to realize how limited a part of the world I knew firsthand.

One day, maybe 30 years ago, I was having breakfast at the Carolina Inn in Chapel Hill with the eminent literary scholar Lewis P. Simpson, who spent his career at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. I was looking at grits, which I don’t think I’d ever seen before, and Lewis smiled and said to me, “You know, Andy, if you keep traveling around, you might actually get to know this country someday.”

By now, I have visited well over a hundred campuses, maybe two hundred. I’ve met students at Nassau, LaGuardia, Hostos, and Bronx community colleges in New York City, Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant, Georgia Southern in Savannah, Weber State in Ogden, Utah, Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina, and I’m always impressed by how these students are every bit as vital and curious and passionate about learning, in some ways more so than some of the students who get one of those highly coveted berths in the Ivy League.

PEEDE: In this moment when we’re trying to be sensitive to the experiences of our students, how do you, as a professor, challenge preconceived notions in the age of trigger warnings and the like?

DELBANCO: Well, let me start with an anecdote. In my student days, I was taking a seminar in which we were studying Jonathan Edwards. He’s an evangelical Christian from the eighteenth century and I’m a secular Jewish guy in the twentieth century. I was very confused by Edwards’s ideas about predestination and human helplessness and I expressed that discomfort in the seminar. My professor, Alan Heimert, leaned across the table, I’ll never forget this, and said, “What is it that bothers you so much about Edwards? Is it that he’s so hard on self-deception?”

That question was probably the most important thing a teacher said to me in college or graduate school. It forced me to think about my own assumptions about how the world is put together and what my role in it is, what a human being can control and what he can’t control.

That’s the kind of interaction I think a teacher should strive for in class. Alan was quite a tough teacher and somebody else might have been hurt or offended by what he said to me. I think it’s all to the good that we are more aware today of the diversity of our students and more sensitive to the possibility that they have had painful or even traumatic experiences that the teacher can barely imagine—yet the classroom must remain a place of open inquiry and free exchange. That means the teacher and the students have to trust each other. They have to trust each other in something like the way members of a family must trust each other, because only then can you be honest and dare to challenge one another in a spirit of tough love. And it’s a two-way street. My students have taught me a lot by asking questions or introducing perspectives that I had never thought about.

PEEDE: Now, tell us about the Cornerstone program.

DELBANCO: The Cornerstone program is an exciting and promising response to the new reality that we’re all living in.

We have more and more students who come from families of modest means, who may be the first in their families to attend college. At the same time, college has become very expensive. The debt burden is a real problem.

So it’s totally understandable that students and their families think more and more about college as a means to employment and professional success.

This makes it all the more important that all students have the opportunity to have something like the experience that I had, even as they are en route to a career in business or some technical field or in the health sciences or whatever it may be.

Young people have fundamental problems on their minds. What are my adult responsibilities to my parents and to my future children and to my neighbors? How do I balance the pleasures of freedom with the risks of freedom? How do I choose between what’s good for me and what may be damaging to my peers and my friends? How do I tell the difference between love and desire?

Students may not yet have a strong vocabulary for asking such questions, but such questions are on their minds. Moreover, these are hard questions—one reason that anxiety is rising among college students.

Students need an opportunity to confront the big questions of life and it’s very helpful for them to have guidance from books, whether from the ancient, modern, or contemporary world, from writers who have articulated these questions and formulated provisional answers in a particularly powerful way.

That’s what literature and philosophy and great works of history do. And students who encounter such texts need to do so under the guidance of caring faculty members who are open to diverse views and with peers who have similar questions on their minds. This is an incalculably precious opportunity our colleges must continue to furnish to their students.

We cannot and should not want to go back to the era of the prescribed curriculum where there was a relatively short list of canonical works. That’s a nonstarter for mainly good reasons. But what has happened in the last fifty years is that compulsory general education has been abandoned and nothing remotely comparable or productive or valuable has been put in its place.

PEEDE: How did Cornerstone get started?

DELBANCO: At Purdue University, there was a fortunate confluence: a faculty member who was a passionate advocate for students, a dean who cared about these issues, and a president who recognized their importance. They all stepped forward, and they said we’re actually going to do something about this rather than just lament their marginalization in the curriculum.

The faculty leader of Cornerstone, Professor Melinda Zook, went to the humanities departments and said, You don’t have very many students. Students are not coming to you. How about your coming to them? How about stepping out of your department, not all of you or all of the time, but take part of your time and use it to engage with the incoming first-year students, most of whom aspire to be in one technical field or another? They’re probably not going to be English or history or philosophy majors—but they are eager learners, and you have something valuable to offer them. We’ll put together a list, not five books or 10 books but a couple hundred books that the faculty can agree have value as provocations and as examples of the imagination that young people can benefit from. You must choose half your texts from this list, but for the other half you can choose any books that you’re excited about. We’ll cap the class at about 30 students, and we will thereby give those students something like what they deserve.

The other thing Melinda did is she went to the deans of the professional schools, engineering and technology, and told them about the plan. They loved it. They said, This is what we’ve been waiting for. Sure, we want skillful engineers, but we also want engineers who can express themselves and think about the bigger picture and about the people who are going to live in the structures that they build.

Cornerstone is not a compulsory program. It was founded on the Field of Dreams principle: Build it and they will come. And they’re coming.

It started three years ago as a small pilot, and today there are 2,000 undergraduates at Purdue signing up each semester for the two-semester course sequence called Transformative Texts. Why? Because the students are telling their friends, This is good, I like this. It gives them something to talk about beyond what eighteen-year-olds usually talk about with each other.

The Odyssey was a text that many sections of Cornerstone read. Purdue then had nearly a thousand students turn out for a dramatic performance of The Odyssey. Students have also been reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a book of great salience in our age of technology, full of issues that students can connect to their own lives.

Cornerstone also has an upper-level course element. Beyond that freshman sequence, students can take courses that bring a humanistic perspective to their specialized studies, whether in business, climate science, technology, or whatever. And they can get a certificate at the end.

At the Teagle Foundation, we were very impressed with this as a potential model for making a real intervention in the critical phase of college known as general education. And we’re tremendously grateful to NEH for signing on as a funding partner with us.

Melville: His World and Work book cover
Photo caption

In Melville: His World and Work, Delbanco presents the author of Moby-Dick as a quintessential figure of nineteenth-century America. 

—Vintage Books, Random House

PEEDE: How does literature make a meaningful difference in our lives?

DELBANCO: Literature is about people in conflict with themselves, at least that’s what it’s often about for me. Prince Hamlet, Anna Karenina, Captain Vere in Billy Budd, Scobie in The Heart of the Matter, Janie in Their Eyes Were Watching God, the unnamed narrator of Invisible Man—these are all people struggling with themselves, divided between rage and forgiveness, duty and self, hope and despair. I could go on and on.

The value of teaching literature to undergraduates is that they can recognize in such books that they’re not alone in feeling conflicted with themselves. A well-taught literature class can also help us with a problem we have in this country right now, which is that people are not willing to acknowledge that all real problems, in public as well as private life, are hard problems to which there are no easy answers.

Right now, too many people believe that you’re either on the right side or the wrong side and there’s no space in between for engagement and productive discussion.

Students in a meaningful general education curriculum should have to grapple with such questions as, How could Thomas Jefferson be a great democrat and also hold odious views about race? How could Edith Wharton be a great novelist and also an anti-Semite?

Great works are produced by defective people, and students can understand that, if you speak with them the right way. They know that they themselves are defective and that the people they love are defective and that’s the human condition.

PEEDE: The Cornerstone project is good for humanities faculty, too, isn’t it?

DELBANCO: Yes, we hope Cornerstone will create opportunities for young teacher scholars. Institutions that adopt this kind of program are going to need more young teacher scholars, who right now are looking into a dark tunnel if they hope to be hired by a department to teach the dwindling number of humanities majors. The place for growth in humanities teaching is in general education.

PEEDE: You’ve written about Puritans, about the American Dream, Melville, the history of college, and, most recently, the Fugitive Slave Act. In the academy today, could an English professor get tenure while moving from Melville to the Fugitive Slave Act?

DELBANCO: The humanities are about making connections. The humanities are about appreciating complexity, and no scholar in any particular field can get their arms entirely around human experience.

I’ve been perhaps audacious in aspiring to put multiple approaches together and I guess that’s what I’ve tried to do in my most recent book, which is about the Fugitive Slave Act and the coming of the Civil War. I had to immerse myself in political history and legal history and, most of all, in the history of the African-American experience. It was an awakening experience for me to begin to understand how different American history has been for black people than it has been for white people. The Puritans speak of the difference between “notional knowledge” and “heart knowledge.” Writing this book got me some distance away from the former and a little closer to the latter.

I’ve been fortunate to have a job that allows me to write for the broader public, which, to my mind, is very much like teaching bright undergraduates. That is, you want to write clearly. You want to give the reader a reason to turn the page. People have infinite choices about what to read. They can put the book down after the first paragraph and go read something else just as an undergraduate can walk out of the class and go take somebody else’s class. You have to give them a reason to stay with it.

A good teacher is somebody who conveys their own excitement and passion about the subject to the students. That’s more important than any of the details that come across in the lecture.

It’s a respectable expectation on the part of academic institutions that people to whom they give a lifetime appointment should have proved themselves to be reliable scholars who do their homework and try to tell the truth rather than just throw a lot of opinions around. So I don’t have a problem with scholarly standards for tenure, but I do wish colleges and universities would take a somewhat broader view of what constitutes tenure-worthy work.

PEEDE: You received the National Humanities Medal. You’ve served on NEH panels. You have received NEH grants. Your wife, Dawn Ho Delbanco, served on our National Council. I had the pleasure of working with her. What has NEH meant to you?

DELBANCO: When I received an NEH fellowship early in my career, it was a tremendous encouragement. When I served on an NEH panel, I was extremely impressed by the process and the reviewers. I thought the discussion was a model of what we’ve been talking about.

People had very different points of view, but they made their case and then consented to the outcome of the discussion. They left the room with more respect for each other precisely because there had been respectful and substantive disagreements rather than shouting and groupthink.

When I was honored with the National Humanities Medal by President Obama, it was somewhat overwhelming to me. My wife, who teaches both Western and Asian art, served on the NEH Council under a succession of different chairmen and found the experience inspiring. It opened her eyes to the many ways in which NEH brings hope through the humanities into the lives of people from all backgrounds in all parts of the country.

NEH doesn’t belong to one ideology or another. It tries to serve this grand complicated country in all its contradictions and complexity, which is why the work that NEH does is of inestimable value.