Open Questions With Andrew Delbanco

An interview with the 2022 Jefferson Lecturer

HUMANITIES, Fall 2022, Volume 43, Number 4

On July 21, NEH Chair Shelly C. Lowe (Navajo) interviewed the 2022 Jefferson Lecturer, Andrew Delbanco. The president of the Teagle Foundation and Alexander Hamilton Professor of American Studies at Columbia University, Delbanco talked about liberal arts education, Herman Melville, slavery in American history, and his plans for the Jefferson Lecture.

SHELLY C. LOWE: Good afternoon, Professor Delbanco. Thank you so much for joining me today and congratulations for being named the 2022 Jefferson Lecturer. 

We are delighted that you will be using this public stage to talk about a really fascinating and important topic. But before we get to that, let’s hear about your other work. When you and I met in 2020, you mentioned that you were being interviewed by Humanities magazine about NEH’s partnership with the Teagle Foundation, where you are president, so maybe we can start by having you update us on that project.

ANDREW DELBANCO: Thanks so much, Shelly. It’s a pleasure to speak with you, and, of course, a great honor to have been asked to deliver the Jefferson Lecture. As for our current partnership with NEH, my colleagues and I at the Teagle Foundation believe that all college students—at two-year as well as four-year colleges—should have the opportunity not only to gain the skills they need to enter the world of work but also to reflect on how to live as responsible adults in a democratic society.

We believe, in other words, in liberal education—an education that not only exposes students to science and the amazing technologies that arise from science but also to different ideas about how to organize a fair society, as well as to the complexities of history and the pleasures of literature and art. Sadly, this kind of education is fading away at many colleges and universities—and we want to do what we can to reverse the decline.

So we’re delighted to be partnering with NEH on what we call the Cornerstone: Learning for Living initiative, which is an effort to revitalize that part of the curriculum that stands outside the student’s major, namely “general education.”

This is the part of college where students get a chance to explore subjects that might not be familiar to them, to test themselves in areas that they’re not confident about, to be a little adventurous—in other words, to nourish their curiosity, which college should open up rather than shut down. 

College is often a young person’s last chance to slow things down a little, to pause and reflect, to get away from the media noise, and to really think through complicated issues. Especially when the rest of society feels so impatient and angry and full of suspicion, colleges and universities have an obligation to equip students to listen to one another, to think carefully about difficult issues, and not to settle for slogans and sound bites.

We at Teagle think that the college classroom is a place where thinking and listening can still happen, and we try to do what we can to help that happen.

black and white photograph of Andrew Delbanco outside
Photo caption

On the campus of Columbia University, where Andrew Delbanco is Alexander Hamilton Professor of American Studies.

—Billy Delfs for the National Endowment for the Humanities

LOWE: You wrote recently that “predicting what will happen to our colleges and universities is less like tracking a planet than playing with a Ouija board.” Why do we have this fascination with trying to envision the future of higher education? And why can’t we do it?

DELBANCO: Well, even the oldest, richest, best-established institutions are subject to bigger forces than themselves.

Nobody expected that, from one day to the next, a virus would force teachers and students out of their classrooms, and create big obstacles, especially for students from low-income families who suddenly struggled to stay in college because they had to step up and help out family members who had gotten sick or lost a job, or both.

There are many other forces over which colleges have little control. For example, the number of college-aged students in the U.S. is likely to be lower than it has been in the past. This creates an opportunity for our universities to reach out to older adults who may never have earned a degree. Meanwhile, federal immigration policy as well as our relationship to other countries will affect in unpredictable ways the flow of international students into our country. Then there’s the threatened ability, or lack of will, of the states to provide adequate financial support for the array of public institutions that are so important to our society. One of the most alarming trends is the widening divide between mega-rich private colleges and everyone else. And related to all this is the chronic problem of finding ways to constrain the cost of college for families below the proverbial 1 percent.

These are just a few of the challenges, and though a lot of smart people are working on them, predicting what things will look like in ten years feels like a fool’s errand.

LOWE: Given all these challenges educators face, how do you keep your passion for teaching and working in higher education?

DELBANCO: Everybody I know who teaches got into this work because they were passionate about some subject. They wanted to learn more about it, and to share their knowledge and excitement with others.

As one grows older and life gets more complicated and one’s energy is drained off in different directions, it can be hard sometimes to keep up that energy and passion. But it shouldn’t be that hard because one’s subject—in my case, literature and history—is never static. It never stays the same.

Even if one teaches the same books over and over, the experience of rereading the book and presenting it to a new generation of students is always different. This is especially true when the class includes, say, veterans, or recently arrived immigrants, or older students returning to college after having been out in the world. But whoever the students are, they come in with a fresh set of experiences. They bring with them different responses and expectations than did the students from last year, not to mention the last decade or the last century!

So when we read a novel or consider a historical problem together, it’s always going to be new and different. That is, so long as the teacher actually pays attention to what the students are thinking and saying, which is part of what a good teacher ought to do.

Which means that there’s a built-in renewal process in the teaching life. As long as one stays engaged with the subject and the students, it can’t get dull. It can’t get boring. It can’t get routine.

Andrew Delbanco teaching at a classroom table
Photo caption

As president of the Teagle Foundation, Delbanco (shown here teaching at Columbia) works to make the classic liberal arts experience available to more college students, including those on a pre-professional track.

—Courtesy University Archives, Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Columbia University Libraries

Sometimes, you slip in that direction. Then you have to slap yourself and wake yourself up and start over again. But, so far, I’ve been pretty lucky. I find every class energizing, sometimes even nervous-making, which is a good sign. When I was a graduate student, I knew a professor who said that if you ever find yourself calm and confident before class, you know it’s time to quit. For me, that time hasn’t come yet.

This also relates to what the Teagle Foundation is about. When you get less privileged students into a humanities classroom—students from diverse backgrounds with radically different experiences from one another—it can be extremely rewarding for everyone. It’s not just that they have something to learn from the teacher. The teacher has a lot to learn from them. One of my pleasures in my work at Teagle is to meet so many generous teachers who care the world for their students. 

LOWE: Do you feel that same nervousness when writing as well?

DELBANCO: For sure. Writing is a very strange process. For me, it’s essential. I feel depleted and at odds with myself if I’m not writing. On the other hand, writing is very hard. It’s draining and stressful if, as I do, you really care about the shape of the sentence and the coherence of the paragraph, not to mention the chapter or the whole book.

You go to bed worried. Sometimes, before falling asleep, I’ll write down words and phrases that come to me, or even when I wake up in the middle of the night. And when that happens, it’s a good sign because that means the essay or book that I’m writing has become internalized, and I can’t get away from it even if I want to.

So writing is a struggle, but it can also be very satisfying. When you feel that you’ve finally hit the right note, you feel that you’ve actually done something worthwhile. Then you can take a breather and get your energy back up and get ready for the next bout with words and with yourself.

black and white photo of a young Andrew Delbanco and Dawn Ho.
Photo caption

Andrew Delbanco and Dawn Ho in 1972, the year before they married. Dawn Ho Delbanco is a scholar of Asian art history who teaches in the Core Curriculum at Columbia University and served on the National Council on the Humanities from 2008 to 2019.

—Courtesy Andrew Delbanco

LOWE: You’ve written a well-known critical biography of Herman Melville and you’ve talked about him as being someone who has powerfully wrestled with America’s existential themes. Can you tell us what some of these existential themes are?

DELBANCO: English professors have spent a lot of time, and I think some of it has been time wasted, arguing over who are the great writers and who are the not-so-great writers and which ones are worth teaching and which ones should be discarded.

It’s inevitable that every generation will be drawn to new writers and that writers who used to mean something will fade away because they don’t seem current anymore.

Melville is a case of a writer who seems alive for generation after generation. And why is that? It’s because the issues he grapples with are evergreen. They don’t go away. They always recur. They always confront us.

His most famous book, of course, is Moby-Dick, which is a story about a whale ship whose crew thinks they’re setting out on a business trip—a time-limited journey to do their jobs, kill whales and convert the whales into products for the market, then come home for some shore leave and then go back out again.

Instead, they discover that they have unwittingly signed up for a voyage under the leadership of a captain who has a completely different idea. He has an obsession, and he wants to turn this crew into an instrument of his own will so that he can achieve his goal—which is not killing whales for money, but killing one particular whale for revenge. And he’s very good at it. He almost gets the job done.

Along the way he gives great speeches. He stirs up passions and emotions in the crew in ways they’ve never experienced before. He makes them feel large and glorious and indispensable. He is what we would call a demagogue because, in fact, he’s out for his own motives, and he doesn’t really care a damn about the people whom he manipulates in order to achieve his goal.

So Moby-Dick is a book about a certain kind of leader and his followers. It’s about a problem that, unfortunately, is not likely to go away anytime soon. Many societies have fallen under the sway of such a leader. But that’s just one theme of this amazing book, which has as many dimensions as there are readers.

Melville wrote other works of astounding power. In his great story “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” he writes in a completely different voice from what we hear in Moby-Dick. He’s no longer operatic or full of bravado; now he’s pensive and full of irony. It’s an urban story, set in a claustrophobic office, but it’s about a very capacious question—namely, what are my responsibilities for other human beings, especially strangers? How far must I go for someone else who depends on me, even if it’s at my own expense?

The writing in “Bartleby” has a few archaic words, and it takes place in an environment that we’re not familiar with anymore, but the story is as fresh as the sun coming up in the morning. I find that students of all backgrounds respond very strongly to it because it’s not about some alien or eccentric character. It’s about all of us.

Or take Melville’s great final masterpiece, Billy Budd, which poses the problem of how to reconcile law with conscience. Even more fundamentally, it’s about the mystery of evil, the question of why one human being can feel uncontrollable animosity toward another human being for no apparent reason. And how do we, as a society, respond to this phenomenon? It’s another work that never grows old or stale because the questions it asks never go away.

So those are just a few examples. But the last thing I would say about Melville is that, at the end of the day, the reason I can’t stop reading him is because he was a magician with words.

It’s like listening to a great musician do things with an instrument that you didn’t believe possible. I have that reaction to Melville no matter how often I read and teach him.

I find myself talking to myself and shaking my head when I read certain sentences, just marveling at the inventiveness and the sheer joy with which he uses language, not the least part of which is his wonderful sense of humor. Anybody who reads Moby-Dick without laughing is not really reading it.

Andrew and Dawn Ho Delbanco, dressed up, at a wedding reception
Photo caption

Andrew and Dawn Ho Delbanco in 2020 at their son Benjamin’s wedding.


—Photo by Rolena Adorno, courtesy of Andrew Delbanco

LOWE: You’ve also written about the American dream. Tell me, in the present era, do you feel that we still buy into an idea of the American dream? Is it being looked at differently as we emphasize diversity and tell different stories about America, stories that had been left out of history? What does that mean anymore, the American dream?

DELBANCO: Well, that’s a great question to which I certainly don’t have a short or satisfying answer. In my understanding, the American dream has always had a vexed relation to the ideal of equality.

That concept, after all, is right there in the famous words of the Declaration of Independence, “all men are created equal.” Equality is a stirring word, but it’s not easy to explain what it means. Does it mean, for example, equality of opportunity?

Americans want to believe that in this nation, unlike the nations from which they or their forebears have come, you’re not constrained by what class you were born into, by who your parents were, or what your skin color is, what language you speak, what your religion is.

It’s supposed to be a place where you have the freedom to invent yourself rather than submit to someone else’s idea about who you are. That’s one way of articulating what the American dream has meant.

But what’s the aim of that process? How would you know if you’ve fulfilled the dream? Would it mean that you’ve got the proverbial suburban house with a two-car garage and a big backyard? Or does it mean more than that?

Another meaning of the word equality points not so much to opportunity as to equality of result or condition. That is, should we be a society where there is some restraint on the accumulation of private wealth so the gap between the most fortunate or talented and the less fortunate or talented does not become too vast?

There’s a tension between these two concepts of equality. At one end, if you talk about equality of outcome or condition, you’re talking about what some people would call socialism—the idea of a society in which goods and services are distributed not solely as rewards for desire or drive but also according to need. Of course, there’s never been such a society (utopian or dystopian—depending on how you look at it), but some societies come closer than others. Yet many Americans are wary of this version of equality and think of it as a foreign concept that inhibits ambition and blocks individual freedom.

On the other extreme is the idea that this should be a place where everybody is turned loose to build or grasp whatever they can with minimal constraint by government or any other intrusive power. If they fail, that’s their problem. And if they succeed, they should be able to accumulate wealth without limit.

I don’t think most of us believe that either of these extremes describes a good society. The American dream wants to locate itself somewhere in between. It wants to give people room to rise, but it also wants to be a fair society that takes responsibility for minimizing suffering, caring for the vulnerable, rescuing the casualties.

It seems quite clear that right now we don’t have this balance even close to right. There are too many people who live shamelessly, even ruthlessly, for their own unlimited acquisition, and too many others who are held back by inequitable access to the basics of life like a decent education and decent health care.

We’ve got to get this balance into a better place. If we don’t, I worry that the American dream, in any of its variants, will shrivel away and leave us without a sense of shared values. That’s a scary prospect because the uniqueness of America has always been that it defines itself not by blood or language or religion or heritage or origin, but by the ideal of a fair democracy in which the majority rules but not with impunity to trample on the rights of minorities. We do not want to be a society that has given up on that ideal.

Delbanco reads Moby-Dick to his grandchild
Photo caption

Professor Delbanco reads an old favorite to his granddaughter Simone as she sits attentively in her mother Yvonne’s lap.

—Courtesy Andrew Delbanco

LOWE: I’m reading your most recent book, The War Before the War, about tensions over slavery in the United States beginning with the American founding. Tell me, how do we understand slavery and its place in the Constitution when it’s not even present as a word in the Constitution? What is your understanding of that?

DELBANCO: Well, you know, right at this moment, eminent historians are having a vigorous, sometimes angry, debate about whether the original Constitution—I say original because the Constitution, of course, changes with every amendment and every judicial interpretation—was a proslavery or an antislavery document.

I frankly find this debate a little surprising because it seems to me that it was both. There are elements in the Constitution that reflect the fact that most Black people had the status of property when the drafters wrote it in 1787. And they didn’t say anything explicit in the Constitution about how this shouldn’t be. In fact, without ever using the word slavery, they inserted language that implicitly endorsed the existing institution—perhaps most notably in the so-called fugitive slave clause, which required the return of persons who have fled from “service or labor” back to the persons who claimed to own them. That’s the starting point of the story I try to tell in The War Before the War.

So nobody can dispute the fact that this clause, along with the notorious “3/5ths clause,” constitutes a defense of slavery. On the other hand, it’s significant that the words “slave” and “slavery” are nowhere to be found in the Constitution. As one of the authors, James Madison, remarked at the convention, he believed that the idea of property in man had no place in the Constitution—and he was, after all, a slaveholder. And there are other places in the Constitution, such as the “due process” language of the Fifth Amendment, and the Preamble itself, with its call to secure the “blessings of liberty,” that would later be invoked by abolitionists as evidence that the Founders envisioned a “more perfect union” with no place for slavery. 

In fact, the great activist and historian W.E.B. DuBois argued that the authors of the Constitution, or at least most of them, anticipated that slavery would ultimately become extinct. They kept the word slavery out because they didn’t want to enshrine an indefensible idea in the nation’s founding document.

Later generations would interpret the Constitution to mean that the federal government had the power to exclude slavery from all territories under the jurisdiction of the federal government, which turned out to be a decisive step toward ending slavery altogether.

So the Constitution can be read as defending slavery and it can be read as setting the terms for the abolition of slavery. To say it’s a proslavery document or an antislavery document seems, to me, too simple. It was certainly a compromised document, written by delegates from some states where slavery was fading away and from other states where slavery remained at the core of the economy and the culture.

If they were going to put together a new nation of “united states,” they were going to have to give something to the slave owners and something to those who didn’t think slavery should have any future in the new nation.

That’s what they did. Essentially, they kicked the can down the road and left it to future generations to resolve this question. And we know what happened. Almost one hundred years later, the matter was resolved by an inconceivably bloody civil war, in which both sides invoked the Constitution on behalf of their cause.

LOWE: How are you framing this conversation about slavery for the Jefferson Lecture? And what role can the humanities play in our debates over some of these issues?

DELBANCO: Well, to think responsibly about the past requires thinking oneself into the minds of people who no longer exist, who lived in a world that neither you nor I have ever visited, and who inherited assumptions from their predecessors that are quite different from what we have inherited from ours.

What is sometimes called the historical imagination is required to set aside one’s own assumptions about what’s right and wrong—or at least explicitly to acknowledge those assumptions—and to try to see the world through the eyes of people whose attitudes one might find loathsome.

That’s not easy to do, but every good historian makes an effort to do that. Now, that doesn’t mean that one suspends judgment and comes away without any preference for one point of view or another.

What I’m trying to say is that we can be critical and even ashamed of much of our history and, at the same time, accept that it’s our history rather than to say, you know, this has nothing to do with me because I am indignant or outraged by it. I think it helps to acknowledge that posterity is likely to judge us as fallible or foolish or worse, just as we are inclined to judge our predecessors.

For the Jefferson Lecture, I’ve decided to tackle a difficult issue about which there are passionate feelings on all sides. For shorthand purposes, we call it reparations.

We begin with the understanding that a profound and incalculably large injustice was perpetrated in the United States for centuries against millions of people for no reason other than their race.

Even our acknowledgment of this fact is not to be taken for granted. Fifty years ago, America was just starting to admit it, and if you go back 75 years or so, you find this acknowledgment only at the fringes of American intellectual and political life.

So it’s only fairly recently that we’ve begun to be honest about the horrors of slavery and the persistent injustices perpetrated long after the end of slavery on African Americans.

It’s an important step that we, as a society, are finally close to a consensus that slavery was an integral, fundamental part of the American historical experience all along. I’ve heard Ta-Nehisi Coates, who has a great gift for putting things vividly, say that slavery wasn’t a bump in the road. It was the road. It was utterly fundamental to the economic and cultural development of the United States—to the North, with its banks and textile mills, as well as to the South—and to say otherwise is simply to be dishonest about our history.

But that’s when the hard questions start. I mean, What is our responsibility now? What are our responsibilities as people whose ancestors may have been slave owners or who may have benefited indirectly from the institution of slavery? What is our responsibility now, beyond saying, yeah, that was a bad thing—let’s express regret and move on.

I just said that these are hard questions. And this may sound lame, but I think part of my job is to convince people of just how hard they are. What responsibility does the present generation bear for the crimes of the past? There are complex political, historical, moral, and even philosophical aspects to this question—and grappling with it is just the sort of challenge with which the humanities are supposed to help us.

I’m going to try to bring to bear some of those resources on this hard question. It would be foolish to claim that I’m going to arrive at a convincing answer—even convincing to myself. But I’m going to try to open up the problem to multiple perspectives on the premise that this is an essential discussion for us to be having now.

To go back to what I was saying earlier about the American dream and about the Constitution, neither extreme position on this question of reparations is what we need, I think. Not the view that says slavery is behind us, was solved by the Civil War, and should be consigned to the ancient past. I am also dubious about the other side that says, Let’s come up with some monetary value that represents the economic worth stolen from Black people over hundreds of years and cut a check for anyone who can prove they were descended from an enslaved person or has experienced injustice due to their race. I don’t think that’s going to get us very far either. In fact, it’s more likely to inflame the problem than to resolve it.

Somewhere between those two positions are thoughtful ways to try to engage in collective self-scrutiny without accusing or excusing this person or that person of bearing more or less responsibility for the crime. I’m going to try to thread that needle and, who knows, maybe I’ll never be asked to speak again once the lecture is over.

LOWE: I do think you’re extremely brave. Do you really feel that this is the moment when we need to address this topic? And that maybe we can find the answer and to bring this debate to a close?

DELBANCO: Well, I don’t know that we’re ever likely to bring it to a close. It’s nice of you to say I’m brave, though I think it’s sad when writers and scholars censor themselves from addressing topics that matter in a visceral way to lots of people. One has to take one’s chances.

If the humanities can’t help us think and talk together about difficult issues, then what good are they? Yes, they have a certain private value for people who enjoy the pleasures of art and literature, but ultimately the humanities have a public purpose too—they are supposed to enable us to live together more humanely, right? To understand one another better and to be willing to engage in debate over difficult issues, of which reparations is one but hardly the only one.

One purpose of the humanities is to shed light on why people believe what they believe and to ask them to reflect on why they hold a certain point of view and whether, by thinking more, they might want to change their minds.

I don’t know how far I’m going to get with this. I don’t think I’m going to persuade anybody of one policy position or another. There’s not going to be a bill in Congress that’s going to follow after I say whatever I’m going to say.

But, honestly, Shelly, if we could just have a civil evening where somebody can talk about this issue and not be denounced for thinking X, Y, or Z, then maybe that’ll be a step forward.

Of course, if there are articles that come out afterward that say he’s got it all wrong, that’s fine. That’s part of the discussion and that would be much better than silence and ho-hum and who cares.

black and white photo of Delbanco with his young children
Photo caption

The Delbancos, in 1987, on a trip to England: Andrew, daughter Yvonne on her father’s shoulders, and son Benjamin squeezing in for the photo.

—Courtesy Andrew Delbanco

LOWE: You’ve been named the fiftieth anniversary Jefferson Lecturer. What does that mean to you?

DELBANCO: Well, it’s a tremendous honor, first of all, for me personally. But I also think it’s very significant and should be meaningful to Americans that our federal government, funded by taxpayers, believes the humanities are important enough to support—and the Jefferson Lecture is just one small way in which NEH signals to the public that the humanities matter.

The very first Jefferson Lecture was delivered by a predecessor of mine at Columbia University, Lionel Trilling, who was a great literary critic. Many of his opinions I would disagree with today. We’re going all the way back to 1972 after all. He lived in a world where some of the issues we’ve been discussing were not yet widely acknowledged.

But he did have a temperament that feels pretty close to my own. He really didn’t like simplification. He didn’t like sound bites, though I’m not sure that word was in use in his day. His work was all about opening up the complexities and paradoxes that drive works of literature.

He considered himself a liberal, but he was critical of certain assumptions that he thought contemporary liberals took for granted about the benign motives of human beings.

It means a lot to me to be following in his footsteps. I have read his Jefferson Lecture, and there are things in it with which I don’t agree, but his fundamental commitment was, I think, the same as yours and the same as mine and the same as what lies behind this whole program, which is to get away from the shorthand, the taglines, the tweets, and make room for contradiction and complexity.

LOWE: What’s next for you? What are you working on now and what are some of those subjects you haven’t gotten to yet but you hope you will get to?

DELBANCO: The pandemic has been a horror and a disaster in all kinds of ways, but for privileged people like me who’ve been spared its worst effects, it has also done some weirdly positive things. It slowed things down. It opened up time for reading more widely. I read some long novels that have been on my shelf for years—as disparate as Anna Karenina and Peyton Place and Sons and Lovers and Letting Go. I read Mary McCarthy and Paula Fox and Larry McMurtry and other twentieth-century novelists. I caught up with books I had missed such as Craig Wilder’s Ebony and Ivy and Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land, and with books that are helping to shape the current conversation such as Clint Smith’s How the Word is Passed.

And I have done some writing outside of my usual range. I wrote a piece about The Twilight Zone, which was a television show that meant a lot to my generation growing up in the ’60s and seemed to connect in an eerie way to the present moment. And I finally had the opportunity to write about an artist for whom I have enormous admiration, the great filmmaker Stanley Kubrick.

So that’s part of what I’ve been doing, along with teaching and trying to deploy the resources of the Teagle Foundation to good effect. As to what I’m going to do next, I’m going to be coy and say I have a few ideas and am waiting for one of them to say, hey, me first! Right now, I’m focused on trying to give a decent lecture on October 19.

LOWE: Could you finish this sentence for me? Come to my Jefferson Lecture because you will walk away with . . . .

DELBANCO: Come to my Jefferson Lecture because the reparations issue is part of a larger question that will always be with us. It’s the “Bartleby” question: What do we owe to one another? All people should be asking themselves that question all the time.

Now, what are you going to come away with? You’re not going to come away with a blueprint or action plan. But maybe you’ll come away with a few perspectives or, well, I don’t want to use the word insight, a few suggestions to enable us to think together about this hard question a little more deeply than we’ve been thinking about it.