03/02/2011 01:31 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Pleasant Evening With Professors, But Real Questions Dodged

Fans of Columbia University humanities professor Andrew Delbanco may know him as one of the nation's premier Melville scholars, but Tuesday night he was after a different tenet of American culture.

In an intimate gathering hosted by the Current, a Columbia University undergraduate journal of contemporary politics, culture and Jewish affairs, Delbanco and fellow professor and former Columbia Dean of Students Roger Lehecka spoke with a breezy rapport about the purpose, development and problems of postsecondary education in the U.S. today.

"There are some reasons to believe that we're in a period of rapid and unpredictable change," Delbanco said. "Institutions of higher education are participating in this episode of vertiginous change."

Delbanco, who was named America's Best Social Critic by Time in 2001, is well-known on campus for his dynamic lectures and thoughtful analyses, and did not disappoint.

First noting that the language we used to describe the collegiate experience in the past has evolved -- a student no longer necessarily refers to someone aged 17 to 21, an instructor is more often a contingent adjunct than a tenured professor, and a classroom is increasingly likely to refer to a virtual place -- Delbanco went on to say that the change runs deeper than simple semantics. A wider range of educational experience means that the traditional, four-year liberal arts is "becoming a specialty item in the larger landscape of American higher education," he said. It also begs the question: What is its purpose?

In answer, Delbanco offered a quote from John Alexander Smith, who addressed a class of Oxford University students in 1914. "If you work hard and intelligently you should be able to detect when a man is talking rot, and that, in my view, is the main, if not the sole, purpose of education," he said.

If Delbanco spoke as a theorist, Lehecka spoke as a champion of equitable access to institutions like Columbia. "There is no question that going to college changes what possibilities you'll have in life in a dramatic way," he said.

He added that though we might like to believe that all those who deserve to be ushered into the upper echelons of society through higher education are, some troubling statistics prove otherwise. Students who come from the lowest-income quartile and have SAT scores in the highest quartile are accepted into top-tier institutions at the same rate as those from the highest-income quartile with SAT scores in the lowest.

After Delbanco and Lehecka spoke they fielded questions from students, which although articulate, remained within the confines of polite discourse. The audience was filled almost exclusively with those who knew the professors on a personal level, and though this lent the evening an air of fraternity, it also erred dangerously close to the elite pretension the event decried.

Notably absent from student questions where inquiries into the state of community colleges, for-profit institutions state budget cuts and other issues that make for the majority of conversation outside the ivory tower. Rather, students asked about tensions between Columbia college and graduate programs, Harvard and Princeton's recent move to reinstate early decision and whether global satellite locations are the way of the future.

According to event organizer and Current managing editor David Fine, "The Current is trying to re-position our campus focus on events that require deeper analysis than just sound-bites and entrenched positions." Although a deep and sustained conversation was the goal of the event -- and though Delbanco himself acknowledged the fact that elite institutions had dominated discussion -- at the evening's close it was clear that a commentary on higher ed from within the walls of one of it's most exclusive institutions left much to be desired.