Science and Moral Life   /   Spring 2013   /    Interview

A Conversation with Andrew Delbanco

Joseph E. Davis

Your book, College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be, deals with both the question of a liberal arts education, what you refer to as the “college idea,” and the question of access. I want to begin with the goods of a liberal education, and whether those goods are the same for public and private institutions. Your book deals a lot with colleges, which tend to be private. Is there any distinction you wanted to make?

One point I make in the book is that the distinction between public and private is in some respects false, or at least overstated. It’s certainly true that there are differences in governance and freedom of action on the part of private versus public institutions, but at the same time, private institutions are the beneficiaries of a great deal of public funding, which comes to them in various forms. It comes in the form of federal research dollars; it comes in the form of the tax deductibility of private donations, which represent, arguably, funds deflected from the public treasury and directed instead to a private, non-profit institution. And some students at such institutions are beneficiaries of Pell Grants or federally subsidized loans—so there’s a whole variety of ways in which private institutions are also public and have public responsibility.

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