Debates about the values of liberal education did not begin with our financial crisis. The new university system of the late 19th century forced the old college system to defend its mission. “Of what merit was general education amid a pulsating scientific-industrial civilization that increasingly prized the values of professionalism and narrow expertise?” writes Richard Wolin in review of Andrew Delbanco’s College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be.

According to Wolin, Delbanco’s point in his chronicle of the American university is “that by subjecting the ends of higher education to a series of extraneous criteria derived from the marketplace, we risk distorting the very purpose and meaning of the college experience.” We all can agree that liberal education is good; the challenge is to decide what it is and what it’s for. “The end result” of not deciding “has been the confused intellectual smorgasbord that defines undergraduate study today.”

Wolin concludes by wondering whether some old assumptions about the Western intellectual tradition, now sidelined, have been unjustly sidelined: “As the Frankfurt School philosopher Theodor Adorno observed about debates concerning the legacy of Western reason: only the hand that inflicted the wound can cure the disease.”