Everyone’s angry at American colleges. Parents groan about tuition, students pile up debt and can’t find work, employers gripe that graduates lack job skills, conservatives decry liberal bias, Ph.D.s without a regular post become bitter transient adjuncts, and politicians suspect that tax dollars pay for useless majors and cushy schedules for professors.

Scandals pop up every week, such as the Michigan State English professor who opened his fall class with a rant against Republicans, calling them “dying white people” who “raped” our country. Heated testimonies of binge drinking, sexual assault, and cheating circulate, and bizarre shenanigans surface, such as the Oberlin incident in which racist messages and a Ku Klux Klan sighting paralyzed the campus and drew national media coverage—though the original acts turned out to be a hoax, and the hooded Klansman was just someone in a blanket.

Campus events needn’t be extreme to count as wacky, either: for instance, this magazine’s Andrew Ferguson facing the selective college admissions process with his child and appropriately titling his chronicle Crazy U.

Higher Education in America is the contrary to it all, a sober, copious study with not a single impolitic or unfair assertion. As befits the monumental title, it has 412 pages of text, 40 pages of 710 footnotes, and an extensive index. The study is divided into five sections, each with several chapters, plus a foreword and afterword—except for Part V, “The Final Reckoning,” which ends with “The Last Word.” The chapters encompass sweeping topics—“The American System of Higher Education,” “What to Learn,” “How to Teach,” “Medical Schools,” “Law Schools”—ranging from the sciences to the humanities, general education to doctoral programs, the college readiness of students to the job conditions of teachers.

Such a comprehensive review needs an experienced teacher, administrator, and researcher to carry it off, and it would be difficult to find one more qualified than Derek Bok. Educated at Stanford and Harvard, he joined the Harvard Law School faculty in 1958, became dean 10 years later, and then president of Harvard University twice—a 20-year term starting in 1971 and a one-year interim in 2006, after Lawrence Summers’s tenure exploded in the aftermath of his “women-and-science” remarks.

Along the way, Bok chaired the American Council on Education, Common Cause, the Association of American Universities, and the Spencer Foundation. His seven books on higher education include Our Underachieving Colleges (2005) and The Shape of the River (1998), a defense of affirmative action coauthored with William Bowen, ex-president of Princeton. As Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan, put it in a recent review of this volume, “Thank goodness Derek Bok, a two-time president of Harvard and a judicious, learned analyst of education, has taken on this undertaking.”

Bok’s prestige justifies the ambitious scope of the book, and it also arms him to face the problematic condition of higher education in 2013. His method develops consistently, chapter by chapter:

First, select a general topic, such as Chapter Four’s “Going to College and Earning a Degree.”

Next, identify a subtopic that is currently disputed, such as “How Many Young People Should Go to College?” On one side, studies show the income value of a college degree and the necessity of college training for jobs in the knowledge economy. On the other side, Andrew Hacker and Charles Murray argue that many students shouldn’t go to college at all, because the economy doesn’t need “overeducated” workers and not everyone can handle authentic college-level work.

Next, review the empirical evidence for both camps. On the positive, Bok cites data on the income boost of a college degree and on certain skill shortages a tailored curriculum would meet, as well as better health and higher voting percentages among college graduates. On the negative looms the enormous portion of students who need remediation (25 percent of four-year college students, 58 percent for two-years), along with the fact that fewer than half of students ever graduate.

Finally, offer solutions: “What Colleges Can Do.” Bok advocates placing high schools and colleges in closer curricular alignment, improving remedial education, and devising interventions for slipping students before they drop out.

The assessment is measured and clear, and we may confidently refer young academics and administrators to Higher Education in America as a primer on current affairs: not as the thorough summation it aspires to be, but as a handy introduction to pressing issues.

American higher education is simply too heterogeneous and fluctuating to be absorbed into a single trade volume, and sometimes the discussion fails to be exhaustive or invokes dated research. In a brief commentary on racial preferences, for example, Bok states that “several other arguments against racial preferences have now been refuted quite convincingly.” But his source for that proof comes from his own 1998 book! Bok never mentions the work in recent years on “mismatch,” showing that students admitted to college with records inferior to their peers end up hurt by the experience, not helped.

In the “Publish or Perish” chapter, Bok rightly wonders whether much academic research merits funding and publication. But his footnotes date from 1972, 1990, 1991, 2004, and 2011. When Bok addresses the topic of curriculums in “What to Learn,” he doesn’t dive into specific disciplines and ponder, say, what an English major should know; rather, he sticks to generalities about a vocational versus a liberal arts education and the meager learning gains from freshman to senior year.

To underscore these drawbacks, however, is to ask too much. Better to take the work as the wisdom of a knowledgeable professional at the heights of the system.

We should also appreciate another motif here, this one unintended by Bok. It is a pointed, overarching question that rises each time he offers his sensible solutions: Why do so many problems persist when obvious answers are available?

If students in remedial courses aren’t being helped by them—well, then, improve the instruction. If professors publish pointless research, then stop requiring so much research as a condition of promotion. If general education is an inconsistent experience for first-year students, then make requirements more prescriptive. These reforms are obvious, but ignored. Researchers find that students often don’t work hard enough—at the University of California at Berkeley, they average only 13 hours of homework per week—but “college officials seem curiously complacent about these trends,” explains Bok.

This is the real upshot: We shouldn’t be asking what we ought to do, but why it isn’t being done. For all the admirable reasonableness of the former Harvard president’s final word, a disconcerting irrationality runs beneath it. The oddity, though, lies not in this book but in the system itself, a mammoth enterprise crucial to American prosperity and flourishing, but shot through with needless costs, poor performance, falling standards, and routine corruptions that nobody can seem to do anything about.

Mark Bauerlein, professor of English at Emory University, is the author, most recently, of The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future.

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