The Magazine

College Daze

Reforms are nice, but will they happen?

Nov 11, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 09 • By MARK BAUERLEIN
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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.