Wither the Academy?

March 10, 2011

The New York Review of Books this week has a good review by Peter Brooks of four recent books on higher education:

Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses

Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids—And What We Can Do About It

Mark C. Taylor, Crisis on Campus: A Bold Plan for Reforming Our Colleges and Universities

Martha C. Nussbaum, Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities

Here are a few snippets to tempt you to read the whole piece:

“If crisis there is, it surely has something to do with the larger crisis in American society: the increasing gap between haves and have-nots, the retreat from any commitment to economic fairness, the sense that the system is rigged to benefit a tarnished elite that no longer justifies its existence. The affluence gap between Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, plus a few others, and the rest of the universities has indeed increased, and permits a degree of luxury to both students and faculty in those institutions that are the envy of the rest.”

“On the one hand, all the critics of the American university claim to be partisans of the liberal arts, to want students to study philosophy and literature, even the arts, and to learn “critical thinking” (the currently accepted mantra—not a bad one). On the other hand, the tests proposed always seem to have to do with job preparation—even as the critics in the same breath deplore “vocationalism” and point to the impoverished education that many majors in business or accounting receive.”

“On the whole, one has to say that the relative autonomy of the American university has been far more beneficial than the contrary. American higher education is a nonsystem that is messy, reduplicative, unfair—just like American society as a whole—but it has made genuine commitments to quality and to a greater degree of social justice, to the extent that is within its control, than most other institutions of the society.”

“I must say with regret that none of these books seems to me quite worthy of its subject—with the exception of Nussbaum’s, a book that needs to be read and heeded, but may not make much headway against the critical consensus. To me, the university is a precious and fragile institution, one that lives with crisis—since education, like psychoanalysis, is an “impossible profession”—but at its best thrives on it. It has endured through many transformations of ideology and purpose, but at its best remained faithful to a vision of disinterested pursuit and transmission of knowledge.”

“Universities are not so isolated from the tragic past, but they still make a claim to speak with eloquence across the centuries. They often fail, they need reform and course correction, but they are not, at their best, merely venal and self-serving. They deserve better critics than they have got at present.”

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About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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