Sunday, May 27, 2007

Book Review: Our Underachieving Colleges, by Derek Bok

Derek Bok is one of the most thoughtful observers (and participants) in higher education today. As president of Harvard for 20 years (1971 - 1991) he had many opportunities to see first hand how an elite university works--or doesn't. Many years ago I read his book "The State of the Nation", which I found to be a reasonable analysis of many of the difficult issues facing the country. In "Our Underacheiving Colleges: A Candid Look at How Much Students Learn and Why They Should Be Learning More", Bok is able to focus on issues that he has a unique perspetive on. The begins with the basic question: "What is the purpose of higher education?" His response is given in a series of wonderfully insightful chapters focusing on critical thinking, diversity, and character. Unlike many commentators, he takes a measured response towards such divisive topics as preprofessionalism and the degree of faculty commitment to undergraduate education. Bok presents a powerful argument that the modern university has largely abdicated its responsibility to teach a strong core curriculum, as compared to a random hodgepodge of courses that students and faculty can agree will be "fun". This book deserves to be a classic treatise on higher education, alongside books such as Clark Kerr's "The Uses of the University".

NY Times Review, by Charles McGrath