Over at The American Prospect, David Kirp reviews two new books on higher education: Jonathan Cole’s The Great American University: It’s Rise to Prominence, Its Indispensable National Role, Why it Must Be Protected and Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus’s Higher Education?: How Colleges are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids.
More than nine Americans in 10 say that universities are among the nation’s “most valuable resources,” but they hold different and sometimes conflicting ideas about what universities are valuable for. Universities are expected to generate ideas and generate jobs, to prepare the next generation of leaders and open their doors to the great mass of high school graduates, to speak truth to power and serve as resources for those in power.
Needless to say, higher education hasn’t figured out how to do all these things at once, and its failings have been grist for a cottage industry of sharp-eyed critics. Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus’ Higher Education is the latest addition to this bookshelf of broadsides, the question mark in the title signaling its viewpoint. In sharp contrast, Jonathan Cole’s The Great American University is a 616-page paean to elite research universities. Each book offers something of value but goes too far: American universities are neither the frauds that Higher Education asserts nor as impressive as The Great American University imagines.
Here is Kirp on Hacker and Dreifus:
The vision of a college education that Hacker and Dreifus advance is as timeless as Cardinal Newman’s classic 19th-century account, The Idea of a University. “College should be a cultural journey, an intellectual expedition,” the authors write. A major like sport management or sign-language interpretation has no place in this vision: “It isn’t education. It is training.” What should colleges do? Make undergraduates “more interesting people,” Hacker and Dreifus say.
While the idea that college should produce “more interesting people” is a good one, I am not sure if it will fly anywhere in today’s culture of higher education. Yet I respect what Hacker and Dreifus have to say about this. Sometimes I wonder if our attempts to be relevant and, in some cases, to prevent our colleges from closing, have resulted in us throwing out the baby with the bath water.
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