Two engaging critiques of the state of higher education

These two books were reviewed last year (CACUSS 2007) but, I think, warrant re-posting here.

Ivory Tower Blues
A university system in crisis
By James E. Côté and Anton L. Allahar
University of Toronto Press, Toronto, Buffalo, London: 2007

Our Underachieving Colleges
A candid look at how much students learn and why they should be learning more
By Derek Bok
Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ: 2006

– reviewed by Deanne Fisher, University of Toronto

These books — one Canadian, one American — offer student affairs practitioners a big picture view of what’s happening in undergraduate education broadly.

James Côté and Anton Allahar, two faculty members in the Department of Sociology at the University of Western Ontario, have been garnering a fair amount of attention for their scathing critique of Canada’s university system. Ivory Tower Blues is based largely on the authors’ 25-plus years (each) of teaching experience during which they say they have witnessed “hopes shattered with increasing frequency, in the daily grind of the university system and in the harsh reality of the job market afterwards.”
The problem? Increasing numbers of young people persuaded, pushed and pressured into university by policy, parents and public opinion but who are not prepared to meet the rigour of the curriculum. The result? Widespread disengagement of students and rampant grade inflation as professors succumb to the constant pressure for high marks. In other words, quality is sacrificed in the name of access. And while the authors build a pretty good case – through labour force statistics, survey results, grade distributions and the like – for their argument, it’s still a pretty bitter pill to swallow.

Côté and Allahar go to great lengths to assure us that “there are no identifiable bad guys or good guys in the story we are telling” and, yet, there is subtle finger-pointing throughout, directly largely at the students themselves, and their parents. After chapters dedicated to “The Professor as Reluctant Gatekeeper”, “The Student as Reluctant Intellectual” and “Parents as Investors and Managers”, the authors turn to policymakers with some advice. But instead of focusing on what could change in universities to promote student engagement and learning, Côté and Allahar’s fixate on a system of “hard sorting” of students to weed out those who shouldn’t be there. By this point, they have built a very powerful, well intentioned, and, indeed, caring case to reduce enrolment in Canadian universities. They are not mean; they simply believe that many students have been misled and poorly prepared and that there are better options for these young people. And yet their conclusions are strangely unpalatable, unsettlingly cynical.

Contrast this approach with Derek Bok’s Our Underachieving Colleges – a much more reasoned, accessible and balanced examination of what’s gone wrong with undergraduate education. Yes, it is American and, yes, Bok is a former President of Harvard, hardly a typical institution. And still this book fuels my daily work.
After deftly establishing that there is indeed a problem in undergraduate education, Bok sets forth the six tendencies in faculty attitudes that have given rise to this crisis – among them, the neglect of the extracurriculum. “Faculty members who review the undergraduate program…prefer to confine their deliberations to the formal educational program of the college, leaving the dean of students and other administrative officials to worry about the extracurriculum.” Administrators (that’s us!), says Bok, have brought about most the important innovations in undergraduate education over the past few decades. He calls, however, for more faculty involvement in these endeavours: “[S]tudent experiences inside the classroom and out are often too closely intertwined to be kept separate in this way.”

The remainder of the book is structured around eight “purposes” of an undergraduate education, offering a pragmatic approach to change in each area: learning to communicate, learning to think, building character, preparation for citizenship, living with diversity, preparing for a global society, acquiring broader interests and preparing for a career.

In reading Our Underachieving Colleges, you will, occasionally, have to filter out context, trends and practices that are uniquely American or that are not applicable to your particular institutional mandate. But the same can be said for Ivory Tower Blues, in which my own institution is singled out as being unusual in its resistance to grade inflation.

I suggest reading both: Ivory Tower Blues because it is represents the most significant critique of Canadian undergraduate education in decades and helps explain, if not resolve, the issues of student malaise and disillusionment we witness daily; Our Underachieving Colleges because it offers hope, purpose and direction to those of us concerned with ending the disillusionment.

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4 thoughts on “Two engaging critiques of the state of higher education

  1. […] seen these perspectives before, most recently in Ivory Tower Blues by two faculty members at the University of Western Ontario. But where previous critiques have been […]

  2. […] few years ago I reviewed the first book by these two professors from the University of Western Ontario, Ivory Tower Blues. While hardly […]

  3. […] notoriety a few years back with their critique of the university system: Ivory Tower Blues. (See CACUSS Reads review.)  Though they had a strong thesis based on both data and teaching experience with their original […]

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