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Essay Review: Higher Aspirations for Higher Education: Is there a “Crisis” in America’s Colleges and Universities?

by Aaron Cooley - June 04, 2007

There is an almost uncontrollable impulse to allege that present social, cultural, and political organizations and institutions are on the precipice of failure. This impulse has been founded in works ranging from Spengler’s Decline and Fall of the West to much more educationally relevant diatribes such as the infamous A Nation at Risk report. This “crisis” impulse guides intellectual work of all stripes covering the political spectrum of the left and the right, as well as the particularly suspicious advocates of the status quo or middle ground. All of these works usually have in common a brief examination of the history of the institution and, then, a critique of the “nonsense” of the current actions of the organization. In and of itself, this narrative style can be especially useful in framing one’s own views as a legitimate response to a world gone mad. More superficially, these volumes are often just... (preview truncated at 150 words.)

There is an almost uncontrollable impulse to allege that present social, cultural, and political organizations and institutions are on the precipice of failure. This impulse has been found in works ranging from Spengler’s Decline and Fall of the West to much more educationally relevant diatribes such as the infamous A Nation at Risk report. This “crisis” impulse guides intellectual work of all stripes covering the political spectrum of the left and the right, as well as the particularly suspicious advocates of the status quo or middle ground. All of these works usually have in common a brief examination of the history of the institution and, then, a critique of the “nonsense” of the current actions of the organization. In and of itself, this narrative style can be especially useful in framing one’s own views as a legitimate response to a world gone mad. More superficially, these volumes are often just plain fun to read.

It is therefore no surprise that this ubiquitous “crisis” narrative overtly or, more subtly, guides a number of recent works on higher education. This essay review is an attempt to look at three trends (or, possibly, threats) to America’s college and universities. Each selected text addresses a particular “crisis” in higher education. The three “crises” are: 1) students’ underachievement on a number of fronts; 2) the commercialization of higher education; and 3) the lack of a wider civic purpose to the entire enterprise. The method of the review will be to analyze each volume in turn and to speculate on the future of higher education in this country in light of the insights from each text.

Derek Bok’s Our Underachieving Colleges: A Candid Look at How Much Students Learn and Why They Should Be Learning More is a volume that acknowledges the crisis atmosphere in higher education, which other scholars and political commentators have described in recent decades. However, Bok’s years of experience as the President of Harvard provide a different lens through which to view recent trends in higher education, as opposed to the perspective in the works of Allan Bloom or Dinesh D’Souza on the right and Henry Giroux on the left. To say that Bok’s work strives for the intellectual middle ground between these ideological poles would be incorrect. Bok’s writing is clear in his understanding of the contrasting views of the previously mentioned authors (and we will see why in the example of Giroux), but his focus is much less on the big “P” political aims of works that critique higher education. Instead, his focus is on substantive and specific reforms to improve the undergraduate experience.

Bok’s similarity to other writers who have addressed America’s higher education system, is his acknowledgement that the status quo is extremely difficult to break.  Further, Bok concedes that the levers of power that control colleges and universities are often diffuse, making systemic change difficult. Bok’s introduction speaks to these points:

The good news is that most of the serious deficiencies can be overcome, at least to a significant degree, given the will to do so. The bad news is that most of the problems are not being seriously addressed on campuses today, nor will they be until they are correctly identified and clearly understood by those responsible for the quality of teaching and learning in our colleges (Bok, 2006, p.10).

Given the concerns Bok expresses, changes could be made, but there seems to be no interest in taking up the issue of underachievement in all of its manifestations. As we will see, there are some points where Bok’s analysis is accurate and other points where a critical eye must be taken to his assertions.

Bok straightforwardly presents what he considers to be the questions that inhibit college and university education from reaching its full potential: 1) what is the proper role of the university?; 2) why do faculty members have problems with collaboration?; 3) why do institutions neglect important purposes?; 4) why is there a focus on general education?; 5) why is teaching neglected?; and 6) why are extracurricular activities neglected? Bok’s central thesis through this section is that colleges and universities of all stripes (from the Ivy League to community colleges) must be actively engaged in reflecting the types of students that their institutions produce.1 Bok also uses this section to set up the body of his narrative, namely the reforms he suggests. This section represents a departure from the previously mentioned authors’ works in that Bok directs most of his attention to the project of reconstructing what would make an undergraduate education more coherent, stimulating, and useful—both intellectually and in one’s chosen career.

Bok is also particularly concerned with values that the students have coming into and leaving an institution of higher education. He states: “Colleges should pursue a variety of purposes, including a carefully circumscribed effort to foster generally accepted values and behaviors, such as honesty and racial tolerance” (Bok, 2006, p. 66). I wholeheartedly agree with this aim and actually wish that Bok would suggest that universities should go beyond the inculcation of common values to become a truly open forum for free debate about the content and implications of those common values. Also, here, it is important to acknowledge that although it can be very difficult for universities to design effective programs to curb cheating and increase appreciation for diversity, many schools are putting forth significant efforts to address both of these issues.

Before discussing the specific reforms Bok suggests, it is important to mention an instance that is instructive about the perspective from which Bok offers his plan. Bok finds certain aspects of some present critics of higher education in its current form to be troublesome. Bok is firmly committed to academic freedom and a professor’s prerogative to express controversial views in an academic setting. However, Bok recoils from certain suggested uses of the university to exclusively promote one particular social and political agenda over another. In the following passage, he critiques Henry Giroux’s views on higher education:

Apparently, then [in Giroux’s ideal world], faculty members must oppose corporations and promote a progressive welfare state agenda not only as private citizens but through their teaching as well. . . . Since the political goals are a matter of legitimate debate, the vision of a university committed to promoting Giroux’s agenda is deeply unsettling (Bok, 2006, p. 62-63).

What is commendable about Bok’s view is that he would be equally uncomfortable with colleges and universities taking up a set of one-sided conservative political stances. This provides for one of the strongest examples of Bok’s insistence that colleges and universities remain places for debate among differing social and political views. Unfortunately, and as Bok acknowledges, the democratic ideal that theoretically exists about the nature of free debate at a college or university often does not come into being in reality. More often than not, controversial speakers are boycotted or shouted down, leaving very little room for dialogue between people of differing perspectives on the most fundamental and important issues of the day.

The sections that address Bok’s ideas for reform provide a strong foundation for adapting current trends in higher education to a new set of purposes. The areas he identifies for improvement in higher education are: 1) the ability to communicate; 2) critical thinking skills; 3) moral reasoning; 4) preparing citizens; 5) living with diversity; 6) living in a more global society; 7) acquiring broader interests; and 8) preparing for a career. Of course, none of these is particularly surprising, revolutionary, or, really, that novel. Further, many colleges and universities have been attempting to improve students’ capacities in these areas for some time. I am not critical of Bok’s calls for change nor am I critical of what he suggests. However, I point out the fact that higher education has tried to work on these areas to underscore the problem of implementing educational reforms in a successful way to get a specified educational outcome.

Creating change in students that graduate from an institution is not as simple as starting a program to address a particular concern. This, of course, may be a first step, but there is not yet a formula that demonstrates that a certain number of dollars spent on civic education, for example, improves civic participation by a definite amount. This logic would seem to follow for most of Bok’s goals, as the changes he seeks are dramatic and focus on categories that have numerous components, of which higher education is only a part. My comments here should not be taken as a pessimistic view of Bok’s reforms. Rather, I have a realistic view of what colleges and universities’ impact can be on these issues, given the position of colleges and universities in American society, which maintains an anti-intellectual bias against the academy.

After providing these sections on his reform package, Bok comes to a similar conclusion on the likelihood of his reforms being implemented, but he comes to this finding on a different basis. He asserts:

The lack of compelling pressure to improve undergraduate education helps to explain the manner in which most faculties carry out their shared responsibility for the enterprise—their casual treatment of its purposes, their neglect of basic courses that develop important skills, their reluctance even to discuss issues of pedagogy, their ignorance of research on student learning, and their unwillingness to pay attention to much of what goes on outside the classroom. (Bok, 2006, p. 313)

Here, I am less critical than Bok is concerning faculty impact on student learning. Although there are allegedly still professors who do nothing but lecture, campuses have made numerous active efforts to revamp college teaching. Everything from instructional technologies to teaching centers, to departmental specific teaching courses, and to an adoration of “learning styles” has thoroughly transformed how instructors teach at the collegiate level. So, in this respect, I think that Bok is attacking the straw men of university professors as aloof lecturers who care nothing about student learning.2

In bringing his work to a close, Bok speaks to a relatively new pressure on colleges and universities—namely the magazines that rank schools for prospective students. Bok, like most university presidents of the Ivy League and peer institutions, can disregard the rankings. However, for presidents of smaller colleges struggling for students and state resources, the rankings can be a source of problems if they slip and a source of pride if they rise. I agree with Bok that this type of journalist-ranking metric is a poor indication of the characteristics of a quality educational institution. He puts it this way: “As a result, if the rankings had anything to do with the quality of education, they might force universities to work harder at improving teaching and learning” (Bok, 2006, p. 327).

Overall, Bok’s volume lays out a vision that wants to profoundly alter the substance and impact of college and university education. However, Bok’s own admissions suggest that the changes he seeks are hard to make, given the multiple pressures from the economic, social and political forces that are involved with the work of the academy. Further, even if Bok’s reform plan took hold across the nation, its effects would not necessarily be as dramatic as we would hope. This comment is not meant to dishearten those individuals committed to change. Quite to the contrary, my critique is meant to suggest that those who look to colleges and universities to be engines of economic and social progress must realize that they exist in a wider culture in need of change as well. In short, I echo many of Bok’s calls to transform higher education, but I would suggest that, concomitantly with these reforms, progressive advocates for social and political change should seek to influence wider public debates outside the halls of the academy.

James Engell and Anthony Dangerfield’s Saving Higher Education in the Age of Money covers a great deal of the same territory as Bok in its evaluation and analysis of colleges and universities. However, unlike Bok who does not put the onus of blame on just one group or factor, Engell and Dangerfield find one primary culprit—money—that is ruining higher education today. Engell and Dangerfield’s narrative also differs from Bok’s book in style as the former utilizes a great deal of literary sources to underscore its points about the negative influence of money on colleges and universities. Engell and Dangerfield have a sharp grasp of the history of higher education and, as such, they are very aware that money has always played a role in its institutions and traditions. Yet, they feel that what has happened to the role of money in recent decades is unprecedented and that money’s impact on higher education is now dangerous. They state that their volume “examines how a new and growing culture of money both shapes and distorts higher education” (Engell & Dangerfield, 2005, p. 1).  

For Engell and Dangerfield, money also transforms the purposes of colleges and universities to a degraded form of their former existence. They phrase it this way:

The fastest-expanding and often strongest motivation in American higher education is now money. . . Money, rather than a means, is becoming the chief end of higher education. The rationale to pursue and to practice higher education is now routinely predicated not on learning but on money (Engell & Dangerfield, 2005, p. 2).

Clearly, Engell and Dangerfield are very concerned that widespread commercialization in higher education and consumptive practices in the wider society have become the most threatening “crises” that faces colleges and universities. This is a concern shared by Bok (one that he expressed in a previous book that addressed similar themes of commercialization), but Engell and Dangerfield are much more focused on the impact of money on liberal arts and humanities than Bok’s more macro-level fears.

Engell and Dangerfield are limited in the scope of their analysis. They make quite clear that they are worried about the effects of money on a particular set of colleges and universities. They draw the boundaries of their work in the following manner: “The focus in this book is on liberal arts and sciences colleges, private research universities, and flagship public institutions” (Engell & Dangerfield, 2005, p. 7). Essentially, one can imagine that they are thinking about the top hundred or so schools in the country out of the three thousand plus higher education institutions in the United States. Of course, these elite schools have the greatest name recognition, have trained generations of leaders, scholars, and scientists, and, by far, have the largest endowments. As an educator who has taught at many community colleges, I would contend that money is certainly a factor at institutions of this nature as well.

What is refreshing about Engell and Dangerfield’s work is that it is neither an overly idealistic and nostalgic look at the past in higher education nor is it an unrealistic indictment of the dominant economic structures of the United States. It is a realistic attempt to relay what the possible consequences of fiduciary myopia will be for higher education. The authors urge that the purposes of college and university education should be reevaluated to reflect a more robust and unified picture.  Specifically, they contend:

Throughout this book we argue that higher education can be saved only if its multiple goals—individual, social, economic, civic, ethical, and intellectual—form a set of mutually reinforcing aims. Placed in a stark winner-take-all competition with the others, any one goal would ultimately gorge itself on the others, ensuring its own eventual demise as well. . . Today, the clearer pitfall is the denigration of a free, disinterested discourse of ideas and information in favor of knowledge that can quickly be converted into utility (Engell & Dangerfield, 2005, p. 21).

Engell and Dangerfield are certainly not advocates only for liberal arts and humanities education as they clearly value all forms of collegiate learning. What troubles them in this area is the lack of interest in exploring how studying liberal arts and humanities affects students who come from other disciplines at the college or university. It seems that Engell and Dangerfield would like the study of liberal arts and humanities to make students more tolerant, ethical, and humane. The authors are not naïve enough to assume that a liberal education ensures that a business major will act more ethically once in the working world. However, they are convinced that it is valuable to expose students to fields outside of their professional major to be able to participate more fully in American democracy (this point will be the focus of the final text under review) and to better understand people from around the world.

Further, Engell and Dangerfield’s realism extends beyond the aims and scope of higher education to the economic impact of higher education. Here, they provide an argument and analogy that demonstrate their literary influences, as well as their understanding of the importance of economic insights:

But concentrating everything in education, whether elementary, secondary, or higher, on maximizing its positive effects for specific economic activities does not best strengthen the economy; rather it denatures and deforms education and robs it of its greatest long-term economic potential. That seems almost too paradoxical to accept, but some ends are best achieved by direct aim while others, even superficially similar ones, are not. A marksman aims a rifle bullet, but any successful pitcher will confirm that it is counterproductive to aim a baseball. Direct aim and open campaign are proven routes to high public office, but scarcely advisable as the shortest ways to a seat on the Supreme Court  (Engell & Dangerfield, 2005, p. 24).

The long-term goals about which they are speaking are the abilities to think critically and creatively, both of which are needed for long-term economic gains. Engell and Dangerfield see short-term strategies that devalue liberal arts and humanities—subjects that can improve critical and creative capacities—as being short sighted for longer-term economic goals. This point is one of their strongest arguments for persuading factions that seek to reduce the need for liberal arts and humanities courses. Of course, some scholars who would support Engell and Dangerfield’s suggestions might balk at such an economically utilitarian rationale, but Engell and Dangerfield are seeming pragmatists when it comes to keeping colleges and universities safe from fiduciary concerns.  

Another critical point that Engell and Dangerfield touch upon is how this notion of money became central to the logic of modern colleges or universities. Here, they see the marketplace analogy playing a guiding role. The use of the market metaphor and its promotion since the beginning of devolution has placed competition at the forefront of higher education. Engell and Dangerfield relay their distress and frustration with the absolute reliance on the market concept:

Increasingly, institutions compete for students, money, faculty, endowments, and yield ratios. The potential benefits of competition are many, but the virtue ascribed to competition has been elevated to an unassailable article of faith, the word recurring like a mantra (Engell & Dangerfield, 2005, p. 34).

Engell and Dangerfield are also sensitive to the ways in which money impacts the educational quality of instruction at institutions of higher education. Specifically, they raise the issue of adjunct and graduate students being relied upon to teach an increasingly large load of undergraduate courses and general education requirements. They are not against graduate students getting teaching experience or professionals in needed fields teaching an occasional course. However, the authors are against the heavy reliance of colleges and universities upon these sources. They do not think that these instructors are necessarily inferior to professors. Yet, they emphasize that these instructors are teaching in addition to handling numerous other duties in their primary jobs, whereas full-time professors have more time to devote to teaching. They put the institutional logic of low-cost instruction this way: “One way to cut costs and to finance any expense other than teaching is to hire workhorse teachers who generally teach much more than the stars or than many tenured faculty, but who also earn much, much less” (Engell & Dangerfield, 2005, p. 46).

Engell and Dangerfield are also concerned about how money impacts decisions that students make when they are contemplating which school to attend and which subject to major in during their undergraduate years. Here, Engell and Dangerfield express their view on the determinative role that money plays: “The staggering expense that college education imposes on parents and students is the clinching argument on behalf of the learning-for-dollars ethos” (Engell & Dangerfield, 2005, p. 63).

Of course, Engell and Dangerfield see the trend of money negatively impacting higher education as having broader social and political effects. At this point in the narrative, the authors extend their views beyond the purely economic effects of the devaluation of liberal arts and humanities by asserting that the provision of purely utilitarian training as education can harm other spheres of public life. They state:

The nation cannot steer the best course through exciting but complex and perilous times without aid and leadership of men and women who have mastered language, who can put together a sound argument and blow a specious one to bits, who have learned from the past, and who have witnessed the treacheries and glories of human experience profoundly revealed by writers and artists. The humanities can and should be broadly instrumental, as well as existing for pleasures and aesthetic pursuits (Engell & Dangerfield, 2005, p. 103).

This passage may seem at odds with previous statements about the value of liberal arts and humanities, but such a conclusion would be incorrect. Engell and Dangerfield see the value of liberal arts and humanities as having important real world effects. These subjects enrich intellectual and aesthetic life in addition to having substantial positive effects on other forms of social interaction.

The prospects for reform in the eyes of Engell and Dangerfield are not very positive. Again, their realistic sense of the politics of higher education demonstrates that money as an issue in colleges and universities is not going to recede in the near future. However, one should not characterize their views as pessimistic (again similar to Bok’s). Here, one would do well to remember the title of the work under review (“Saving Higher Education”) and the action-oriented sense that it inspires. For Engell and Dangerfield, the reforms are possible. They just need faculty, administrators, and other concerned members of academic communities to voice their concerns in constructive and politically astute ways. Central to this strategy is the will to make a change. Engell and Dangerfield assert what they feel is essential to this effort:

No reform of higher education will occur unless its leaders take the first step, which requires courage. . . This book has offered suggestions aimed at redirecting the contemporary college or university away from increasing atomization toward a more organic, cooperative, idealistic condition, yet one that will do no worse—in the long run, it will do better—in furthering technological and economic well-being (Engell & Dangerfield, 2005, p. 223).

All concerned with the future of higher education and the role that colleges and universities play in American society would do well to take up the cause of Engell and Dangerfield. Their analysis and erudite defense of grander and more robust notions of higher education are essential as American and global societies put an increasingly tight grip on what is valuable knowledge and what the purposes of higher education will be in the next decades. A variation on this topic is a central concern of the next volume under review.

Robert Calvert is the editor of To Restore American Democracy: Political Education and the Modern University. It is a book that includes essays from some of the most well-known and well-respected political theorists of the present day. The purpose of this volume is to address a critical part of higher education that Calvert, the contributors, and I feel is presently not being achieved—namely, students’ post-graduation life as citizens. This missing part of college and university education encompasses historical knowledge, political awareness, and civic responsibility that countless college graduates do not have and, further, do not even care that they lack.

Each of the unique contributions to the volume takes up a specific part of this general aim of reinvigorating America’s democratic institutions through the engaged efforts on the part of colleges and universities. This call to action is similar to the desire that Bok expresses to gear higher education to better prepare students for civic responsibility. It also focuses Engell and Dangerfield’s ideas about what is lost when money takes over a specific and vital topic. Clearly, this final volume fits with the other selections in the sense that it presents a response to a “crisis” in higher education. In this case, the response is to the “crisis” of the deleterious effects of a college or university education that provides a paltry foundation for involvement with the complex issues facing a democratic community that has increasing religious and ethnic diversity, as well as increasing levels of social and economic inequality.

In the first chapter titled “Political Education and the Modern University: Prologue,” Calvert lays out the rationale he sees for the volume and the scope of the work. He is worried that colleges and universities have moved too far away from involvement with the broader social communities in which these institutions reside. He is particularly critical of “advocacy pedagogy” that has professors speaking about politics in an academic sense but that does not engage with political structures outside the academy. Calvert is concerned with getting the rules to the academic game amended and updated to reflect a nation that desperately needs its most learned minds thinking and debating the pressing concerns of country. Furthermore, Calvert argues these scholars should be engaging their students in the process. Calvert relays his view on the primacy of political education and shared human experience:

Through such a “participatory political education” students might come to understand that there can be no enduring individual freedom, negative or positive without politics; that there can be no equality, economic or political, unless there is a democratic politics; and that there can be no politics of any kind unless there is a common life, which some want to preserve, some to change, or others only to make more extensively or deeply shared (Calvert, 2006, p.23).

Calvert concludes his section by highlighting the interrelated aspects of the essays in the book and pointing out any differences that come through in the authors’ writings. In discussing the body of the text, I have selected two essays that warrant particular consideration, although any of the outstanding pieces in the collection could have served as representative exemplars.

William Galston’s contribution, “Between Resignation and Utopia: Political Education in the Modern American University,” gives a significant account of the need for a new emphasis on the development of students as citizens while they are at institutions of higher education. Galston begins by giving a description of the problem that he has seen in his years as a college professor and political observer:

A research center I direct had documented disturbing developments, such as a one-third decline over the past three decades in youth voter turnout and decline of more than one-half in the percent of young adults who report reading a newspaper regularly. . . These trends help explain what would otherwise be a paradox: although the median level of formal education has soared during the past half century, the level of political knowledge hasn’t budged. There may be many more highly trained professionals than there were in our grandparents’ time, but the percentage of informed citizens is no higher (Galston, 2006, p. 30).

Galston places some of the culpability for this stagnation in political knowledge on colleges and universities. He goes on to explain the reason he thinks this has happened is because the aims of higher education pull students in directions that are often at odds with civic involvement. Galston describes the initial pull of colleges and universities as a philosophical beacon that eschews the practicalities of day-to-day existence for the life of the mind. As higher education expanded, many programs were developed to train students for particular careers, which was clearly a response to the traditional aloofness and impracticality of the academy. Galston sums up his views on why civic purposes have never taken hold like he would have hoped:

In short, civic education lacks a strong constituency within academia because it stands in tension with both vocational and philosophical education, both of which do enjoy vigorous support. This does not mean that strengthening civic education in higher education is a lost cause, however. . .Academia must accept a share of responsibility if university-educated leaders know little about their own country and even less about the rest of the world, or if they care mainly about personal advancement and little about the public interest (Galston, 2006, p. 37).

Of course, one must guess that Galston is not simply going to place blame upon higher education and move on, especially considering his desire to see greater engagement from gown to town. Among his suggestions for altering the educational equation that leaves students civically deficient are curricular changes, more student publications, and work-study for public purposes in surrounding communities of colleges and universities. The courses he would like to see added are a sequence that would give students greater exposure to U.S. political history and its present place in the world.

I entirely agree that such courses can be of great benefit to some students, but I wonder about the impact of such courses on students who are already pulled to one of the two poles that Galston so eloquently defines. The student publication idea is also significant, but, with it, we have the problem of levels of civic participation. In this example, we could have a dozen students intensely studying and debating the political issues of the day in a student run political periodical. Yet, upon publication, one could imagine that the rest of the university’s 25,000 students could pass by the stack of free copies of the political pamphlet on their way into the library content in their “a-civic” bliss. Finally, the work-study plan would also bring a greater level of involvement among students who participate in these programs, but the effort would miss many students who do not participate. All of Galston’s suggestions would help to increase civic engagement, but none are a panacea to the civic apathy of many undergraduates.

The most important factor in this civic education equation, for Galston, is the role of the faculty member. Here, he does not mince his words and rejects the latent cynicism expressed by professors from all corners of the academy. For Galston, professorial condemnations of American culture, democracy, or foreign policy, without the honest commitment to taking action to change such structures, are misuses of one’s professorial platform for voicing dissent. He puts it this way: “Rather than endlessly bemoaning the obstacles posed by the U.S. economy and culture, faculty members and university administrators committed to serious political education should roll up their sleeves and get to work” (Galston, 2006, p. 42).

Another noteworthy essay from Calvert’s collection comes from Benjamin Barber in his chapter titled “The Media, The Mall, and The Multiplex: America’s Invisible Tutors and the End of Citizenship.” Barber focuses on the ways in which student’s civic capacity is being hampered by the increasingly consumptive trends in wider American society. Similar to Galston’s critique, Barber takes a shot at the civic disinterest among many faculty. He contends:

Sold as effective pedagogy that enhances student choice, curricular decentralization and the abolition of requirements are actually the equivalent of professorial paradise: you can go on elaborating your PhD thesis for the rest of your life. Teach a different chapter of your latest book each semester, without the slightest obligation to public responsibility or the slightest need to serve some higher civic mission of a putative public academic community. How very convenient! (Barber, 2006, p.64-65)

I agree in large measure with Barber on this point in theory, but, in practice, I have the following caveat. I am unsure of how Barber wants certain faculty members to contribute to a ‘higher civic mission.’ For example, is Barber suggesting that an art history professor raise civic issues about present day arts funding throughout the course, therefore not covering the content of the course? I doubt this is what Barber wants, and I am unsure of how all professors would efficiently manage the two tasks of civic and disciplinary rigor. This, of course, supports Galston’s rationale for why civic education is often left to wither in higher education.

Barber, in contrast with Galston and much more in line with Engell and Dangerfield, has a problem with the commercial invasion of education. Barber is most concerned with the effects of privatization, commercialization, and money on democratic principles and structures. He speaks to these ills in the following way: “With privatization, control shifts from public education to private entertainment, and what is taught in the public sector simply matters much less” (Barber, 2006, p. 69). For Barber, the consumptive trend is a great threat and one that must be fought. He sees action as the prime remedy for civic apathy through service learning and similar efforts. Barber stakes this claim to civic renewal on the foundation of experience in civic activities as the best way to engender more involvement with civic activities. Theoretically, his foundation is derived in large part from the works of John Dewey. Barber explains the connection to Dewey in the following manner:

Experiential education, Dewey’s ideal, was never more relevant than today when schools seem both too isolated from the world of democracy and too embedded in the world of commerce. In the absence of a linkage between the classroom and the street, knowledge can become abstract and ethics theoretical (Barber, 2006, p. 75).

This last statement speaks loudly in an era of private and public sector corruption as many of the leading officials and businesspeople who have been convicted of illegal practices must have taken business ethics or ethics and policymaking courses. For Barber, the connection between civics class and civic action is one that must be closely tied, if it is going to have the possible transformative effect that he desires.

Even with the criticism that Barber offers, he joins the rest of the authors in this review in expressing a genuine optimism for the future of higher education—if the present path is abandoned for a new one. He puts the present challenge to colleges and universities this way:

To go forward is to stretch the university, to innovate, to unwed ourselves from our paradigms and our comfortable professional niche. Whether that niche is to be found in some neoconservative Platonic canon or in postmodernist subversive attacks on that canon, it cannot save the university. Nostalgia is no remedy. Imagination is demanded. . . The university retains its potential as a community of learning in a world beset by ignorance. It remains a potential transgressor of boundaries, the only venue left in our society in which seeking, learning, subverting, and innovating are still defining characteristics and the only alternative to the pedagogical power of the media monopolies and the marketplace (Barber, 2006, p. 76).

If higher education institutions continue to lose ground to commercial forces, we all should worry about the ways in which our common opportunities for dissent and democratic participation would be harmed. Professors and students must realize this fact and actively fight to expand the work of colleges and universities beyond their borders to the surrounding communities and across the country.

Overall, these three volumes provide unique but interrelated narratives of the circumstances of higher education today. They have the common themes of commercialization, student civic disinterest, and a desire to increase faculty involvement with their surrounding communities. The commonalities are of significant value to understanding the dominant crisis narrative that links them. The crisis motif is effective in each work as a device to urge strong and immediate action to remedy the negative consequences of letting another class of students graduate with less political knowledge, money, and civic skills than if the suggested reforms were in place. What makes each of these volumes instructive and useful are the ideas they present and the passion for higher education they express.  They are all pragmatic and idealistic. The authors know they may never reach the colleges and universities they would ultimately desire, but, at the same time, they are not willing to throw up their hands, give up, and retreat to their ivory towers. Instead, they trudge on making smart recommendations and calling on their brethren to step to the task of reform before outsiders start demanding it.


1 Here, I would say that students who I have taught come into my classes with varying levels of life experience and varying levels of receptivity to having their intellects and values affected by courses they take. Bok seems to indicate that he feels colleges and universities have a great deal of influence over the development of students’ values and general intellectual curiosity. This very well may be; however, I would contend that it is not due in large part to many of the negative trends that Bok discusses.

2 The implicit allegation that university professors needed pedagogical training is particularly ironic for education faculty as many observers from within and outside the academy have questioned the usefulness and impact of schools of education in preparing K-12 teachers.


Barber, B. (2006). The media, the mall, and the multiplex: America’s invisible tutors and the end of citizenship. In Robert Calvert (Ed.), To restore American democracy: Political education and the modern university (pp. 55-78). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Bok, D. (2006). Our underachieving colleges: A candid look at how much students learn and why they should be learning more. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: June 04, 2007
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 14511, Date Accessed: 10/22/2021 2:54:42 PM

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About the Author
  • Aaron Cooley
    The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
    E-mail Author
    AARON COOLEY holds undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has mentored, tutored, and taught students in a diverse range of educational settings. Previously, he worked at the North Carolina General Assembly. His writing has appeared in Educational Studies, Educational Theory, History of Education Quarterly, The Journal of the Philosophy of Education Society, Law and Politics Book Review, and the Political Studies Review. Aaron is dedicated to improving the educational and economic opportunities of all Americans through innovative ideas in public policy.
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