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Our Underachieving Colleges: A Candid Look at How Much Students Learn and Why They Should Be Learning More

reviewed by Sam J. Fugazzotto - June 04, 2008

coverTitle: Our Underachieving Colleges: A Candid Look at How Much Students Learn and Why They Should Be Learning More
Author(s): Derek Bok
Publisher: Princeton University Press, Princeton
ISBN: 0691125961, Pages: 413, Year: 2006
Search for book at Amazon.com

Derek Bok’s Our Underachieving Colleges sets out decisively against the more drastic critiques of higher education, such as those that cast political correctness as the root of everything wrong with colleges today or those that blame faculty research for causing neglect of student needs. Bok’s effective use of data produces a nuanced view of higher education. On the one hand, student learning does improve during college, and most undergraduates and alumni report satisfaction with their college experience. On the other hand, colleges still have much room for improvement.

A historical summary of American higher education in Chapter 1 shows how colleges and universities have arrived at their present-day purposes. Prior to the Civil War, college instructors taught a prescribed curriculum oriented toward religion and the classics. As the nineteenth century wore on, older models of a college education gave way not only to secular land-grant universities and growing enrollments but also to a greater variety of disciplines. Modern American colleges and universities did not rupture from a glorious, unitary past but emerged gradually from a past of contested purposes. With so little commonality of purpose (at least since before the Civil War), one need not wonder why we now have so few objective criteria on which to judge present-day institutions. Bok closes Chapter 1 with a key question for the rest of the book: Can one judge education like a consumer product, or is undergraduate education more like art, which has no objective criteria for excellence?

Reexamining the purposes of undergraduate education must begin with a look at faculty work—both as teachers and as leaders who implement change to the curriculum. In Chapter 2, Bok notes how faculty behavior can impede taking a broader view of educational purposes. First, because few reliable methods exist to measure undergraduate achievement, there is little pressure to examine how the content or style of teaching contributes to student achievement. Further, faculty tend to focus on their own work and the work of their departments, often overlooking the potential impact of interdepartmental collaboration or the extracurriculum on student learning. Finally, curricular discussions at many colleges look more at the nuts-and-bolts of course requirements and course content rather than on the broader aims of undergraduate education and how to teach to those aims. Instead of writing a polemical attack on college faculty, Bok calls for a practical approach for reform that enlists faculty. In Chapter 3, he outlines the following eight goals to serve as markers of undergraduate achievement: (1) The ability to communicate, (2) Critical thinking, (3) Moral reasoning, (4) Preparing citizens, (5) Living with diversity, (6) Living in a more global society, (7) Developing a breadth of interests, and (8) Preparing for work.

Students and other constituent groups most frequently cite the development of good communication skills as an important goal of undergraduate education. Faculty rarely disagree, but rarely do full-time faculty teach basic composition or speech courses themselves. Hiring graduate students or adjunct professors to teach these courses allows institutions to cut costs, but instructional quality often suffers. Given the wide acknowledgement of the importance of communication skills, Bok recommends greater investment in staffing relevant introductory courses with full-time professionals who receive competitive compensation.

If the development of communication skills forces institutions to rethink staffing practices, developing critical thinking skills forces faculty to reexamine their own teaching strategies. While lecturing remains the dominant mode of teaching, students need active learning opportunities to hone their critical thinking and to learn how to apply the guiding principles of a discipline in different situations. Faculty must focus less on what to cover in a lecture than on how to cover it so as to encourage critical thinking about the material.

Many faculty and administrators would shy away from Bok’s next two goals: developing moral reasoning and preparing students for citizenship. Indeed, instructors who work toward these goals must take care not to impose a particular viewpoint on students. However, Bok writes that a well taught course in moral reasoning can increase students’ capacity for ethical action by giving them the tools to think through the ethical considerations in a given scenario. Similarly, with instruction on American government and the importance of participation, colleges can foster civic engagement without political partisanship. In the face of growing political disengagement among young people, Bok notes that colleges, as recipients of public funds, have an obligation to increase political participation through effective civic education.   

Developing interpersonal skills underlies Bok’s proposed goal of preparing students to live in a diverse society. He divides his discussion of the goal into black/white race relations and relations between men and women. While college attendance improves students’ ability to live with diversity, there is ample room for improvement. The challenge in creating a positive campus climate lies in creating safe spaces for certain student groups without separating them from the larger campus.

Colleges need to improve even more in teaching students to live in a global society. In part, at least, the lack of progress toward meeting this goal has its root in the lack of means to define effective global education. For example, foreign language study certainly can make students more adept at understanding and living in other cultures. However, compulsory language study at many colleges requires just enough course work to burden students but not enough to help them develop proficiency for any practical purpose. Bok writes that colleges can increase students’ global awareness through two key courses: one on the role of the U.S. in the world and another on how to understand another culture.

Bok’s final two goals for higher education contradict each other in some ways. College ought to broaden students’ intellectual interests, but it should also provide them with practical career preparation. A pessimistic look at the data suggests that colleges have not made adequate progress toward either goal. Students’ broader intellectual engagement does not last long after their college years, and hiring managers often report the laxity of new college graduates, especially from the liberal arts. While Bok does not seem to have a concrete proposal to meet either goal, he notes the need for colleges to make them mesh. Colleges must strive to broaden intellectual engagement in spite of market pressures to focus on the purely vocational. Orienting liberal arts courses toward more practical ends can help colleges carry out these two goals, in addition to others. For example, one can imagine a moral reasoning course that focuses on scenarios commonly encountered in certain professions. Such a course would provide both career-oriented training while also perhaps sparking an interest in philosophy and debate. Meeting these two goals often involves finding a compromise between the views of the faculty, who see knowledge and intellectual engagement as ends in themselves, and the practical concerns of students and employers.

Making progress toward any of Bok’s eight goals requires a method for measuring progress, but on many campuses there is little pressure to improve. Improvement starts with overcoming the reluctance to question long-standing practices and to look at how teaching affects student achievement. Bok notes that state assessment tools are often crude, while others (especially the National Survey of Student Engagement or NSSE) are limited by sample size and the confidentiality of participating institutions. But the government can and should get involved with assessment by focusing not on what or how institutions assess but on whether they assess at all. Institutional leaders should also look to refashion Ph.D. programs to better prepare graduate students to teach. Ultimately, Bok’s book is about remaking academe by creating “a culture of honest self-appraisal, continuing experimentation, and constant improvement” (p. 343).

Despite an ominous title, Our Underachieving Colleges has great appeal for faculty and institutional leaders who seek a balanced view of the state of undergraduate education. Bok’s careful use of data reveals the definite benefits of a college education but also the need for a greater willingness to define and assess progress. Further, by outlining eight broad goals, Bok allows for greater possibilities for a college education. American higher education has seen more than a century pass since colleges and universities had the common purpose of training in the classics and religion. Since then, the higher education system has expanded both in terms of volume of students and purpose. Critics who would seek to reduce it to a unitary purpose once again would do so naively and impractically.

An outline of what a student’s plan of study could look like under Bok’s model would have improved the book. While this reviewer appreciates the possibilities allowed for by multiple purposes, readers might find it difficult to envision how a college education could fulfill all eight purposes in four years while still acquiring sufficient depth of knowledge in a major field of study. A broader challenge for Bok and for any plan to reform undergraduate education has to do with convincing all stakeholders of its efficacy. Bok hints at this challenge when he notes the contrasting outlooks of students and faculty. College professors believe in the intrinsic value of their disciplines and of learning. Students’ demands from higher education can vary depending on such factors as their age and financial situation, but in many cases, the love of learning in a particular discipline has much less attraction for students.

Higher education has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years; in many cases, rising costs have called the credibility of higher education institutions into question. However, calls for greater accountability often run up against the traditional autonomy of academic units and individual professors. The success of any reform plan for undergraduate education rests on the external credibility of colleges and universities, as well as on internal credibility among the faculty who carry out the work of educating. The broad goals of Our Underachieving Colleges reflect many of the demands of external stakeholders, while allowing for the maintenance of internal autonomy (e.g., through institution-defined progress measures). In this reviewer’s estimation, Bok achieves a workable compromise between external calls for more data and greater accountability and the traditional autonomy of institutions and departments in setting their own priorities. He wisely puts forth a plan that can satisfy multiple constituencies whose interests seem to conflict but who must all buy into the plan to enact it.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: June 04, 2008
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15265, Date Accessed: 11/27/2021 6:37:21 PM

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About the Author
  • Sam Fugazzotto
    Teachers College, Columbia University
    E-mail Author
    SAM J. FUGAZZOTTO is Associate Registrar at Teachers College, Columbia University. He holds an M.S.Ed. from Northwestern University, and his interests include leadership and strategy issues in higher education.
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