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Higher Expectations: Can Colleges Teach Students What They Need to Know in the 21st Century?

reviewed by Martin J. Lecker - September 14, 2020

coverTitle: Higher Expectations: Can Colleges Teach Students What They Need to Know in the 21st Century?
Author(s): Derek Bok
Publisher: Princeton University Press, Princeton
ISBN: 0691205809, Pages: 232, Year: 2020
Search for book at Amazon.com

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here? That depends a good deal on where you want to get to. I don’t much care where—so long as I get SOMEWHERE” (Carroll, Chapter 6, para. 45).

Harvard Professor Derek Bok’s book, Higher Expectations: Can Colleges Teach Students What They Need to Know in the 21st Century?, outlines the specific skills undergraduates must possess to be successful personally and professionally, but like Alice in Wonderland, if they lack future goals, or purpose, how will this be possible?

Using his 70-year-plus higher education career, Bok examines the skills necessary for 21st-century college undergraduates and the steps to convince their faculty and administration that it is under their purview to teach these lifelong skills. In his Preface, Bok acknowledges several factors that resulted in his decision to write this book, which included: his brief post-retirement return as president of Harvard; the increased interest of administrative leaders and faculties to explore new teaching methods and curriculum based upon the demand by outside stakeholders, including cognitive psychologists and scientists who believed that students could be taught special skill sets which would help them later in life; and that his book could act as a catalyst to encourage educational reform.

To address his concerns of how best to teach our undergraduate students these skills, Bok looks at three fundamental questions: How successful are colleges in preparing our students for the 21st century?; (b) Do educators know how to teach all the qualities of “mind and spirit” that they are called upon to do?; and (c) What adjustments will colleges have to make in their teaching practices and curriculum development to respond to these changes, if they can be convinced at all? (pp. 2-3). Bok’s style of writing entices the reader to want to find out how to identify and guide undergraduate students towards their sense of purpose, quite similar to the question that the Cheshire cat asks Alice in the opening passage of this review. After all, if undergraduates do not know what path to take, should it not be the responsibility of their institutions of higher learning to fill this gap?

In Chapter One, Bok breaks down the history of higher education in a concise but comprehensive way, explaining the various educational philosophies which evolved over time. His starting point was the pre-Civil War era, where the study of the Ancient Roman and Greek classics was thought to be the breeding ground for those aspiring to careers as preachers, teachers, and community leaders. Next, he introduces us to the advent of land grants under the 1862 Morrill Act, when more pragmatic curricula existed, such as agriculture and mechanical arts. This is followed by the 1915 era, when an effort to increase student enrollment resulted in the creation of a tripartite curricular consisting of: (a) a major; (b) distribution requirements, for breadth of knowledge; and (c) electives. Furthermore, Bok points out how, as a result of the GI Bill after World War II, regional universities and community colleges were formed. This was followed by the Vietnam War era when students were taking over the curriculum though their demands and protests on campus to seek social justice, and faculty reacted via lax grading and curricular standards. This resulted in a need for accrediting agencies in the 1980s to legitimize the credentials issued by these undergraduate institutions through the sanctioning of better assessment and accountability measures. However, with changes in the economy, society, and the world towards the end of the twentieth century, along with the research work of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), Bok finds one major question, which he convincingly answers throughout his book: How can our institutions and faculties take their students into the 21st century by meeting the expectations of society’s demands?

In Chapter Two, Bok looks at the current “hyperpartisanship” in our political state of affairs and concludes that our undergraduates must be “active, informed, vigilant [members of our] citizenry” and not “take their democracy for granted’ (pp. 22-23). His statistics, a few slightly dated, drive home the fact that most undergraduates are “either apathetically uninformed... or marginally interested in politics,” and that it is up to their institutions to teach them (p. 23).

Preparing our students for an interdependent world (Chapter Three) leads Bok to another set of skills, which consists of knowledge in international relations, world events, and foreign cultures. But Bok raises more questions than he answers, such as when he admits “it is not possible to state with any confidence how successful efforts to teach intercultural competence can be” (p. 48). In his opinion, “allowing students to choose which aspect of international studies to emphasize may well be the best and perhaps the only way to proceed” (p. 57).  Although an important skill, evidently the jury is still out as to how it may be taught.

Like Immanuel Kant, whom Bok quotes at the beginning of Chapter Four, the reader is introduced to the rationale for a college’s responsibility to build their undergraduates’ character in moral reasoning and conscientiousness, which psychologists believe can still be taught at this age. However, Bok acknowledges the lack of research, of full faculty and administrative enforcement, and of agreement as to how these things may be taught. Bok’s proposal is to require one course in moral reasoning, embed discussions in ethical problems, recruit faculty knowledgeable in teaching it, and have an administration supporting ethical enforcement of its honor codes and anti-sexual harassment policies.

In Chapter Five, Bok asks, how much does the experience of college help undergraduates develop their own purpose and philosophy of life? Based upon his research, Bok found that helping students find greater meaning or purpose in their lives is agreed upon by most faculty members, but few actually knew “how to help students acquire a philosophy of life” (p. 81). Fortunately, Bok did find examples, such as Yale’s Great Books program or Harvard’s “Happiness course,” which showed promise, but he admitted that until longitudinal studies are conducted linking these programs with student satisfaction in a career or life, the best option is to offer these courses as electives.

Chapters Six and Seven examine “noncognitive skills,” sometimes called “soft skills.” Although not seen as “cerebral” by most faculty, potential employers criticize college students for lacking these skills. In Chapter Six, using his Socratic method style of writing, Bok asks, “What are these skills? Are many colleges teaching them? Do educators even know how to help students acquire them?” (p. 95). Although competencies such as critical thinking are taught in undergraduate programs, less attention is given to teamwork, reliance, and creativity.

In both these chapters, Bok’s research acknowledges that “psychologists suggest… these behaviors may be teachable after all by knowledgeable college instructors” (p. 96). In Chapter Six, Bok examines the interpersonal skills of “people skills,” teamwork, and interaction with others from different races and other diversified backgrounds. In Chapter Seven, he discusses intrapersonal skills such as creativity, lifelong learning, and “grit” (resilience and perseverance). Bok uses research to highlight the importance of these skills in students’ professional and personal lives. He believes residential dormitories, co-curricular (which he calls “extracurricular”) activities, and community service are useful in teaching these skills. He does point out that faculty must be trained to teach these skills and need to convince students that they still may be learned at their age.

Chapter Eight examines meditation (breathing exercises to heighten one’s awareness) and positive psychology (identifying and building upon one’s strengths rather than overcoming ones weaknesses). As with other unconventional methods of teaching, there is limited research and faculty support. Yet, a few universities do offer such courses. Still, critics believe these methodologies are more appropriate for a health service or academic center rather than a course offering. Until more extensive research on its reliability exists, Bok believes neither meditation nor positive psychology should be required, but still, academic leaders should encourage faculty to experiment with newer teaching methodologies.

In Chapter Nine, Bok discusses the “essential learning outcomes” developed by the AAC&U and depicted throughout his book. He concedes the implementation of these educational reforms will be challenging because of the lack of rigorous research, academic leadership reluctance, and faculty resistance. But, Bok believes, over time, these outcomes will be achieved in most institutions.

In Chapter Ten, Bok suggests how to overcome the barriers to implementing these educational reforms: increase federal and foundation funding to encourage research; hire academic leaders who are educational reformers; and create a “teaching faculty” for lower division courses, as well as change the status and salaries of non-tenure teaching faculty.

In his Conclusion, Bok explains that as tuition rises and some employers question the skills of graduates, there needs to be educational reform; and it can either be demanded by outside stakeholders, or the institutions can take control voluntarily. Bok ends by stating that how higher education responds to this calling will be entirely up to them, but if looked upon positively, it could be seen as an opportunity rather than a demand.

Given the foundational framework developed by Bok in this book as he applied his career and expertise in higher education to the 21st-century needs of our undergraduates and strategies to attain them, I would suggest Higher Expectations to those concerned with the future of our next generation’s leaders, but strongly recommend it to academic leaders, Board of Trustees members, and faculty and students who want to take control of their own academic destiny and purpose.


Carroll, L. (1865, November 26/2020, February 22). Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/11/11-h/11-h.htm

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: September 14, 2020
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23434, Date Accessed: 9/27/2020 5:19:34 PM

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About the Author
  • Martin Lecker
    Rockland Community College
    E-mail Author
    MARTIN J. LECKER, Ed.D., is a Columbia University, Teachers College graduate who is a S.U.N.Y Distinguished Teaching Professor Emeritus from SUNY Rockland Community College in Suffern, New York. Last year he published his third edition of a textbook, Conducting Business Ethically: A Philosophical Approach as an e-book and is working currently on a chapter about the economic and psychological effects of Covid-19 on working mothers globally, for an international published book, Humanistic Crisis Management: Lesson from Covid-19.
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