Our Colleges Need to Do Better — But How?

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The exterior of The Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, January 30, 2020. (Katherine Taylor/Reuters.)

For quite a few years, former Harvard president Derek Bok has been lamenting that American colleges and universities are underperforming. In his latest book, Higher Expectations, he returns to that subject, arguing that many students derive rather little benefit from their years in school.

In today’s Martin Center article, another Harvard man, former dean Harry Lewis, writes about Bok’s book. He agrees with Bok’s assessment and some of his ideas for improvement, but isn’t optimistic about any worthwhile change.

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Lewis writes, “Bok has much to say on the deficiencies of American college education. He argues that in civic education they need to do much more. He points to ‘the unwillingness of most colleges to include a single required course on the basic principles of American government — how it functions, its strengths and weaknesses, the role of citizens and their effect on public policy, and the reasons why government behaves as it does.’”

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But Lewis sees our highly entrenched faculty as an almost insuperable obstacle to any but cosmetic improvements. “At a minimum,” he writes, “there is reason to doubt that the educational goals Bok enumerates would be accepted by faculty whose reputations are based largely on their research, visibility, and the professional standing of their departmental colleagues. At worst, we may ask ourselves here in the third decade of the 21st century whether, even in universities, reason and truth are the values that will govern how our affairs are to be conducted.”

The higher up you go on our pyramid of colleges and universities, the more resistant they are to change.

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Lewis concludes, “Higher Expectations is full of good ideas about ways to make undergraduate education both beneficial and useful to the next generation of citizens and leaders. University faculty and leaders will surely react defensively, even dismissively, but the more candid among them will take Bok’s wise and experienced critiques seriously. It will take inspired leadership to persuade the faculty that the problems Bok addresses are important ones for universities to solve.”

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