Arts & Letters Daily
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ANDREW DELBANCO, professor of humanities at Columbia University and author, most recently, of The Real American Dream: A Meditation on Hope (Harvard, 1999).
"In 1964, the dean of Columbia College asked professor of sociology Daniel Bell to prepare a report on the past, present, and future of undergraduate education. According to Lionel Trilling, the resulting document was received with indifference by the faculty, and, as far as I can tell, it had no effect on Columbia's curriculum - but fortunately, it was published under the title Reforming of General Education (Transaction, 2000). It is a brilliant account not merely of local matters but of the history of the modern university - full of prescient insights about the rising tension between research and teaching, the growing power of universities to confer social status on their graduates, the implications of postmodernism, bureaucratization, and the irresistible mixing of academic and business values. Bell's discussion of what education should be ('historical consciousness is the foundation') remains powerful and challenging. He saw thirty-five years ago the value and deficiencies of 'Great Books' courses and the difficult but compulsory challenges of offering science education for nonscientists, enlarging the scope of the curriculum beyond Western traditions, and formalizing the study of 'rights and values.' His book makes timely reading: Today, research universities still largely depend on their college students (and alumni) for revenue, but the fundamental questions Bell raised about undergraduate education have virtually disappeared from discussions among faculty and administrators. It is amazing, in today's context, to witness someone of Bell's stature making such an impassioned inquiry into the principles and purposes of undergraduate teaching."
WILLIAM G. TIERNEY, professor of higher education at the University of Southern California, director of the Center for Higher Education Policy, and author of Building the Responsive Campus: Creating Higher Performance Colleges and Universities (Sage, 1999).
"A half century separates Mary McCarthy's The Groves of Academe (Harcourt Brace, 1951) and Philip Roth's The Human Stain (Houghton Mifflin, 2000), but some things, apparently, never change. Both books portray an academic life where oversize egos run rampant. The professoriat's most treasured totem - academic freedom - seems most at risk not from external provocateurs but from faculty politics. Whether the character is McCarthy's Henry Mulcahy, a manipulative literature professor at a progressive college, or Roth's Delphine Roux, a snooty, young department chair, professors become satiric targets who deserve equal parts pity and scorn. Although both works hilariously reproduce the often-turgid lingo heard at faculty meetings, I am left, as with so many other academic novels, with a sense that these portraits are somehow incomplete. Yes, academic life is filled with pretension, politics, and false piety - but isn't there also intellectual passion, sensitivity, and humility?"
CATHARIN R. STIMPSON, dean of the graduate school of arts and science at New York University and author of the forward to Marilyn J. Boxer's When Women Ask the Questions: Creating Women's Studies in America (Johns Hopkins, 1998).
Ravelstein (Viking, 2000), Saul Bellow,'s novel about a professor of political philosophy, and Postbaccalaureate Futures: New Markets, Resources, Credentials (Oryx Press, 2000), an earnest collection of essays edited by Kay Kohl and Jules LaPidus about changes in contemporary higher education, are as dissimilar as a diva's solo and an electronic synthesizer's processed notes. But together, in their incompatibility, the books represent competing choices that postmodern societies face about higher education. In Ravelstein, education centers on the deeply learned, quirky, brilliant professor who inducts a group of students (mostly white and male, I fear) into a quest for the truths found in canonical texts and into the love that sustains this quest. Abe Ravelstein is a 'genius educator,' a hedonist who reads and rereads Aristotle in the original Greek and who organizes parties where his students eat pizza and watch the Chicago Bulls. His students go on to become powerful and worldly, but their liberal arts education with Ravelstein will permanently influence their lives. In contrast, education in Postbaccalaureate Futures is 'student-centered,' but students are part of 'emerging' educational markets. Their classrooms will often be digital, their teaching done by instructional technology as well as faculty. Their syllabi, which someone will manage as part of a 'knowledge supply chain,' will focus on professional and competency training, not the liberal arts. Give me the democratic vistas and technological realism of Postbaccalaureate Futures, but give me as well the aesthetic complexities of Ravelstein, its pleasure in humanistic learning, and the gusto of a humanist like flawed, charismatic Abe Ravelstein."
PHILIP G. ALTBACH, professor of higher education at Boston College and co-editor of American Higher Education in the 21st Century: Social, Political, and Economic Challenges (Johns Hopkins, 1999).
"The literature on higher education is replete with attacks and critiques, hand-wringing and hyperbole - the decline of this, the corruption of that. But the fact is that universities are successful institutions that have met the needs of society for eight hundred years. There is no better explanation of how the modern American university system works than Clark Kerr's 1963 book, The Uses of the University (Harvard, 1995). Kerr, who served as president of the University of California system, coined the term 'multiversity' and writes both of the emergence of advanced research and of the relationship between the university and society. Edward Shils's The Calling of Education: 'The Academic Ethic' and Other Essays on Higher Education (Chicago, 1997) argues strongly for the core values of the university - autonomy, research, careful attention to teaching, especially in the liberal arts, and academic freedom. Shils is harshly critical of the politicization of higher education, through both government interference and 'political correctness.' Finally, Charles Homer Haskins's 1923 book, The Rise of Universities (Cornell, 1957), provides a succinct account of the medieval university that sheds light on the mission of one of society's most complex but valuable institutions."
DAVID DAMROSCH, professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University and author of Meetings of the Mind (Princeton, 2000).
"F.M. Cornford's satiric Microcosmographia Academica: Being a Guide for the Young Academic Politician, published in 1908, provides a salutary reminder of how little some things change. Cornford's book is now available in a new edition edited by Gordon Johnson titled University Politics: F.M. Cornford's Cambridge and His Advice to the Young Academic Politician (Cambridge, 1994). Johnson's extensive introduction and notes reveal the history of failed reform that lies behind Cornford's memorable formulations: 'When you reach middle age, at five-and-thirty, you will become complacent, and, in your turn, an oppressor...and from far below you will mount the roar of a ruthless multitude of young men in a hurry.... They are in a hurry to get you out of the way.' By contrast, just how much has changed in today's world of university corporatization can be seen from editor Peter C. Herman's stimulating new collection, Day Late, Dollar Short: The Next Generation and the New Academy (SUNY, 2000). Herman and a dozen contributors are young men and women acutely aware that they can no longer expect to settle comfortably into the places of a deposed older generation. They examine a range of critical issues: the academic star system, the advent of new information technologies, attacks on tenure and the increasing use of part-time teachers, coterie discourse and public engagement. All the contributors take as a common theme the uses and limits of literary and cultural theory beyond the ivory towers of the Ivy League."
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