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Universities need an overhaul, argues former Harvard president Derek Bok. (DARRYL DYCK/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Universities need an overhaul, argues former Harvard president Derek Bok. (DARRYL DYCK/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

non-fiction

Vying for top marks in the ‘educational apocalypse’ category Add to ...

Reviewed here: Higher Education in America, by Derek Bok (Princeton University Press, 496 pages, $36.60); Is College Worth It?, by William Bennett with David Wilezol (Thomas Nelson, 240 pages, $25.49); I Got Schooled, by M. Night Shyamalan (Simon & Schuster, 320 Pages, $28.99); Walden on Wheels, by Ken Ilgunas (New Harvest, 320 Pages, $19.95).

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Who is today’s undergraduate? According to a new book by former Harvard president Derek Bok, she is an unfocused and homework-averse student who is being aided to achieve an inappropriate and useless education by a university system in which the needs of undergraduates come last.

Bok, a two-time Harvard president and now 83 years old, takes on every corner of academia – research, fundraising and, most interestingly, undergraduate education – in an almost 500-page book that clearly makes a bid for the top of the education-in-crisis genre that is now proliferating. The most visible symptom of this crisis, Bok says, is how undergraduates – particularly those in the humanities and social sciences – learn. But the patient’s illness is systemic, its cause administrators who are trying to keep the peace with and between faculties, departments, government forces and fundraisers, instead of implementing changes that would serve students.

Bok’s is not the only book in the growing “educational apocalypse” category. Just this season, he has competition from filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan, who probes the evidence on what works (and what doesn’t) in elementary and secondary education. The two tomes are complementary. Shyamalan’s I Got Schooled reveals how elementary and high-school education in America reflects and magnifies societal inequality and prevents students from being prepared for the demands of higher education. The problem with these intelligent, evidence-based approaches – particularly Bok’s – is that they are a slog, methodically plodding through the issues like the worst kind of droning professor. I was tempted to tweet instead of paying attention in class.

Should Canadians be concerned about American fretting on education? Our educators are resistant to the idea that the Canadian and American systems are comparable. Our schools are quite good at redressing rather than amplifying societal inequalities; our postsecondary students do not leave higher education with (as much) life-crippling debt and most of them graduate with a diploma rather than drop out.

Lest the reader think this is only an American problem, Bok’s book makes it clear that universities are set up the same way just about everywhere in the world and the results for student learning are not positive. Academic deans and university presidents are not concerned about declining standards, mark inflation or reduced expectations (they should be, Bok warns). Their main goal is to grow the institution in an increasingly competitive postsecondary system, while minimizing difficult decisions about which faculties have outlived their usefulness, where to employ technology rather than humans, or how to change the curriculum to serve undergrads instead of professors’ academic passions (and yes, Bok sees those last two as being frequently at odds).

And our students presumably share other characteristics with their U.S. counterparts. Citing research that received a fair pop a couple of years ago, Bok says that the number of hours undergrads spent preparing classwork had dropped by one third by 2004 compared to the early sixties (from 40 hours a week to 27). They just don’t find the material or how it’s taught interesting, he argues.

Universities have defended against charges that their degrees are not producing job-ready graduates by arguing that they create citizens and flexible employees, not widget makers. Bok points to student disengagement and business dissatisfaction with the level of graduates’ higher-order skills to tear down that defence: The broad liberal arts curriculum does not even meet the universities’ loftier aims. For the humanities, there is nowhere to hide.

In spite of the alarm bells he sets off, Bok has not come to blow up the institution but to reform it – and very much from within. He concludes that what will enable the change in undergraduate education is … more research into pedagogy. After making such a persuasive case that the decks are stacked against student-centred institutions, the call for basically more journal articles – which Bok earlier in the book damns as tenure traps – is a little Stockholm syndrome.

Revolution comes from the outside. Former U.S. education secretary William Bennett (under Reagan) is of the anti-liberal-humanities breed. His is a simple call, unburdened by any measures other than earnings after graduation. To summarize: Students who choose anthropology rather than engineering should suffer for their irrational economic choices, whether it’s through paying higher tuition fees or higher interest on student loans. That will make them think twice about enrolling in such poorly paid fields.

Bennett asks some interesting questions about the benefits of a liberal education to those who are neither moneyed, nor connected, and so must turn that degree in philosophy into some kind of paid employment. Some of the most storied small universities in America – like Vassar, Oberlin or Bryn Mawr, all bastions of intellectual inquiry and personal growth – offer the worst return on investment in education when compared to the big private Ivy’s or public institutions. Should a poor kid invest in going there? No.

There is an irony in trying to get students interested in the humanities to think about return on investment. Ken Ilgunas certainly didn’t. The son of a lower middle-class family, Ilgunas penned the most readable of the tomes on education this year, Walden on Wheels. After graduating $32,000 in debt, Ilgunas is horrified by the prospect of spending a decade paying it off and hits the road working a series of hard jobs in Alaska and the American south, getting to zero in less than two years.

The experience of those jobs makes him realize that he really enjoys being challenged by something other than feeding workers at an Alaskan truck stop – he wants to engage with the best thinkers in America. He applies to Duke for a master’s in liberal studies, gets in and proceeds to live in his van in a university parking lot and cook on a hotplate rather than pay residence fees.

While Bok and Bennett and Shymalan fret about the educational crisis, Ilgunas lives it and tells quite the adventure tale. His education – flawed and expensive as it was – pays off.

Simona Chiose is the education editor for The Globe and Mail.

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