by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Harry Lewis writes for the Martin Center about higher expectations for higher education.
Former Harvard president Derek Bok has long lamented that our institutions of higher education largely underperform in their missions. He has now written another book making that argument. His Higher Expectations is a coolly rational analysis of what needs to be done to improve American undergraduate education.
He uses as his frame a study by the American Association of Colleges and Universities about the skills and capabilities 21st-century college graduates will need, and then considers each in its own chapter: civic responsibility; global worldliness; ethical standards and personal responsibility; finding purpose and meaning in life; and interpersonal skills. The last few chapters are about the improvement of teaching and strategies to encourage institutions to reform themselves.
The book is targeted at academic administrators, for whom Bok’s careful analysis will be a valuable guide to what is actually known about issues on which opinions are strong, varied—and largely unfounded. A dean confronting a pattern of student anxiety and depression, for example, and wondering if courses in positive psychology are helpful or just a passing fad, will find as good an answer as can be had, even if it is inconclusive.
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.”
Similarly, colleges do little to help students develop ethical principles. He notes a survey of young adults where the researchers concluded that most had “very primitive views about ethics.”