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Drawing on a large body of empirical evidence, former Harvard President Derek Bok examines how much progress college students actually make toward widely accepted goals of undergraduate education. His conclusions are sobering. Although most students make gains in many important respects, they improve much less than they should in such important areas as writing, critical thinking, quantitative skills, and moral reasoning. Large majorities of college seniors do not feel that they have made substantial progress in speaking a foreign language, acquiring cultural and aesthetic interests, or learning what they need to know to become active and informed citizens. Overall, despite their vastly increased resources, more powerful technology, and hundreds of new courses, colleges cannot be confident that students are learning more than they did fifty years ago.
Looking further, Bok finds that many important college courses are left to the least experienced teachers and that most professors continue to teach in ways that have proven to be less effective than other available methods. In reviewing their educational programs, however, faculties typically ignore this evidence. Instead, they spend most of their time discussing what courses to require, although the lasting impact of college will almost certainly depend much more on how the courses are taught.
In his final chapter, Bok describes the changes that faculties and academic leaders can make to help students accomplish more. Without ignoring the contributions that America's colleges have made, Bok delivers a powerful critique--one that educators will ignore at their peril.
"In the Bok view, American colleges and universities are victims of their own success: they answer to so many constituencies and are expected to serve so many ends that no one can agree on even a few common goals, and in the meantime they have grown complacent."--Charles McGrath, The New York Times
"Derek Bok paints a picture of colleges that, if not dysfunctional, are operating far below capacity. He questions the coherence and purpose of departmental majors, describes programs of study abroad as little more than recreational excursions, criticizes lecturers for their indifference to whether students learn anything, and, in general, hold faculty accountable for ignoring research about which teaching methods are most effective."--Andrew Delbanco, New York Review of Books
"Derek Bok makes a unique contribution by skillfully weaving his critique of campus and curriculum with an extensive review of the literature on student in a number of key areas, including writing instruction, critical thinking instruction, civic education, and diversity education. Rather than identify a narrowly defined culprit in the supposed decline of higher education, such as political correctness or neglect of the literary canon, Bok writes persuasively about the multiple aims of higher education and retains focus throughout on the question of how attention to each of these aims contributes to measurable increases in student learning. . . . This thoughtful critique of higher education will be accessible to a wide audience."--Publishers Weekly
"In Our Underachieving Colleges, Derek Bok argues forcefully that those of us within the academy can do a much better job of educating our undergraduates, widening their vistas, and preparing them to succeed in life."--Charles M. Vest, Boston Globe
"Bok in this book criticizes the state of undergraduate education. . . . His research suggests that common problems in education extend beyond K-12."--Education Week
"Derek Bok . . . points out in his recent book . . . that civic responsibility must be learned, that it is neither natural nor effortless."--Michael M. Spear, Editor & Publisher
"It's hard to think of anything more central to a university than teaching. . . . The cause of improving teaching quality--and of perhaps imparting practical knowledge to students--now has a well-placed champion: Derek Bok. . . . As the highest profile academic in the world, he'll have a chance to change the way academics think about the interaction between the professor and the student. But as Bok may know better than anyone else, he has his work cut out for him."--James Beale, Washington Monthly
"Derek Bok's most recent book, Our Underachieving Colleges, is worth scrutinizing. . . . Bok is . . . on solid ground in pointing out that our colleges underachieve in preparing students for citizenship."--George Leef, The American Enterprise Online
"In Our Underachieving Colleges, [Derek] Bok acts as both diagnostician and healer, wielding social-science statistics and professional studies to trace the etiology of today's illnesses and to recommend palliative treatments for what he has discovered."--Donald Kagan, Commentary
"Derek Bok makes a unique contribution by skillfully weaving his critique of campus and curriculum with an extensive review of the literature on student learning in a number of key areas. . . . Rather than identify a narrowly defined culprit in the supposed decline of higher education, Bok writes persuasively about the multiple aims of higher education and retains focus throughout on the question of how attention to each of these aims contributes to measurable increases in student learning. . . . This thoughtful critique of higher education will be accessible to a wide audience."--Scott Walter, Library Journal
"Bok focuses not on curriculum change but on pedagogy. He asks why college teachers have not taken more advantage of the extensive research that has been done on the conditions that allow students to learn most effectively."--Ken Gewertz, Harvard University Gazette
"What distinguishes Our Underachieving Colleges from other books in the genre is the author's focus on what research has to say about what students are and are not learning, along with his insistence that institutions should put their money where their mouths are and invest in the teachers, teaching, and educational experiences that are likely to help them achieve their own chosen goals."--Mary Taylor Huber, Change
"In his book, Our Underachieving Colleges, Derek Bok, past-president of Harvard University, challenges postsecondary institutions to live up to their educational mandate. . . . [H]is stature in American higher education adds credibility and weight to his challenge. Also, the book is well researched and well argued. As such, it has the potential to motivate change. . . . If you are a senior administrator or board member, please read this book. If you are not, consider making a gift of it to someone else."--Gary Poole, University Affairs
"This book is a clarion call. Attention should be paid."--Peter Lamal, Journal of Higher Education
Posted May 9, 2006
When Bok refers to 'underachieving' he is putting more emphasis on his belief that colleges are not performing up to their potential as opposed to saying that colleges have suffered degradation over time. His analysis lacks any substantial quantitative analysis that might help assess the problems and their priorities. Bok likes to discuss 'critical thinking' and its importance as a goal of college instruction and yet demonstrates that he is confused about it himself. He derrogates 'formal logic' and 'advanced calculus' as not part of critical thinking. As a former scientist I can tell him and you that mathematics and logic are indispensable tools in the conduct of science. Surely science and its methods depend on these kinds of critical thinking. There is some data out there that he could have used to show the underachievement in more quantitative terms. For example, the U.S. Department of Education's 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy shows that college graduates don't know as much as their counterparts as recently as ten years ago and have slipped about a college year in this measure. There are a number of unneccessary digressions along familiar themes of post-modern political correctness including multiculturalism, diversity, racism, sexism and affirmative action. I guess his tenure in academia has expanded his interests in these pessimisms. I would not have finished the book except for the incentive that I could write this review if I did. I would not recommend this book to others.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.