Our Underachieving Colleges: A Candid Look at How Much Students Learn and Why They Should Be Learning More [NOOK Book]


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 ...

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Our Underachieving Colleges: A Candid Look at How Much Students Learn and Why They Should Be Learning More

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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.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
There has been no shortage over the past two decades of scholars willing to tell us "what's wrong" with higher education, but Bok (president emeritus, Harvard Univ.; Universities and the Marketplace) 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, 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. While his review of the literature in widely scattered areas (including writing across the curriculum, civic engagement and service learning, and preparing for life in a multicultural society and a global economy) is not exhaustive, it does provide a basic understanding of major issues and helps the reader tie those discrete arguments together into a vision for higher education in the 21st century. This thoughtful critique of higher education will be accessible to a wide audience; recommended for all collections.-Scott Walter, Univ. of Kansas, Lawrence Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
New York Review of Books
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
Boston Globe
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
Education Week
Bok in this book criticizes the state of undergraduate education. . . . His research suggests that common problems in education extend beyond K-12.
Editor & Publisher
Derek Bok . . . points out in his recent book . . . that civic responsibility must be learned, that it is neither natural nor effortless.
— Michael M. Spear
Washington Monthly
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
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
Harvard University Gazette
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
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
University Affairs
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
Journal of Higher Education
This book is a clarion call. Attention should be paid.
— Peter Lamal
The New York Times
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 American Enterprise Online
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
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781400831333
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 2/28/2009
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 434
  • Sales rank: 897,405
  • File size: 596 KB

Meet the Author

Derek Bok is President Emeritus and Research Professor at Harvard University and the author of many major books on higher education, including (with William Bowen) "The Shape of the River: Long-Term Consequences of Considering Race in College" and "University Admissions and Universities in the Marketplace: The Commercialization of Higher Education" (both Princeton).

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Read an Excerpt

Our Underachieving Colleges

By Derek Bok

Princeton University Press

Copyright © 2006 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-691-12596-1

Chapter One


Undergraduate education today bears no resemblance to the instruction masters and tutors gave to the trickle of adolescents entering one of the nine colleges that existed prior to the American Revolution. Even a century later, less than 2 percent of young people were attending college. Serious research had barely gained a foothold on the nation's campuses, and entire fields of knowledge that are common today were still unknown. As late as 1940, fewer than 1 in 20 adults had a B.A. degree. It is only within the past 50 years that universities have come to boast the huge enrollments, the elaborately equipped research laboratories, and the legions of faculty members and other instructors that fill their campuses today.

Some understanding of the evolution of American colleges is needed as the background for a serious discussion of the contemporary college experience. Only through acquaintance with this history can one tell whether critics are correct in asserting that the quality of liberal education is in serious decline. Without some knowledge of the past, one cannot fully appreciate which aspects of the undergraduate program are amenable to change and which seem to stubbornly resist reform. Lackinghistorical perspective, one cannot even be sure whether "new" proposals are truly new or merely nostrums that have been trotted out before with disappointing results. At the very least, anyone wishing to criticize or reform undergraduate education should know its important changes have occurred and what features of undergraduate education have remained essentially the same over time.


Until the Civil War, colleges in the United States were linked to religious bodies and resembled finishing schools more closely than institutions of advanced education. Student behavior was closely regulated both inside and outside the classroom, and teachers spent much of their time enforcing regulations and punishing transgressors. Rules of behavior were written in exquisite detail. Columbia's officials took two full pages merely to describe the proper forms of behavior during compulsory chapel. Yale turned "Sabbath Profanation, active disbelief in the authenticity of the Bible, and extravagant [personal] expenditures" into campus crimes.

Most courses were prescribed in a curriculum that usually included mathematics, logic, English, and classics, with a heavy dose of Latin and Greek. In a typical class, students recited passages from an ancient text under the critical eye of the instructor. Although many colleges offered courses in the sciences, such as astronomy or botany, classes were taught more often by invoking Aristotle and other authorities than by describing experiments and the scientific method. By most accounts, the formal education was sterile. Many students felt that they learned much more outside the classroom in informal clubs and literary societies, where they engaged in debates, read modern literature, and discussed serious subjects.

Despite their quaint ways, colleges before the Civil War were deliberately organized to pursue two important objectives: training the intellect and building character. The most influential defense of the prevailing model appeared in an 1828 report from Yale College, which held that the principal aim of college instruction was not to supply all of the important information that students might some day use but to instill mental discipline. According to the report's authors, a classical education was ideally suited to this purpose.

Mental discipline was supposed to emerge from hours of demanding work translating ancient languages, disputing arcane questions in class, and solving mathematical problems. As one college president put it, "If you seek to bring your mental powers up to a high degree of efficiency, put them to work, and upon studies that will tax them to the uttermost. When one has been mastered, take a second, and a third, and so go on conquering and to conquer, victory succeeding victory in your march to mental conquests and triumphs." Not until the end of the century did this inspiring message fall victim to Edward Thorndike's experiments suggesting that the skills acquired through painstaking translations of Cicero and Virgil would rarely help students to analyze and solve problems outside the realm of Latin texts.

Character would be forged by having undergraduates study classical texts, demanding strict compliance with the detailed rules of campus behavior, and requiring daily attendance at chapel. As a culminating experience, most colleges prior to the Civil War offered a mandatory course for seniors on issues of moral philosophy, often taught by the president himself. Ranging over ethical principles, history, politics, and such issues of the day as immigration, slavery, and freedom of the press, this capstone course served multiple objectives. It set forth precepts of ethical behavior, it prepared students for civic responsibility, and it brought together knowledge from several fields of learning. For many students, it was the high point of an otherwise dull and stultifying education.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, the traditional program was showing signs of strain. Experimental scientists and scholars of modern languages and literature were gradually gaining a foothold in the curriculum. Instructors chafed at having to spend so much time enforcing rules of behavior. Expressing their displeasure with the status quo, students began to vote with their feet. From 1850 to 1870, undergraduate enrollments in America actually declined as a proportion of the total population. As Francis Wayland, the president of Brown, succinctly put it, "We have produced an article for which the demand is diminishing."

With the end of the Civil War, higher education began a period of unprecedented reform. Aided by federal land grants and by the philanthropy born of industrial fortunes, college presidents such as Charles W. Eliot, Andrew White, William Rainey Harper, and Benjamin Gilman built new institutions and radically transformed old ones. Inspired by the model of the great German universities, these leaders encouraged research, welcomed science, and introduced Ph.D. programs to build new cadres of scholar-teachers.

Undergraduate education soon felt the impact of these changes. The old classical curriculum gave way to offerings of a newer and more practical kind. Instruction in modern languages and literature continued to spread. Courses in physics, biology, and chemistry sprung up everywhere. Private universities introduced new programs in vocational subjects such as commerce and engineering. Public universities carried occupational training even further. According to Laurence Veysey, "such untraditional disciplines as pedagogy, domestic science, business administration, sanitary science, physical education, and various kinds of engineering were all becoming firmly established at a number of leading universities by the turn of the century."

More radical still were the reforms at some of America's most prominent institutions. At Harvard, for example, President Charles W. Eliot not only rejected the old prescribed classical curriculum, he urged that all requirements be abolished, leaving students free to study whatever appealed to their interests. By the end of his 40-year term of office in 1909, only a course in English composition and the study of one foreign language were required of freshmen. Sophomores, juniors, and seniors were left completely free to study what they chose. At Cornell, another advocate of student choice, President Andrew White, explained the reasons for shifting to a freer curriculum: "The attempt to give mental discipline by studies which the mind does not desire is as unwise as to attempt to give physical nourishment by food which the body does not desire. ... Vigorous, energetic study, prompted by enthusiasm or a high sense of the value of the subject, is the only kind of study not positively hurtful to mental power."

Religious orthodoxy also lost its grip on many colleges. Nonsectarianism was increasingly considered conducive to sound university governance. Faith was no longer thought central to the development of moral character. Compulsory chapel began to give way on many campuses, making religious observance little more than another option within a broad array of extracurricular pursuits.

Not all college presidents agreed with the trend toward greater freedom of choice. Some clung tenaciously to the old classical model and mounted a spirited defense of the status quo. President James McCosh of Princeton was particularly outspoken in opposing Harvard's reforms, denouncing President Eliot in words reminiscent of William Bennett's ripest prose during his term as secretary of education:

Tell it not in Berlin and Oxford that the once most illustrious university in America no longer requires its graduates to know the most perfect language, the grandest literature, the most elevated thinking of all antiquity. Tell it not in Paris, tell it not in Cambridge in England, tell it not in Dublin, that Cambridge in America does not make mathematics obligatory on its students. Let not Edinburgh and Scotland and the Puritans in England know that a student may pass through the one Puritan college of America without having taken a single class of philosophy or a lesson in religion.

President Eliot was unmoved. As time went on, he would watch the currents of reform begin to turn in his direction. In 1890, 80 percent of the curriculum was required in the average college. By 1901, curricula in more than one-third of American colleges were at least 70 percent elective. By 1940, the share of mandatory courses in the typical college curriculum had declined to 40 percent.

In the end, however, Eliot's vision proved too extreme to survive intact even at Harvard. Although no one wanted to return to the old, classical curriculum, most educators felt that the doctrine of total elective choice went too far in the other direction. Such freedom clearly did not produce "the vigorous, energetic study" that enthusiasts like White had promised. By the time Eliot finally retired, 55 percent of Harvard students were graduating having taken virtually nothing but elementary courses. More than 70 percent did not pursue any single field of knowledge in real depth. Many undergraduates studied as little as possible and relied on paid tutors-or "crammers"-to fill their heads with just enough information at semester's end to pass their exams.

Meanwhile, social clubs and fraternities flourished. Intercollegiate sports took hold, as football games attracted tens of thousands of raucous students and alumni. At colleges across the nation, undergraduates decorated their rooms with posters reading "Don't let your studies interfere with your education." For many undergraduates, college was not a serious intellectual experience but an excuse for making social contacts and enjoying the good life. As one dean of students, LeBaron Briggs, candidly admitted, "Social ambition is the strongest power in many a student's life."

In retrospect, it is likely that the casual attitude toward coursework reflected the spirit of the times more than the nature of the curriculum. Even in the more conservative atmosphere of Yale, the typical student was described as "a careless boy-man who is chiefly anxious to 'have a good time,' and who shirks his work and deceives his instructors in every possible way." Whatever the underlying causes, critics of the elective system seized on such carefree undergraduate behavior as a justification for imposing greater structure on the curriculum. By the early twentieth century, both the extreme free-choice model embraced by universities such as Stanford and Cornell and the more rigid, traditional system still in place at Princeton seemed equally out of touch with the times.

Once Eliot retired, revisionist forces took over at Harvard. His successor, A. Lawrence Lowell, soon persuaded the faculty to require students to choose a major, or field of concentration, to stop them from taking a long series of introductory courses. The resulting curriculum, with its combination of breadth and depth of study, had already been adopted by most other colleges. Depth was achieved through concentrations that consisted of a number of courses within a single discipline. Breadth was typically ensured by requiring students to take two or three courses in each of several broad areas of knowledge, such as the humanities, social sciences, and sciences.

By the start of World War II, college curricula were divided between two models. Most public universities offered a wide assortment of vocational majors along with the standard liberal arts concentrations, while achieving breadth through some form of distribution requirement. Most leading private universities tended to resist occupational majors (save for engineering and business). A few, among them Stanford and Columbia, went beyond distribution requirements by requiring students to complete specially created survey courses on such broad topics as Western Civilization or the Great Books, in an effort to ensure that every student graduated with a basic grounding in the intellectual heritage of the West.

These patterns of breadth and depth were nourished by constant growth in the number of courses, made possible by the steady expansion of university faculties. Entirely new disciplines, with courses of their own, gave undergraduates a wider range of options from which to choose electives, fulfill their distribution requirements, or select a major.

In the aftermath of World War II, universities underwent further substantial change. Encouraged by the GI Bill and later by the demands of an increasingly sophisticated economy, larger and larger numbers of young people crowded into colleges. Existing universities expanded, and new ones were founded. From 1945 to 2000, the number of B.A. degrees awarded annually rose almost eightfold, from 157,349 to approximately 1.2 million.

The rapid growth in the undergraduate population meant that higher education was no longer reserved for the elite but now attracted a majority of American youth. Student bodies became more diverse, as blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and other ethnic minorities entered private and public colleges alike. As applicant pools grew larger, the best-known institutions became highly selective, teachers' colleges evolved into multipurpose universities, and community colleges sprouted like mushrooms. Many of the new students (and their parents) were more interested in preparing for jobs than in acquiring a broad liberal arts education. Responding to this demand, more and more colleges began to offer vocational programs. Before long, the number of students choosing vocational majors exceeded the numbers concentrating in traditional arts and sciences disciplines.

The rapid rise in the undergraduate population was matched by growth in other dimensions. The number of faculty members increased severalfold. Aided by generous federal support, especially in the sciences and social sciences, the volume of research expanded massively. Academic specialties proliferated, producing new majors, new academic journals, and ever greater intellectual fragmentation.

University faculties responded to these developments in various ways. Although the basic structure of the curriculum remained intact, with its provision for breadth and depth, the steady growth of new knowledge pushed aspects of science once reserved for graduate students back into intermediate and even introductory college texts. As researchers separated themselves into more and narrower specialties, colleges began developing interdisciplinary programs to focus on large societal issues, such as environmental problems or the impact of science and technology on society. Challenged by a more diverse student population, many faculties launched other multidisciplinary ventures in fields such as women's studies, Afro-American studies, and ethnic studies. In response to America's new international prominence, and aided by significant outside support, other faculty members created research centers and interdepartmental programs aimed at understanding major regions of the world, such as Western and Eastern Europe, Africa, and East Asia.

As student numbers continued to rise and individual universities grew larger, colleges launched a variety of experiments to provide more individualized instruction, at least for portions of their student bodies. Honors programs were established for qualified students. Research internships offered opportunities for undergraduates to work in laboratories alongside experienced investigators. Freshman seminars, group tutorials, and small senior colloquia afforded students at least a modicum of personal contact with faculty members.


Excerpted from Our Underachieving Colleges by Derek Bok Copyright © 2006 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii
Introduction 1
CHAPTER 1: The Evolution of American Colleges 11
CHAPTER 2: Faculty Attitudes toward Undergraduate Education 31
CHAPTER 3: Purposes 58
CHAPTER 4: Learning to Communicate 82
CHAPTER 5: Learning to Think 109
CHAPTER 6: Building Character 146
CHAPTER 7: Preparation for Citizenship 172
CHAPTER 8: Living with Diversity 194
CHAPTER 9: Preparing for a Global Society 225
CHAPTER 10: Acquiring Broader Interests 255
CHAPTER 11: Preparing for a Career 281
CHAPTER 12: Improving the Quality of Undergraduate Education 310
Notes 345
Index 395
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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 9, 2006

    Critical thinking it is not

    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.

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