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What's College For?: The Struggle to Define American Higher Education

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President Clinton declares that a two-year education should be the right of all Americans. Congress passes a $40 billion package of tax breaks and scholarships aimed at making a degree accessible to everyone. Almost two–thirds of high school graduates now go on to some form of higher education, and yet at the same time, those colleges and universities, inundated with a new kind of student, have been slow to respond to this revolutionary change.Zachary Karabell spent over a year traveling the country interviewing ...

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Overview

President Clinton declares that a two-year education should be the right of all Americans. Congress passes a $40 billion package of tax breaks and scholarships aimed at making a degree accessible to everyone. Almost two–thirds of high school graduates now go on to some form of higher education, and yet at the same time, those colleges and universities, inundated with a new kind of student, have been slow to respond to this revolutionary change.Zachary Karabell spent over a year traveling the country interviewing students, graduate students, faculty, and adjunct teachers, and the result is a portrait of American higher education that is neither conservative nor liberal and that needs to be taken seriously. There is a quiet revolution occurring that will—that is—changing the nature of education in this country.”Higher education is becoming mass education,” writes Karabell. The crucial clash on today’s campuses is not between traditionalists, multiculturalists, and tenured radicals, but between the competing needs and desires of students, professors, administrators, and the larger society.The overwhelming majority of today’s students are working-class people seeking education to get a job; they are not seeking a liberal education, nor planning to go on to graduate school. Most faculty members, products of the elite graduate schools that have insulated them from the needs of real-world people, are often profoundly ill-equipped to handle this changing student body. By exploring the myriad perspectives of these conflicting expectations Karabell concludes that a radical democratization of higher education is not only inevitable, it is desirable, and it will require dramatic changes in the structure and presumptions about education beyond the high school level.Topping $175 billion a year, spending for American higher education will join health care and welfare as one of the top national issues, yet there is precious little real or broad-based understanding of the issues and social forces at work. Eschewing any political agenda, yet unafraid to ask as many questions as he answers, Zachary Karabell has provided the first reasoned examination of what has become a national concern. Sure to spark intense debate, What’s College For? is a clarion call for reform.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Journalist Karabell believes that there is a widening schism between the focus of academia and the needs of society. He argues that faculty are more concerned with their research interests than their teaching responsibilities--not a new insight--and that at today's colleges older students, outside employment, athletic scholarships, and the desire to get the credential rather than acquire a base of knowledge are the main issues. He also sees the humanities as underrepresented in quality higher education. Karabell spends much time discussing the life and modus operandi of college faculty and lambastes the concepts of tenure and adjunct faculty. He sensibly concludes that there is no one model for higher education; the racial, ethnic, and linguistic diversity that has always characterized the United States will inevitably be reflected in its schools. In the meantime, college faculty and administrators should look at what they are doing and why they are doing it and decide which changes must be made to redefine higher education for the new millennium. A solid survey of education today but hardly the last word on the subject.--Scott R. Johnson, Meridian Community Coll. Lib., MS
Booknews
An analysis of higher education based on the author's yearlong journey throughout the US interviewing students and faculty alike. He argues that the overwhelming majority of students are working class people seeking an education that will land them a good job, while the majority of the faculty are products of graduate schools that have insulated them from the needs of real-world people. He explores the many perspectives of these conflicting expectations and concludes that a radical democratization of higher education is necessary. Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.
Kirkus Reviews
A worldly inspection of academe's ivory tower from the top floor of tenured professors and the Ivy League to the basement of adjunct teachers and community colleges. When President Clinton in his 1997 State of the Union speech proposed making two years of college as universal as a high school diploma, he was barely on the crest of a wave that, Karabell shows, has been building up in the calm waters of higher education. With college degrees becoming requirements for most jobs and the quality of high school instruction increasingly criticized, Karabell argues that higher education has become more a valuable, marketable commodity than a scholarly goal. Despite an influx of new students and need for more instructors, the profession, in Karabell's terms, is still structured like a closed medieval guild—one particularly resistant to change—with a minority of tenured professors at the top, trained primarily to do research and not to teach, and at bottom a drove of postgraduate teaching assistants and new Ph.D.s as short-term adjunct faculty. It's no wonder that while the culture wars over curricula and the political correctness debate wracked colleges and universities, there have been equally bitter labor disputes, such as the Yale graduate students' attempt to unionize and the University of Minnesota faculty's protest against tenure reform. Karabell, himself a Ph.D. but now working in journalism, takes professors to task for their isolation from mainstream America and students' real-life needs, but also sympathizes with the value of scholarly ideals. Unlike most books on university crises, What Is College For? balances its intellectual arguments with animated classroomreporting and faculty interviews, drawn mainly from the diverse university systems of California, New York, and Texas. Only in its conclusion for pluralistic reform of higher education do Karabell's arguments go somewhat soft. Reconnoitering a new front on the culture wars, Karabell takes some well-timed and well-aimed shots at the received notions of teaching's functions and professors' careers.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780465087709
  • Publisher: Basic Books
  • Publication date: 9/10/1998
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 5.81 (w) x 8.55 (h) x 1.17 (d)

Meet the Author

Zachary Karabell
Zachary Karabell

Zachary Karabell is the author of several works of American and world history, including The Last Campaign: How Harry Truman Won the 1948 Election and Parting the Desert: The Creation of the Suez Canal. He has taught at Harvard and Dartmouth, and his work has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and Newsweek. He lives in New York City.

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Table of Contents

Introduction
1 The Students 1
2 The Classroom 23
3 Graduate Students 47
4 The Professors 81
5 Tenure 109
6 Professors and Society 141
7 History Standards 163
8 Adjuncts and Community Colleges 191
9 Society and Higher Education 213
Conclusion 231
Notes 247
Acknowledgments 271
Index 273
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