Monday, August 4, 2014

The Loss Of Two Important Goals Of American Undergraduate Education

In 2006, the now emeritus president of Harvard University, Derek Bok, wrote Our Underachieving Colleges: A Candid Look at How Much Students Learn and Why They Should Be Learning More. In the 1980s and early 90s, American higher education came under scrutiny from a variety of sources and the verdict was not good. Perhaps the banner slogan of this onslaught was the title of the only book of the bunch to hit the New York Times Best-Seller List, Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind. That is to say, the conclusion was that the nation was “at risk” because of the poor performance in our system of higher education.

Bok takes these criticisms seriously along with the pushback from higher education that inevitably followed these attacks. He asserts that the original assault was marred by certain flaws pointed out by the defenders.  Nevertheless, Bok’s book is not a whitewash of his profession, rather he takes a second look at the issue based on some criteria which he felt were overlooked in the original debate and finds that indeed there are many weaknesses in the system. His approach to the matter is moderate and sensible.

With this background, I bring to your attention two consequences he points out in Chapter 2 devoted to “Faculty Attitudes Toward Undergraduate Education” which grow out of those attitudes and which I think are among the most serious problems of modern higher education. He says the administrations and faculties of America’s colleges and universities have largely not paid satisfactory attention to the purpose(s) of higher education and therefore, they have not been concerned about adequately assuring that they have been effective in meeting those purposes. The first example of a lost purpose is the casualty of ethics.
By not paying careful attention to purposes, faculties have also ignored important aims of undergraduate education over extended periods of time. For example, following the Civil War, most colleges (with the notable exception of church-related institutions) gradually withdrew from any attempt to teach their students to think about ethical questions of the kind that commonly arise in private and professional life. Fortunately, after an eclipse of almost a century, courses on moral reasoning have finally begun to make a modest comeback. Yet most students in America still graduate without taking any classes of this kind.(1)
One of the obvious outcomes of this deficiency may be the rapid rise we have seen in moral relativity and/or rejection of morality altogether. The second purpose of higher education he identifies as being lost is the failure to adequately prepare American youth to function as citizens in a democracy.  
Most colleges likewise fail to make any deliberate, collective effort to prepare their students to be active, knowledgeable citizens in a democracy, even though civic apathy and ignorance of public affairs are widely regarded as serious problems in America. Only a minority of undergraduates ever take a basic course on American government, while fewer than 10 percent complete a course on the perennial problems of social justice and political philosophy that underlie so many issues of government policy.
One wonders how much this loss has contributed to what appears to be a significant decline in patriotism and the growth of cynicism about American government and American ideals. Bok concludes with this summary:
Over the past century, then, two well-known educational goals with roots extending back to ancient Greece have been allowed to languish on most college campuses without much notice, let alone careful debate.
These two deletions from undergraduate preparation seriously imperil us individually and collectively as a society.

Lets think together again, soon.


(1)   All quotations are from Derek Bok, Our Underachieving Colleges: A Candid Look at How Much Students Learn and Why They Should Be Learning More, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006), pp. 41-42, emphasis added.

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