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

ISBN-13: 978-0691125961 ISBN-10: 0691125961 Edition: 1st

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 424 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press; 1 edition (December 27, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691125961
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691125961
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.5 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #357,960 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Review

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)

Review

Derek Bok's Our Underachieving Colleges is readable, balanced, often wry, and wise. This book should be required reading for every curriculum committee and academic dean. As someone who has lived his whole life in the academy, Bok knows how to bring institutional practice in line with research on how students learn best. In a period when many other countries are working hard at improving undergraduate education, this book should serve as a spur to overcome the complacency that attends most discussions of American undergraduate education, especially in our leading institutions.
(Mary Patterson McPherson, President Emeritus of Bryn Mawr College and Vice President of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation)

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Customer Reviews

Derek Bok is one of the most thoughtful observers (and participants) in higher education today.
Jeffrey Gore
Employing the most effective teaching methods, experimenting to find better ways for students to learn, and being flexible in shifting one's teaching style.
Donald Mitchell
I think he underestimates both the difficulty of teaching such complex intangibles and also the danger that these courses will devolve into indoctrination.
Wanda B. Red

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

72 of 73 people found the following review helpful By Wanda B. Red VINE VOICE on April 21, 2006
Format: Hardcover
This critique of higher education is written by Derek Bok, once and future president of Harvard University (he's taken over from Larry Summers as interim leader). But Bok's experience at Harvard - while it certainly informs his analysis - does not make him an elitist. Far from it, his suggested reforms, as he explains, may work best at schools not so hide-bound as Harvard with tradition and defensiveness: "which may help to explain why so many of the most interesting teaching innovations do not begin in the best-known universities but in colleges with less prominent reputations" (337).

Bok's analysis marks out a welcome middle path between knee-jerk defenders of the American university and its detractors. While relatively speaking, our system of higher education remains the envy of the rest of the world, it still fails undergraduate students in a million small ways, chiefly connected with its lack of attention to how students learn best in and out of the classroom. Bok's complaint is not that colleges have lost their way - he's very clear that there was no Golden Age of American higher education - but that we could be doing much better.

In a series of chapters devoted to the skills that he believes students should work at during their four college years, Bok slays a number of sacred cows and offers concrete suggestions for how to make substantial improvements. For example, he is refreshingly skeptical of the value of "concentrations" (probably known as "majors" to most of us); their requirements grow larger and larger, but what are they really accomplishing?
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Format: Hardcover
Unless you are a glutton for punishment, chances are that you'll never read all of the major critiques of undergraduate education in the United States. It would take a true masochist to follow up all of that reading with a look into the latest research on how and when undergraduates can learn more at college. But only someone with a true love for the subject would also consider what colleges should be trying to accomplish for students, professors, and society. Meet Derek Bok, veteran of two decades as president of Harvard University, who recently served another year as interim president after Larry Summers resigned last year. He's a man with a mission: Make undergraduate education as good as it can be.

That zeal won't be evident to the casual reader. The material is presented in such an even-handed way that it's easy to conclude that President Bok has no strong opinions. That would be a mistake. You need a hint: President Bok started out as a professor interested in labor law where strict adherence to standards is critical to effectiveness. He later served as dean of Harvard Law School at a time when the students (my class) barricaded him all night in the library where he amiably chatted with all comers. President Bok's often turgid prose also makes his words seem less powerful than they might be.

But read between the lines. Ignore what the conservative flame-throwers have to say about too much sex, drugs, and rock 'n roll and not enough great books. American four-year colleges can do a lot better in their main missions:

1. With greater emphasis, more resources, and a pervasive role throughout the curriculum, student can learn to write and speak much more effectively.

2.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Jeffrey Gore on July 27, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Derek Bok is one of the most thoughtful observers (and participants) in higher education today. As president of Harvard for 20 years (1971 - 1991) he had many opportunities to see first hand how an elite university works--or doesn't. Many years ago I read his book "The State of the Nation", which I found to be a reasonable analysis of many of the difficult issues facing the country. In "Our Underacheiving Colleges: A Candid Look at How Much Students Learn and Why They Should Be Learning More", Bok is able to focus on issues that he has a unique perspetive on. The begins with the basic question: "What is the purpose of higher education?" His response is given in a series of wonderfully insightful chapters focusing on critical thinking, diversity, and character. Unlike many commentators, he takes a measured response towards such divisive topics as preprofessionalism and the degree of faculty commitment to undergraduate education. Bok presents a powerful argument that the modern university has largely abdicated its responsibility to teach a strong core curriculum, as compared to a random hodgepodge of courses that students and faculty can agree will be "fun". This book deserves to be a classic treatise on higher education, alongside books such as Clark Kerr's "The Uses of the University".
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22 of 31 people found the following review helpful By M. Trease on June 7, 2006
Format: Hardcover
As a college instructor teaching one of the most labor-intensive subjects -- composition -- I'm always interested in thoughtful critiques of the system, and Bok does that, albeit from a more centrist position. Bok's perspective as a former (and now interim) president of Harvard lends him enough experience with a wide range of relationships within 4-year institutions to make the broad critique stick, at least in part.

Bok argues that while undergraduate education in America is percieved to be the best in the world, by scholars and students, that it fall short of what it could achieve. He lays out the history of positions regarding the undergraduate curriculum(s) beginning with the rise of land grant institutions and their challenge to the more elite schools' focus on classical education models and continuing on to the current situation, which he claims has stagnated due to market pressures from prospective students and the unwillingness of tenured faculty to branch out beyond their diciplined walls and work with the overall administration.

Bok first turns his attention to the role of the faculty in addressing the need for improvement. He claims that faculty can understand and gauge better exactly what their students are learning by placing more emphasis on their paedagogy through reviews of individual teaching styles, furthering the somewhat nascent study of pedagogical methods, and by working with faculty in other departments to create a more interdiciplinary environment. He points out the difficulty with such a venture, but claims that is necessary if the university is to re-evaluate and reasonably meet its goals.

Throughout the bulk of the book then, Bok focuses on what he sees as reasonable and necessary goals for undergrate curriculm.
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