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The Great American University: Its Rise to Preeminence, Its Indispensable National Role, Why It Must Be Protected Hardcover – January 12, 2010
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From Viagra to global positioning systems, America’s research universities have made major contributions to education, health, commerce, and the general well-being of the nation and maintained international preeminence since the 1930s. Cole brings passion and insight based on a 50-year association, from student to professor to provost, with Columbia University, one of the nation’s leading research universities, to an examination of the history and future of these schools. He begins by examining the origins of the research university, the values behind them, and the social and economic structures that have supported them. He moves on to detail the innovations that have come directly out of research universities, including the laser, magnetic resonance imaging, the algorithm behind the Google search engines, and current biological research that may have implications for combating bioterrorism. Finally, Cole examines the forces that threaten the continued preeminence of America’s best research universities, including competition from China and other developing nations and government restrictions on research based on national security or political morality. --Vanessa Bush
“An elegant, comprehensive examination of how American universities became the best in the world, and why research matters….A sound, enthusiastic look at the crucial vitality of the American university system.”
William G. Bowen, President Emeritus, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation
“Jonathan Cole has given us a stimulating and provocative account of how the American research university came to be, the ideas it has contributed, and the challenges it faces. Not everyone will agree with all of the argument, but everyone can learn from it.”
Geoffrey R. Stone, Former Provost of the University of Chicago and author of Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime
“Jonathan Cole has written the definitive work on the American research university. A monumental achievement, The Great American University explores the complex historical and cultural reasons for the international preeminence of American higher education, documents the profound contributions American research universities have made, and continue to make, to our nation and to the world, and identifies and analyzes the dangers that now threaten to undermine one of the strongest pillars of American excellence.”
Jeffrey D. Sachs, professor, Columbia University; director, the Earth Institute
“Jonathan Cole has produced a masterpiece, a modern classic. This is at once a scintillating biography of the great American university, a powerful diagnosis of its major challenges today, and an invaluable guide for a robust future of this unique, world-changing institution. This is sociological inquiry, technological history, and social philosophy at its most powerful, a penetrating study of how America’s research universities have been shaped by and have shaped American society. Cole’s study will be avidly read in all parts of the world, as societies attempt to emulate and adapt the strengths of America’s research universities to the challenges of building knowledge-based economies and democratic societies of the twenty-first century.”
Henry Louis Gates, Jr., professor, Harvard University
“I can think of no one better than Jonathan Cole to lead the crucial discussion on the role of the American university as the preeminent seat of intellectual and technological innovation. In the face of alarming trends in legislation and government intervention, he offers a precise and extremely well written prescription for how the American university can once again prevail.”
Cori Bargmann, professor, the Rockefeller University; member of the National Academy of Science
“A passionate and intelligent defense of the university’s role in creating knowledge, not just disseminating it. Every university has its own story; this book steps back to tell the history of American universities as a whole. Cole describes the logic, people, and context that drove the universities to pair teaching with research and discovery. He provides an irresistible tour of advances in science and culture that grew in the universities, from artificial hips to Google to eyewitness unreliability, and a clear-eyed view of their failings, from red scares to groupthink. Cole is a compelling advocate, and his book is a resource for academics, students, and all friends of the university.”
Vartan Gregorian, president, Carnegie Corporation of New York; former president, Brown University
“The story of American universities has been one of great success. Now, at a time when American higher education in general—and American public higher education in particular—is in crisis, Jonathan Cole’s The Great American University is a timely analysis of higher education’s current problems and prospects. I hope that policymakers will heed the author’s cogent arguments about the centrality of American universities in the panoply of our national life, as well as their vital contribution to the economic, political, and social advancement of the United States.”
“Cole has amassed extensive information to make a convincing case. Highly recommended, particularly for those interested in American history, social institutions, and public policy, as well as those working in higher education.”
New York Times Book Review
“As provost of Columbia University for 14 years and a professor of sociology and dean of faculties before that, Jonathan R. Cole is an excellent position to write about the rise of the American research university and its special contribution to American life. In “The Great American University,” he makes a case for the extraordinary role such institutions play in improving our daily lives. He also argues that these ‘jewels in our nation’s crown face a host of serious threats.’”
Dallas Morning News
“This is a work that should be read and studied by college faculties, administrators, regents and trustees, legislators and particularly large monetary donors to today's colleges and universities…The Great American University is one of the most important books on higher education to be written in the past several decades.”
Prism Magazine, April 2010
“[Cole’s] argument is a persuasive one, and he presents his material clearly and incisively, keeping readers engaged throughout these 600-plus pages. Even those within the system will find new and thought-provoking material on the university’s importance to economic, social, and national advancement.”
Top customer reviews
He tilts left (as a New York academic sociologist would be expected to) but he is free of the extremes of political correctness. His take on the nature and importance of our major research universities is very predictable. That is not a criticism, but an observation that his views speak for the views of many. Hence, the book is extremely `representative' though few would be able to write it.
His audience is a large one--those individuals interested in our top research universities and their pivotal role in our society, the threats that challenge them, the opportunities that await them, the accomplishments that are a proper source of our collective pride in them.
The book `feels' different than that, however. It feels like a (highly-informed) lobbyist's document, in its thrusts, its tone and its emphases (though not, of course, in its length). Cole spends over 80 pp. decrying the threats to research universities posed by the (George W.) Bush administration and expresses hope concerning the Obama administration. He also expresses disappointment that President Obama has continued many of the policies of President Bush. It is not fawning or worshipful with regard to President Obama, but it is hortatory, the voice of one who would be sympathetic, quietly urging government benevolence with regard to the funding of the institutions which the author represents.
These institutions represent, of course, a very small (though very important) subset of American higher education. The fact that the Bush administration is perceived to have pressed a political orientation on the recipients of Title VI Area Studies grants, e.g., will not be of great concern to the thousands of institutions which have not received such grants. Similarly, the growing disparity between Harvard's endowment and the endowments of other once-more-financially-comparable institutions like Chicago will not make those at small liberal arts colleges and regional publics lose a great deal of sleep. That is not to say that those issues are unimportant, but one must reinforce the fact that Cole's book and many like it speak to the concerns of a small number of institutions (though these institutions have a disproportionate impact on our country).
The section on the American research universities' rise to preeminence is the strongest, by a wide margin. Hence, the book has great value for reference purposes. The section on research universities' discoveries and accomplishments is very interesting and readable, though far stronger on engineering and the physical and life sciences than on the social sciences. The section on the humanities is perfunctory and provincial. His examples of great accomplishments in literary studies, for example, now seem quaint (Lionel Trilling is mentioned prominently) and Edward Said comes in for a great deal of praise (though no criticism, with the acknowledgment in the appendix material that Said was one of Cole's close friends). There is almost nothing on the research achievements of historians; this is very curious, considering the fact that Columbia has traditionally had one of the truly great programs in that field.
The policy section (urging the acceptance of some practices, the jettisoning of others) is very interesting, but it is not likely to be of much use. Like most academic policy statements (and strategic planning documents) it offers hundreds of recommendations. That is all well and good, but such documents are generally met with smiles of recognition, sprinkles of holy water, polite bows and a quick return to the status quo. Major policy initiatives should be few in number, high in importance and pressed with rigor.
He does not exempt the universities themselves from criticism (this is much more than a `give us more' document), but his focus is basically on graduate education and big science and not undergraduate education. He says very little, for example, about the erosion of general education. General education is foundational and it was once very linguistic and literary, involving as it did the study of the classics, foreign languages, philosophy and English and American literature. The sometime focus on language in British institutions, e.g., has long given them a `cultural' advantage (Why can't our presidents speak like their prime ministers?) and there is no question that our country prizes literacy and articulate speech, sometimes to the exclusion of what is actually being said (or not said). This has now all changed within our universities and carries deep and important consequences. Since Columbia has long been distinguished from some of its Ivy peers for its adherence to traditional standards in this regard (in its undergraduate focus on specific texts, e.g.), I was surprised to see little or no attention given to this fact.
Cole notes the erosion of elementary and particularly secondary education in America, but has little to say about the erosion of undergraduate education and its consequences. He hovers above, focusing on great schools, great accomplishments and great challenges. The next book that I am reading is Bill Readings' The University in Ruins. There is little talk of `ruins' in Cole's book. Thus, despite its deep erudition and wide frame of reference it sounds a bit like the work of a lobbyist rather than a historian or analyst. It is not without its criticisms but they are subordinated to larger issues.
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