3 Books on Higher Ed

And some other books to consider.

September 1, 2014

What books have you been reading to help you understand (and hopefully improve) higher education?  

What books would you recommend? 

My frame for my summer higher ed reading has been pretty narrow.  I’m reading from the standpoint of a learning and technology person; as someone who believes that new technologies, new teaching methods, and enhanced faculty support can improve learning.  

I also approach all these books with a deep belief in the efficacy of the liberal arts model.  A model that emphasizes small classes, a scholar-educator model of faculty mentors, and a focus on developing critical thinking skills.   

The questions that I’m trying to puzzle out have to do with the role of technology is bolstering the liberal arts system of teaching and learning.   

Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life by William Deresiewicz 

The problem I have with Excellent Sheep is not so much Deresiewicz’s conclusions, but his tone.  He tends to come across as believing that his critique of elite higher education is entirely original.  As if anyone who works at a selective institution is wholly committed to maintaing the status quo. 

Nor is Deresiewicz’s portrayal of students one that I recognize.  These curious, passionate, and questioning bunch are about as far away from “sheep” as I could imagine.  

This is not to say that many of the critiques that Deresiewicz offers are without merit.  He brings up issues of student learning, campus culture, and the role of higher education in a rapidly changing society that are subjects of vibrant and informed debate on every campus that I visit.  It is precisely because we are having the discussions on the issues that Deresiewicz surfaces that I think Excellent Sheep will and should be read and discussed on your campus.  

As for technology, Deresiewicz is relatively silent, save for his derision for MOOCs.  His treatment of open online education only reveals how few conversations he has had with the folks teaching, developing, and facilitating MOOCs.  Had he bothered to speak with us, Deresiewicz may have found that we share his goals that colleges and universities focus on learning the and learner, and that we see our MOOC experiments and efforts as part of a larger effort to re-think and invest in teaching and learning.  Nor does Deresiewicz comment on the robust discussions about teaching and learning that we are witnessing across academe.  Discussions that have at least in part been catalyzed by the MOOC experiments and the growth of blended and online learning courses and programs.

Higher Education in America by Derek Bok

Bok’s Higher Education in America should probably be required reading for all us working in higher education.  The book’s very completeness, its success in covering all the major issues and challenges facing higher education in a single volume, makes this book an indispensable addition to any higher ed library.  

Truth be told, however, it is the very completeness of Bok’s book (coming in at a hefty 496 pages) that kept it on unread on my Kindle.  It was not until Higher Education in America was finally published as an audiobook, allowing me to go back and forth between the text that the audio, that I finally immersed myself in Bok’s thinking.  You should have no such hesitation.  Higher Education in America is fully worth time investment that it demands.  

Bok does an admirable job of outlining the current structure and organizational makeup of the American university.  Fortunately, he goes well beyond this descriptive critique to offer a range of sound and well-informed recommendations for improvement.  The strongest chapters in Higher Education in America, perhaps not surprisingly given the national leadership role of Harvard’s Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, are the chapters on teaching and learning.  

Bok makes a strong case for investing in faculty supports and incentives, as well as institutional structures, that are designed to improve student learning.  These efforts will involve finding ways to transition introductory and larger enrollment courses to a teaching model that is more collaborative and active, one that resembles a seminar more than a traditional lecture.  Bok is sanguine on the potential for research informed instructional methods to evolve teaching practices and improve student learning, while also mindful of the costs and the cultural and organizational challenges in making these transitions.  

Higher Education in America should be part of the required reading list for any newly minted PhD who hopes to make a career (as faculty or on the alt-ac track) in academy.  My only quibble is that I wish Bok has spent some time discussing the changing role of higher ed staff.  We are as invisible in this book as we are in much of the larger discussion of higher ed change (save in our assumed culpability as cost-drivers), an oversight made all the more unfortunate as so many of us spend our days working towards the reforms that Bok recommends.

Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters by Michael S. Roth

I have very little doubt that any professor teaching in the humanities, or any grad student toiling away in hopes of joining the various humanities guilds, will appreciate Roth’s fine book. Show me a college president or English professor who takes issue with Roth’s core assertions in Why Liberal Eduction Matters, and I will show you my pet unicorn.  

The campus people who I really want to convince to pickup (download) Beyond the University are the CIOs and the business school professors.  The CIOs (and all us lesser academic technology folks) should read Roth’s book so we can better know why we are really on campus.  If we are not actively participating in extending and advancing the liberal arts model of teaching and learning (regardless of what type of institution we work), then we are not really doing our jobs.  

The business professors should read this book to the extent that they are interested in participating in discussions of how U.S. colleges need to evolve and change to stay relevant in an increasingly globalized, stratified, and knowledge-driven market for our graduates. 

In Beyond the University we learn that the debates on the value of a liberal education are not new (in fact they have roots in our earliest institutions of higher learning).  We also learn that a liberal arts education, one that stresses critical thinking and the ability to clearly articulate arguments and synthesize large bodies of knowledge, has never been more valuable.  

As the president of Wesleyan University (my wife’s undergraduate alma mater), Roth knows better than most the cost and competitive pressures faced by higher ed.  His robust and historically grounded defense of a liberal arts education can be read as a roadmap for colleges and universities as they look to evolve their structures, cultures, and offerings in the years to come.

Have you read (or do you plan to read) any of these books?

What other higher ed books would you suggest?

Below is a list of books that have helped shaped my thinking on learning, technology, and higher ed change:

The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University by Louis Menand 

Menand’s fine (and short) book is a must-read for anyone wishing to understand the current predicament, and prospects for change, of post-secondary education.  As beautifully written as it is closely-argued, Menand’s The Marketplace of Ideas should be on the shelf of every faculty member, administrator, and graduate student preparing to enter the industry.

Abelard to Apple: The Fate of American Colleges and Universities by Richard A. DeMillo

Reading this fine book by Richard DeMilio, director of the Georgia Tech Center for 21st Century Universities, will help you both understand why colleges can be so slow to evolve as well as the risks of standing still.  A must read for anyone working at any institution that is struggling to stay relevant (which is all of us) in the midst of powerful economic, social, technological and demographic forces that make existing postsecondary practices seem increasingly antiquated.

How Universities Work by John V. Lombardi

This (concise) book should be passed out to all new faculty and non-faculty hires.  Forget the new employee orientation.  Lombardi’s book will provide a much better return on your time than whatever else you could be doing in the few hours it takes to read How Universities Work.

Higher Education in the Digital Age by William G. Bowen

Bowen does two important things in this book.  He elucidates why college has gotten so much more expensive. (And Bowen is of course well qualified for this task, being both a Princeton president and co-author of the idea of the cost disease).  Secondly, Bowen explores how we might bend the higher ed cost curve while achieving better student learning through ajudicious and careful embrace of digitally-enabled teaching methods.

College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be by Andrew Delbanco 

Both an inspiration and excellent companion piece to Michael Roth’s book, Deblanco offers a passionate defense of the liberal arts model of learning and a caution of what happens when market and political forces coalesce restrict this college experience to a privileged few.  

College Unbound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students by Jeffrey J. Selingo

This is one of the books that I recommended my older daughter should read before she decides where to apply to college (she is a rising HS senior).  My hope is that wherever she goes next fall that she has the insight and knowledge to ask more from her school and from her professors.  Selingo does an excellent job demonstrating why the college experience often fails to live up to its potential, how a range of powerful forces hold change back, and what the best colleges and universities are currently doing to improve the value that they offer to their students.

Why Does College Cost So Much? by Robert B. Archibald and David H. Feldman

Archibald’s and Feldman’s main point is that college cost so much because every in-person service delivered by highly skilled people (from dentistry to legal advice) has also become much more expensive.  Higher ed is expensive because it takes highly trained people to create and deliver higher ed.  The argument is of course more nuanced than this, but reading this book made me a bit less upset about the dollars for tuition that I’ll be shelling out as a parent between 2015 and 2021 (two girls).

Higher Education?: How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids---and What We Can Do About It by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus
Keep your friends close and your critics closer.  Every campus should invite Hacker and Dreifus to come speak.  We may disagree with much of what they say, but they will make us think.

The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out by Clayton M. Christensen and Henry J. Eyring

Many who read this book (including me) have been critical of the idea that the innovators dilemma frame quite fits the world of higher ed.  We may find that the recipe for change suggested by Christensen and Eyring is not quite right for our campus, but in debating the recommendations presented in the book we may come up with ideas more suited for our own institutional contexts.

The Idea of the Digital University: Ancient Traditions, Disruptive Technologies and the Battle for the Soul of Higher Education by Frank Bryce McCluskey and Melanie Lynn Winter

The big surprise of The Idea of the Digital University is that the authors are not cheerleaders for a future of digital universities.  Rather, McCluskey and Winter offer a set of cogent and incremental suggestions for how traditional institutions of higher learning can evolve to meet the changing needs of a new generation of students.  

What books would you recommend to add to this library?


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