Education: the big picture … new books

Whatever particular field of education with which we engage, every now and then we want to step back and look at the big picture. What’s going on overall, and who is providing the best overview of current trends and issues? The journals help, of course, as most include reviews of the latest offerings, but sometimes that just isn’t enough.

One avenue of pursuit that I particularly enjoy is the reviews of groups of books provided by some of the major magazines. Two I’d like to mention are (not surprisingly?!) the New York Review of Books (NYRB) and the Los Angeles Review of Books. Each provides an engaging and scholarly review of new  titles, usually grouped to reveal a theme or trend that’s emerged in the educational landscape.

The New York Review of Books recently published a review by Anthony Grafton of no less than eight titles, under the heading of ‘Our Universities: Why Are They Failing?’. That clearly gives away the theme, the list comprising:

The Faculty Lounges: And Other Reasons Why You Won’t Get The College Education You Paid For

The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters

The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton

Unmaking the Public University: The Forty-Year Assault on the Middle Class

Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America’s Public Universities

Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses

Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life

Saving State U: Why We Must Fix Public Higher Education

To save you reading the combined 2713 pages of the above, peruse the 4000 words of the review. You’ll get the essential picture: every university has its ‘festering sores’; books by the ‘Jeremiads’ are ‘fun to read but ultimately unhelpful’; serious scholars are able to ‘excavate a world of ugly facts and unsatisfactory practices that has the gritty look and feel of reality—a reality that has little to do with the glossy hype of world university ratings’; ‘no one sees classroom learning as a primary pursuit’; and ‘the dark hordes of forgotten students who leave the university as Napoleon’s army left Russia, uninspired by their courses, wounded in many cases by what they experience as their own failures, weighed down by their debts, need to be seen and heard.’

‘But that’s just the US!’, I hear you protest. OK, then also read ‘The Grim Threat to British Universities’, also in the NYRB.

Over to the Los Angeles Review of Books. There we find Steven Brint’s review, ‘The Education Lottery’, on ‘the four kinds of heretics attacking the gospel of education’. Here the writer deals with only (?!) four seemingly unrelated titles:


What Is Education?

Class Dismissed: Why We Cannot Teach or Learn Our Way Out of Inequality

In the Basement of the Ivory Tower: Confessions of an Accidental Academic

Yes, the last in the list is written under a nom de guerre, Professor X, and apparently he writes well (not surprising, as he apparently teaches English composition). Essentially, as an adjunct instructor ‘toiling in the bottom reaches of academe’, he is ‘scandalized that his students are going deeply in debt for an education that is not particularly useful to them, and from which many will not emerge with degree in hand.’

Again, the review paints a none-too-positive picture. It’s good stuff, though, and I found it more instructive than the other (though both are well constructed and reasoned). It also contains one non-US contribution in the list.

Essentially, the review weaves around the array of criticisms of the four gospels of US higher education:

  1. access to higher levels of education should be available to everyone;
  2. opportunity for a better life is the goal of everyone and that education is the primary road to opportunity;
  3. the country can solve its social problems by providing more education to the poor; and
  4. higher levels of education for all will reduce social inequalities.

The four books under review provide examples of the differing conceptual lenses that are brought to bear in criticising the US system of higher education. And Brint ends on a relatively positive note, asserting that ‘we will need to turn our backs on assumptions of our most fervent boosters of universal higher education: that access alone is the primary purpose, and that when students and teachers are co-present, education occurs. The challenge will be to reweave the uneven and tattered undergraduate experience in more durable and vivid patterns.’

So, that’s it, a review of the reviews. But of course it’s not enough – take the time to read and contemplate the ideas in full, and use the reviews as springboards to further reading, even if it’s only the machinations of Professor X. And make the comparisons with your own country and context.

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