It is not that I have finally finished reading Our Underachiveing Colleges by Derek Bok, it is just that it has taken me this long to actually sit down and finish my review. All the buzz in the air at this time of the year about education, it is understandable that people are talking about the need to reform education, and Bok's book may be the best place for everyone to start, whether citizen or politician, whether your interest lies in k-12 education or higher education. While Bok focuses on higher education, the questions he presents are just as applicable in elementary and secondary education.
Among all calls for college exit exams and accusations of political bias, it is easy to forget to ask the basis questions. Unlike many books that criticize higher education as too politically correct, bastion of left-wing liberalism or having a curriculum that is out of touch with the needs of modern America, Bok takes to task the system which focuses too much on process and not enough of purpose. That is the thrust of Bok's book, what is the purpose of a college education? What should be the main themes of a college education, no matter what your major might be? Bok believes that most university officials and faculty, who are responsible for the provision and administration of curricula and policies, simply spend too much time reacting to various pressures, market, social, political and personal, that they fail to understand and account for the potential impact of their educational decisions. Too many of the decisions, Bok argues, are made from a standpoint of turf wars among faculty and not enough oversight and supervision by the administration to make the education experience a valuable one for students.
Bok asks the simple question, what should a college education provide? Bok answers with some fairly simple and straightforward answers, some we expect and some you might not. For example, of course critical thinking, writing and speaking skills make it on the list. Other goals, such as civic responsibility and preparing for a career might not surprise people. Bok also suggests, contrary to the relativist ethics currently espoused by many university settings, that character education, a favorite of conservatives should also be a goal of a university education. But fear not, liberals would also be happy to see sections on living with diversity and preparing for a global society also make the list.
In each of these sections, Bok takes us through what he believes should be taught, all based on a solid logic, and then proceeds to chastise the entire higher education establishment at one time or another for failing to achieve those goals or outright opposing the goal. From petty disputes over what should be taught in general education courses, to the dominance of faculty departments over the requirements for a major, Bok says that lack of an integrated thought about the purposes of a college education short-changes the consumer of education--the student and ultimately the employers and society that those students join upon graduation.
However, the significance of Bok's book does not start upon matriculation in college, but has proper application to the debate over reforming k-12 education. I have been just as guilty in the past of leaping in to the fray of reforming K-12 education without stepping back and looking first at what we are trying to accomplish? Some of the same goals Bok lays our for a college education also apply to K-12 education as well, namely, what are we trying to accomplish with elementary and secondary education? Certainly, skills such as reading, writing, and math skills are important. But what else should be looking to achieve? That is why things like character education--which Bok describes not as teaching a particular moral code, but asking students to examine moral questions, learning how to analyze the moral implications of particular actions and developing framework for addressing moral questions--are a questions to be asked.
Too often decision made about education occur in a vacuum, looking at dollars and cents, labor, curricula and other matters in a very narrow view. Bok reminds us that the education establishment and others involved in education need to look first at the purpose behind education and ask the hard question--what are we trying to achieve? Without an answer to that question, you can't begin the process of making education relevant, no matter what level concerns you most.
Other books I have read and reviewed