Peter Brooks, Our Universities: How Bad? How Good? NYRB

In the March 24, 2011 issue of the New York Review of Books, literary scholar Peter Brooks reviewed four widely read books on higher education in an article titled “Our Universities: How Bad? How Good?” The books were Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa,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,Crisis on Campus: A Bold Plan for Reforming Our Colleges and Universities by Mark C. Taylor, and Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities by Martha C. Nussbaum.

Among other points, Brooks notes that (1) few of these critiques are new; (2) lots has been done over the decades, some with great effect, some not; (3) the education crisis is partly a surrogate for other crises in American society; (4) much of the allegedly at-least-semi-scientific criticism of higher education routinely fails to recognize the uniquely broad variety among American institutions of higher education; and (5) some of the criticism of higher education is misplaced, some disingenuously ideological, and some just “short on reasoned analysis and long on animus.” Two brief quotes:

“If crisis there is, it surely has something to do with the larger crisis in American society: the increasing gap between haves and have-nots, the retreat from any commitment to economic fairness, the sense that the system is rigged to benefit a tarnished elite that no longer justifies its existence.” 

“The result, I think, is a fair measure of bafflement and ressentiment, resulting in a kind of indiscriminate flailing about in criticism of the university, some of it justified, much of it misdirected, and some pernicious.”

Author: Dan Ryan

I'm currently an Academic Program Director at I've been a professor at University of Toronto, University of Southern California, and Mills College teaching things like human centered design, computational thinking, modeling for policy sciences, and social theory. I'm driven by the desire to figure out how to teach twice as many twice as well twice as easily.

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