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Our Underachieving Colleges:
A Candid Look at How Much Students Learn and Why They Should Be Learning More
New Edition
Derek Bok
With a new afterword by the author

Winner of the 2008 Frederic W. Ness Book Award

Paperback | 2008 | $37.50 | £31.95 | ISBN: 9780691136189
440 pp. | 6 x 9 1/4
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eBook | ISBN: 9781400831333 |
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Drawing on a large body of empirical evidence, former Harvard President Derek Bok examines how much progress college students actually make toward widely accepted goals of undergraduate education. His conclusions are sobering. Although most students make gains in many important respects, they improve much less than they should in such important areas as writing, critical thinking, quantitative skills, and moral reasoning. Large majorities of college seniors do not feel that they have made substantial progress in speaking a foreign language, acquiring cultural and aesthetic interests, or learning what they need to know to become active and informed citizens. Overall, despite their vastly increased resources, more powerful technology, and hundreds of new courses, colleges cannot be confident that students are learning more than they did fifty years ago.

Looking further, Bok finds that many important college courses are left to the least experienced teachers and that most professors continue to teach in ways that have proven to be less effective than other available methods. In reviewing their educational programs, however, faculties typically ignore this evidence. Instead, they spend most of their time discussing what courses to require, although the lasting impact of college will almost certainly depend much more on how the courses are taught.

In his final chapter, Bok describes the changes that faculties and academic leaders can make to help students accomplish more. Without ignoring the contributions that America's colleges have made, Bok delivers a powerful critique--one that educators will ignore at their peril.


"In the Bok view, American colleges and universities are victims of their own success: they answer to so many constituencies and are expected to serve so many ends that no one can agree on even a few common goals, and in the meantime they have grown complacent."--Charles McGrath, The New York Times

"Derek Bok paints a picture of colleges that, if not dysfunctional, are operating far below capacity. He questions the coherence and purpose of departmental majors, describes programs of study abroad as little more than recreational excursions, criticizes lecturers for their indifference to whether students learn anything, and, in general, hold faculty accountable for ignoring research about which teaching methods are most effective."--Andrew Delbanco, New York Review of Books

"Derek Bok makes a unique contribution by skillfully weaving his critique of campus and curriculum with an extensive review of the literature on student in a number of key areas, including writing instruction, critical thinking instruction, civic education, and diversity education. Rather than identify a narrowly defined culprit in the supposed decline of higher education, such as political correctness or neglect of the literary canon, Bok writes persuasively about the multiple aims of higher education and retains focus throughout on the question of how attention to each of these aims contributes to measurable increases in student learning. . . . This thoughtful critique of higher education will be accessible to a wide audience."--Publishers Weekly

"In Our Underachieving Colleges, Derek Bok argues forcefully that those of us within the academy can do a much better job of educating our undergraduates, widening their vistas, and preparing them to succeed in life."--Charles M. Vest, Boston Globe

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Table of Contents:

Acknowledgments vii
Introduction 1
CHAPTER 1: The Evolution of American Colleges 11
CHAPTER 2: Faculty Attitudes toward Undergraduate Education 31
CHAPTER 3: Purposes 58
CHAPTER 4: Learning to Communicate 82
CHAPTER 5: Learning to Think 109
CHAPTER 6: Building Character 146
CHAPTER 7: Preparation for Citizenship 172
CHAPTER 8: Living with Diversity 194
CHAPTER 9: Preparing for a Global Society 225
CHAPTER 10: Acquiring Broader Interests 255
CHAPTER 11: Preparing for a Career 281
CHAPTER 12: Improving the Quality of Undergraduate Education 310
Notes 345
Index 395

Other Princeton books authored or coauthored by Derek Bok:


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