December 27, 2011

Best Books of 2011

                 By John Leo

crazy_u.jpgWhat were the best books of the year on higher education? A panel of ten prominent people in the field, invited to vote by Minding the Campus, picked as their top two choices, "Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses" by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa; and "Crazy U: One Dad's Crash Course in Getting His Kid Into College" by Andrew Ferguson.

Both books take a largely negative view of today's colleges and universities. Arum and Roksa, both sociologists, take a straightforward approach to surveys and analysis of the limited learning on our campuses, while Ferguson, a senior editor at the Weekly Standard and a well-known conservative writer, is darkly humorous about the results of his consistently impressive reportage.

"Academically Adrift" was a top choice of 9 of the 10 voting members of the panel, all asked to name from one to five books... "Crazy U." was picked by six voters. Four books drew three votes: "In the Basement of the Ivory Tower: Confessions of an Accidental Academic" by Professor X; "The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters" by Benjamin Ginsberg; "The Faculty Lounges and Other Reasons Why You Won't Get the College Education You Pay For" by Naomi Schaefer Riley; and "The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out" by Clayton M. Christensen and Henry J. Eyring.

"Academically Adrift," which Richard Vedder called "devastating:" and "the most significant book on higher education written in recent years," tracks the academic gains (or non-gains) of 2,300 students at a range of four-year colleges and universities. The students took the Collegiate Learning Assessment (which is designed to measure gains in critical thinking, analytic reasoning and other "higher level" skills taught at college).

Among the results: 45 percent of students "did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning" during the first two years of college. A total of 36 percent "did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning" over four years of college. And those students who do show improvements tend to show only modest ones.

Ferguson's book is a brilliant ramble on college today. He writes that the admissions process "guaranteed that teenagers would pursue life with a single ulterior motive, while pretending they weren't. It coated their every undertaking in a thin lacquer of insincerity. Befriending people in hopes of a good rec letter; serving the community to advertise your big heart; studying hard just to puff up the GPA and climb the greasy poll of class rank--nothing was done for its own sake."

academically-adrift.jpgMember of the voting panel, were:

*Mark Bauerlein, Professor of English, Emory University

*Derek Bok, president emeritus, Harvard University

*Ronald G. Ehrenberg, director of the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute

*Gordon Gee, president, Ohio State University

*Jonathan Imber, professor of sociology at Wellesley and editor of Society magazine

*Alan Charles Kors, professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania

*Erin O'Connor, blogger on higher education (Critical Mass), and teacher of English at the University of Pennsylvania

*Daphne Patai, a professor in the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst

*Jane Shaw, president of the John William Pope Center for Education Policy

*Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars

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Published by the Manhattan Institute
The Manhattan Insitute's Center for the American University.