‘Higher Expectations’

Can colleges teach students what they need to know in the 21st century? Derek Bok offers an answer.

August 19, 2020
 

"Imagine an America in which much larger numbers of college graduates could analyze problems successfully; adapt readily to changing conditions and new challenges; collaborate effectively with others in producing creative solutions to novel problems; meet their commitments conscientiously; and interact easily and harmoniously with others from different races, socioeconomic backgrounds and cultures. Suppose further that larger percentages of college graduates voted regularly in elections, participated in cooperative efforts to improve their communities and welcomed opportunities to join with others to address needs and solve problems, either local, national or global through public service, political activity or membership in nonprofit citizen organizations."

That is the beginning of the ninth chapter of a new book by Derek Bok (left), Higher Expectations: Can Colleges Teach Students What They Need to Know in the 21st Century? (Princeton University Press). Bok was president of Harvard University from 1971 to 1991 and then again in 2006-07 (between Lawrence H. Summers and Drew Gilpin Faust). This is his seventh book on higher education, and it appears in Bok's 90th year.

Bok writes that his vision is "optimistic," but not "mere fantasy."

To get there, he advocates many specific policies. Among them is Liberal Education and America's Promise, a set of policies from of the Association of American Colleges & Universities that advocates for identifying essential learning outcomes, high-impact practices such as first-year programs and intensive writing, and "authentic assessments." He notes that AAC&U found "an unanticipated amount of agreement" that students need "a number of capabilities that have long been central to a liberal education, such as critical thinking, written and oral communication, and ethical judgment." CEOs value these skills, not just explicit career preparation, he writes.

In the introduction to the book, Bok notes that it was written in the months prior the COVID-19 pandemic. And there are multiple options for how colleges will respond to the coronavirus. Colleges "may be forced for a time to set aside" all education reforms "to cope with the financial consequences" of the pandemic. But he expresses hope that "the consequences of living through such a calamity may foster a greater interest in the nurturing qualities such as resilience, empathy, creativity and teamwork."

Bok responded to questions about his book via email.

Q: Your book discusses the importance of civic education but also notes that students (and some colleges) hate requirements. Why is civic education important? Should colleges require it?

A: A course can and should be required when the need for the knowledge and competencies being taught is reasonably compelling and it is evident that many students will not acquire them unless they are required to do so. These criteria are both satisfied by an introductory course on American government and politics. It is widely agreed that an informed and engaged citizenry is important, many would say essential, in order for democracy to flourish or even survive. There is also abundant evidence from national assessments of civic knowledge and from studies of the attitudes and behavior of college-age adults that large numbers of students are neither very knowledgeable nor convinced that government and politics are worth much of their time and attention. Thus, there is adequate reason to require undergraduates (at least, American undergraduates) to take a course such I have described. Of course, it is important, as it is for all required courses, that the material be taught sufficiently well to evoke student interest.

Q: You note the difficulties colleges face with international studies. Yet many colleges this year are likely to have fewer international students and few students are likely to study abroad. What should colleges do to promote international thinking by their students?

A: Colleges can “promote international thinking” by offering students a choice among the variety of approaches to this vast field of knowledge and, where possible, by connecting the material to issues and subjects that students consider important. As for foreign students and study abroad, both should return to colleges long before today’s freshmen graduate.

Q: Your book notes that character education is a tough subject for colleges. Almost all would agree that plagiarism is wrong, but colleges have difficulty agreeing on which character traits to try to teach, or even if they can be taught. What is a college to do?

A: Colleges should try to teach students to think carefully about moral principles and their application in real life, and try to help them to develop the empathy to want to act decently toward others, and the conscientiousness to live up to their commitments. There are a great many things that a college can do to try to help students develop in these ways. I don’t know how to summarize them more succinctly than I have in the conclusion to my chapter on character. [Editor's note: In that conclusion, Bok writes, "Character is surely one of the most important qualities for a college to nurture, since it not only affects the well-being of the students and the respect they receive from others but also has beneficial effects on everyone with whom students interact … At the same time, efforts of this kind must surely rank among the most difficult tasks that a college can undertake, since they require the commitment and cooperation of the entire faculty and staff."]

Q: You suggest that professors should incorporate meditation and positive psychology into their teaching. How?

A: Meditation and positive psychology are intriguing because there is some evidence that both can help students develop a number of the skills and qualities of mind that I discuss and that can enrich their lives after they graduate. But these results are still tentative and in need of further experimentation and careful evaluation before we can be reasonably confident of their effects and decide how they might be included in college teaching.

Q: Some will read your book and say, "That's fine for Harvard or elite colleges," but not most colleges. What would you say in response?

A: The goals and forms of learning described in my book are all included in the “essential learning outcomes” of the AAC&U’s proposal following extensive consultation and involvement of many scores of faculty members and academic leaders from colleges of all kinds, few of which were selective, elite institutions. Moreover, most of them involve qualities of mind and behavior that will be of great value to the lives of all graduates and to the employers who hire them.

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