Book review: 'The Great American University,' by Jonathan R. Cole

Sunday, February 14, 2010


Its Rise to Preeminence, Its Indispensable National Role, Why It Must Be Protected

By Jonathan R. Cole. PublicAffairs. 616 pp. $35

Our high schools may be hurting, but the best U.S. universities -- the Ivies, Johns Hopkins, Stanford, the select state universities (Virginia, California at Berkeley, Michigan and others) -- are the envy of the world. In his new book, Jonathan R. Cole, a former provost and dean of faculties at Columbia, shows how our research universities in particular came to be what they are.

In the 19th century, he notes, American universities came of age by looking toward two European role models: the Germans, with their emphasis on advanced research that could be disseminated to students in seminars and laboratories; and the British, who emphasized learning in small groups or tutorial sessions. But it was the German model, emphasizing research rather than undergraduate education, that came to dominate here, originally at Johns Hopkins. Other institutions resisted the Hopkins example at first -- a president of Harvard said it would suit his freshmen "about as well as a barnyard would suit a whale" -- but momentum seemed to be with the new approach, especially after what Cole calls "the giants of American capitalism" started making large grants to subsidize research.

The French system had relatively little influence on the American way of higher education, and Cole wonders why, even today, French universities aren't better. Among other problems, he points to an entrenched elitism at the grandes ├ęcoles, which educate so many French leaders of tomorrow, including top government officials. "The children of current elites," Cole writes, "are far more likely to gain admission to these prestigious schools than those with lower social class origins." Another drawback identified by Cole is a systemwide rigidity: "There is little flexibility . . . to allow young people to move from one interest to another; the classification of individuals tends to take place early on, and it becomes cumbersome, if not virtually impossible, for young people to alter their career choices after a certain age." This early type-casting is particularly hard on French women who might gravitate to science and math: According to Cole, females "are more likely than men to discover their interest and talent in these areas only after they have entered college."

Cole's prescriptions for improving American higher education include a push for more emphasis on the humanities. "The discrepancy between the growth of federal investments in the sciences and the humanities is appalling," he writes toward the end of the book. "The humanities are essential to our understanding of other languages and cultures, of the values we hold, and of the moral arguments we make. In a world that increasingly depends on such knowledge for both our economic welfare . . . and our national security, the absence of significant programs to improve our grasp of it represents nothing short of a national disaster."

-- Dennis Drabelle

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