Higher Expectations: Can Colleges Teach Students What They Need to Know in the 21st Century?
by Derek Bok
Princeton University Press, 2020, $29.95; 232 pages.
WISDOM COMES from experience, and Derek Bok has a lot of wisdom to share in his new book, Higher Expectations. In his more than 60 years at Harvard University, Bok was a law professor, dean, and then for two decades president of the university, before returning 15 years later for a brief stint as interim president. From his long-term perch in the upper reaches of higher education, he has witnessed dramatic changes in what universities teach as well as how they teach it. Bok played a leading role in trying to shape those changes, with what he acknowledges was mixed success. Higher Expectations provides a brief history of Americans' evolving views on higher education and its purposes, including his own part in that history. Bok then pivots to what those purposes should be going forward. He provides a balanced consideration of competing arguments, and ultimately makes the case that universities should focus on educating citizens who have a global perspective, behave ethically, have inner purpose and self-control, and can effectively relate to others. He asks the reader to "imagine an America in which much larger numbers of college graduates" could "collaborate effectively with others," "meet their commitments conscientiously," and "interact easily and harmoniously" with people from different backgrounds. "Suppose further," he continues, "that larger percentages of college graduates voted regularly in elections, participated in cooperative efforts to improve their communities," and possessed "stronger ethical principles, greater empathy for the problems of others, and a clearer sense of the purpose and values to guide their lives."
Bok concedes that this agenda is ambitious, but he believes "it is not mere fantasy," in part because "neuroscientists and psychologists have even found that some of these qualities develop most during the years of early adulthood, when the majority of undergraduates go to college."
Bok approvingly describes the shift from the classical...