Best books about higher ed: 2011

Minding the Campus asked ten people to vote on that (I happened to be one). I picked Academically Adrift, and so did most of the others. I also gave props to Professor X’s In the Basement of the Ivory Tower: Confessions of an Accidental Academic, which I thought was a particularly good evocation of what it’s like to try to teach writing to grossly underprepared college students. The book was a bit stretchy (it began as an Atlantic article, and grew after contract), but I loved that it was a frank and ideologically uninfected memoir about academic life.

Most of the critiques we have of academia sidestep the personal like it’s a steaming pile. And — with the exception of the amazing Academically Adrift — that’s gotten to be a huge drag. We’ve had quite enough macro-arguments about what ails higher ed. They are for the most part repetitive, politicized, and polarized, and they have stalled the conversation in a way that aids the status quo and begs solutions. Higher ed is in crisis — but the conversation about it has become so incredibly boring that even people who care about it passionately find talking about it paralytically dull.

The second place finisher in Minding the Campus’ little poll, Andrew Ferguson’s Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course in Getting His Kid Into College, is, like Professor X’s book, a critique-by-memoir. I think–or perhaps I just hope–that we’ll see more of this sort of thing in the coming year. It humanizes the problem by telling a story; along the way, it makes facts and figures and argument feel far more personal than they do when authors, in good academic style, purge their presence from their work.

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One Comment

  1. Eveningsun says:

    I don’t plan to read Crazy U, but (prompted by your post) I just read an interview with the author and found it pretty depressing. I mean, is any of this news? Doesn’t everybody already understand that, yes, higher ed is an industry, and that, of all the things it sells, the one thing it does not and cannot sell is learning? A highly prestigious school offers a pleasant campus experience, a highly cashable diploma and recommendation letters and alumni network, and an opportunity to marry one into the elite. In all these ways that $50,000 tuition can be worth every penny.

    But students interested first and foremost in learning can find great learning opportunities pretty much anywhere, even at little Backwater State colleges like mine, where annual tuition-and-fees still comes to about $6,000 in-state. Thanks to the long-running paucity of academic jobs, even institutions like mine can hire really good faculty, dirt cheap. And students who show a real interest in learning get *lots* of personal attention from their teachers.

    The fact that Ferguson and his son went ahead and played the admissions game suggests that social status, not learning, was their top priority.

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