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ON THE SHELFRevered, Yet Fragile

Survival of competitive U.S. higher education is not a sure thing.

The Great American University:
Its Rise to Preeminence, Its
Indispensable National Role, Why It
Must Be Protected

by Jonathan R. Cole. Public Affairs
2010, 616 pages

Author Jonathan Cole introduces his book by recounting a visit by a group of distinguished alumni to Columbia University, where Cole was provost for nearly 20 years. There to discuss the quality of the school, the visitors posed intelligent questions about Columbia's curriculum and teaching; yet none asked about research. The knowledge most Americans have of higher education, Cole realized, is limited to their own college experience - or that of their children. "There is little sense, even among well-educated segments of the population, of how the transmission of knowledge and its creation are interwoven and highly compatible. Nor is there any clear understanding of how these universities have helped shape American society."

Cole hopes to change some of that with The Great American University: Its Rise to Preeminence, Its Indispensable National Role, Why It Must Be Protected - the title of which neatly summarizes the book's focus and general divisions. The research Cole examines is notably that conducted at America's "top tier" institutions, 87 of which are responsible for 60 percent of the doctoral degrees earned in the United States. Though they represent a tiny portion of approximately 4,300 U.S. institutions of higher learning, this select group of schools has had an enormous impact upon education and American society, says Cole: "It is the quality of the research produced, and the system that invests in it and trains young people to be leading scientists and scholars, that distinguishes them and makes them the envy of the world."

In Part I, Cole explains how it came to be that 17 of the top 20 research universities in the world are located in the United States. He traces the origins and development of American post-secondary schools, ranging from late-19th-century "scientism" - an ideological faith in scientific progress - to the establishment of land-grant colleges and the earliest efforts to impose standards, accreditation, and peer review.

Part II is intended to inspire a renewed sense of awe in a society "whose high-school textbooks devote more space to Madonna than to Watson and Crick." It offers an overview of university inventions that have contributed to the greatest advances of the past century - "Buckyballs, Barcodes, and the GPS: Our Origins, Our Planet, Our Security and Safety," as Chapter Nine states it. Unfortunately, this cataloging of achievements makes for the book's least compelling discussion. Much more gripping is the final part, which debates universities' future challenges.

Though Cole dismisses the perceived menace of global competition - which he believes will foster greater U.S. achievement - he identifies a host of other threats to the continued good health of the American university. These include long-term effects of the current financial crisis and ongoing funding problems, the paucity of advocates at state and local levels, as well as anti-intellectual movements and what he sees as a general devaluation of higher education and research.

Most troubling to him are attempts to limit intellectual freedom - whether from within or without the university. The George W. Bush administration comes under fierce criticism for its attempts to obstruct scientists who disagreed with its views. Yet while Cole applauds President Obama's commitment to the integrity of scientific results, he believes more safeguards need to be put into place: easing FBI investigations of scientists working on biotoxins, for example, which have severely curtailed interest - and advances - in certain areas of research.

While it currently outstrips all others in the world, the American university system is a fragile entity, Cole writes, one that could be dismantled through neglect and misguided policies. His argument is a persuasive one, and he presents his material clearly and incisively, keeping readers engaged throughout these 600-plus pages. Even those within the system will find new and thought-provoking material on the university's importance to economic, social, and national advancement.

Robin Tatu is a senior editor of Prism.




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