Going to college in America

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College: The Undergraduate Experience in America, by Ernest L. Boyer. New York: Harper & Row. 242 pp. $19.95 Last November, when Ernest Boyer released this study depicting the American college as a ``troubled institution'' - lacking in community and ``mission,'' driven by a commercial need to credential students rather than to educate them, and staffed by faculty ``torn'' between teaching and research duties - educators hailed it as a needed kick in the pants for higher education.

It is the most thorough look at undergraduate colleges ever taken. Dr. Boyer and his Carnegie Foundation staff spent 10,000 hours on campuses across the United States, conducting some 13,000 interviews with students, faculty, administrators, and parents. We get a close look inside the college: at everything from a model class discussion on Enlightenment topics, to a look at the condition of college libraries, to the fraternity whose members jack up spring formal tickets to cover the $15,000 cocaine bill. The 54 graphs and charts give us statistics, ranging from the number of classes with more than 100 students at a typical university to student attitudes about grades and politics.

But the book is equally valuable when it steps away from what's happening on campus to propose sweeping changes in the way colleges approach their task - most specifically, a four-year course in general education that would not just teach ``basics,'' but would ``integrate'' science, history, and English into an exploration of seven core themes: work, language, heritage, art, institutions, nature, and identity. Specific majors would also be ``enriched'' to include historical and ethical dimensions. A computer science major, for example, would study the history of technology and the social impact of the information revolution.

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Such proposals could help add meaning to a college experience; graduates would not simply be trained in a specific area, but educated - capable of broad and informed thinking. Hence, the Boyer study was seen as a way to set national higher education debate on a constructive footing; it would be a general workbook for college reformers.

This week, ``College'' is released to the general public. And perhaps it is parents and prospective students - not educators - who will benefit from it most. ``College'' may be the best book to read for the student preparing to get the the most out of his or her undergraduate experience. The student familiar with the range of issues raised in this book - from student housing to the artificial fragmentation of knowledge in college departments - will be better prepared to manuever once in school.

Such preparation, as the study shows, is sorely needed. Considering the cost of college and the effort involved, a staggering amount of ignorance, discontinuity, and waste attends the transition from high school (the subject of Boyer's last book) to college. Orientation in both places is sketchy - ``haphazard and confusing.'' (For example, 35 percent of entering freshman believe a good football team indicates a good academic college). Many students don't know their college options until junior year.

Boyer is only too aware of the struggle, felt by many students, between ideals and the need for marketable skills. He is also keenly aware of the divided and fractious culture students live in, and asks: ``Where should they put their faith in this uncertain age?''

Beside the gulf between school and college, the lack of a clear sense of ``mission,'' and faculty tension, Boyer lays four other problems on the table: Too much conformity in the classroom. A need to redefine how colleges are governed. The need to measure learning outcomes. And the gap between college and the larger world.

He also makes 84 recommendations for change - ranging from eliminating standardized achievement test scores as admissions criteria to requiring students to complete a service project.

But, at the deeper level, what ties the book together is Boyer's own vision about the role of colleges. The book is really an argument for the college as a virtuous community - a powerful, humane, and civilized haven at a time of social and civic uncertainty. Boyer, a Quaker, has long been influenced by the social thinking of John Gardner, who in the 1960s reminded Americans of larger purposes and of the possibilities and needs of the human spirit in a post-modern era.

The book's development goes back to a morning in 1972, when Boyer happened to read an editorial on the front page of a Stanford student newspaper. The Stanford faculty, it seems, having abolished all required courses in the 1960s, had now reintroduced one: Western Civilization. The student editorial declared this an ``illegal act.'' How dare, it said, the faculty impose uniformity on free and independent students!

Boyer was stunned. Was it possible that, after 15 years of education, our brightest students don't understand that Americans do share a common agenda and heritage? Diversity was important, but wasn't a keystone of true education the search for that which holds people and society together?

The same question has been raised by Robert Bellah in his recent ``Habits of the Heart,'' (University of California Press, 1985). ``College'' is Boyer's response.

The main lack this reviewer found was in Boyer's integrated core curriculum, with its paltry handling of math and science, especially physics. In a century characterized by the atom bomb and a split between science and faith, a much deeper look at the origins and principles of scientific thinking is needed - especially as that thinking relates to the liberal arts.

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