The definition of the American university is undergoing a radical transformation. Beyond all the headlines about political correctness, college campuses are being forced to adapt to the shifting needs of society. Three recent books explore the changes brought by the 1980s, a turbulent time for American higher education, and suggest what the rest of the 1990s may bring.

DOGMATIC WISDOM: HOW THE CULTURE WARS DIVERT EDUCATION AND DISTRACT AMERICA, by Russell Jacoby (Doubleday, 235 pp., $22.95). The author of ``The Last Intellectuals'' has returned with a vociferous attack on the culture wars that raged throughout the 1980s and still percolate today. According to Russell Jacoby, battles over multiculturalism, curriculum, and political correctness obscure the serious issues facing American education. Concerns about rising costs, shrinking resources, and the commercialization of education have taken a back seat to these higher-profile debates.

``Heated arguments unfold about which books should be taught or what language offends what group,'' he writes. ``But few books are taught - and fewer read - and the general din overpowers all language.''

Jacoby blasts the educational elite who bicker back and forth about what books should be read by the small minority of students in Ivy League universities while half the American population never even makes it to college at all.

Although Jacoby rejects both the conservative and liberal views on education as dogmatic, he offers few concrete ideas for moving the debate to more moderate ground.

THE SOUL OF THE AMERICAN UNIVERSITY: FROM PROTESTANT ESTABLISHMENT TO ESTABLISHED NONBELIEF, by George M. Marsden (Oxford University Press, 462 pp., $35). This lengthy, scholarly work traces the dramatic secularization of the American university. Just a century ago, nearly all state universities required students to attend chapel services. The Protestant heritage of most American universities began to fade after World War II, however. Today, religion has been almost completely ousted from the academy.

Marsden, a professor of history at the University of Notre Dame, calls for a return of religious perspectives to the university discourse. But he does not glamorize the previously close relationship between religion and education.

``This book is not a lament for a lost golden age when Christians ruled America and its educational institutions,'' he writes. ``The evaluative question is whether the unintended consequences regarding religion are desirable. Particularly, in a just society might there not be more room for the free exercise of religion in relation to higher learning?''

The author starts with the founding of Harvard in the 1630s and follows the topic through the present. So this is not a slim volume. In the end, Marsden makes a strong argument for the academy to come full circle and once again welcome religious perspectives.

LIBERAL ARTS COLLEGES: THRIVING, SURVIVING, OR ENDANGERED?, by David W. Breneman (Brookings, 184 pp., $29.95 cloth, $11.95 paper). Small, private liberal-arts colleges have taken a beating in the past decade. Their traditional approach to a broad education in the humanities, arts, and sciences has run headlong into the current demand for professional and practical training.

Despite predictions of doom, however, enrollments at many of these colleges continued to increase and few colleges closed in the 1980s, writes Breneman, an education professor at Harvard University who was president of Kalamazoo College from 1983 to 1989.

What did happen, Breneman argues, is several hundred liberal-arts schools became ``small professional schools with a liberal arts tradition but little of the reality of a traditional liberal arts institution.''

Breneman defines a true liberal-arts college as any school that awards at least 40 percent of its degrees in liberal arts and sciences. By that definition, only 200 liberal-arts schools exist in the United States today.

The early section of the book outlines the financial history of American liberal-arts colleges. Later chapters dig deeper into economic theory and may prove too dense for some readers. But Breneman's insights on the recent history of liberal-arts colleges are worthy of a wider audience.

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