President Clinton declares that a two-year education should be the right of all Americans. Congress passes a 40 billion package of tax breaks and scholarships aimed at making a degree accessible to everyone. Almost two--thirds of high school graduates now go on to some form of higher education, and yet at the same time, those colleges and universities, inundated with a new kind of student, have been slow to respond to this revolutionary change.Zachary Karabell spent over a year traveling the country interviewing students, graduate students, faculty, and adjunct teachers, and the result is a portrait of American higher education that is neither conservative nor liberal and that needs to be taken seriously. There is a quiet revolution occurring that will--that is--changing the nature of education in this country."Higher education is becoming mass education," writes Karabell. The crucial clash on today's campuses is not between traditionalists, multiculturalists, and tenured radicals, but between the competing needs and desires of students, professors, administrators, and the larger society.The overwhelming majority of today's students are working-class people seeking education to get a job; they are not seeking a liberal education, nor planning to go on to graduate school.
Most faculty members, products of the elite graduate schools that have insulated them from the needs of real-world people, are often profoundly ill-equipped to handle this changing student body. By exploring the myriad perspectives of these conflicting expectations Karabell concludes that a radical democratization of higher education is not only inevitable, it is desirable, and it will require dramatic changes in the structure and presumptions about education beyond the high school level.Topping 175 billion a year, spending for American higher education will join health care and welfare as one of the top national issues, yet there is precious little real or broad-based understanding of the issues and social forces at work. Eschewing any political agenda, yet unafraid to ask as many questions as he answers, Zachary Karabell has provided the first reasoned examination of what has become a national concern. Sure to spark intense debate, What's College For? is a clarion call for reform.
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US Kirkus Review »
A worldly inspection of academe's ivory tower from the top floor of tenured professors and the Ivy League to the basement of adjunct teachers and community colleges. When President Clinton in his 1997 state of the union speech proposed making two years of college as universal as a high school diploma, he was barely on the crest of a wave that, Karabell shows, has been building up in the calm waters of higher education. With college degrees becoming requirements for most jobs and the quality of high school instruction increasingly criticized, Karabell argues that higher education has become more a valuable, marketable commodity than a scholarly goal. Despite an influx of new students and need for more instructors, the profession, in Karabell's terms, is still structured like a closed medieval guild - one particularly resistant to change - with a minority of tenured professors at the top, trained primarily to do research and not to teach, and at bottom a drove of postgraduate teaching assistants and new Ph.D.s as short-term adjunct faculty. It's no wonder that while the culture wars over curricula and the political correctness debate wracked colleges and universities, there have been equally bitter labor disputes, such as the Yale graduate students' attempt to unionize and the University of Minnesota faculty's protest against tenure reform. Karabell, himself a Ph.D. but now working in journalism, takes professors to task for their isolation from mainstream America and students' real-life needs, but also sympathizes with the value of scholarly ideals. Unlike most books on university crises, What Is College For? balances its intellectual arguments with animated classroom reporting and faculty interviews, drawn mainly from the diverse university systems of California, New York, and Texas. Only in its conclusion for pluralistic reform of higher education do Karabell's arguments go somewhat soft. Reconnoitering a new front on the culture wars, Karabell takes some well-timed and well-aimed shots at the received notions of teaching's functions and professors' careers. (Kirkus Reviews)
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Author Biography - Zachary Karabell
Zachary Karabell was educated at Columbia (BA), Oxford (M. Phil.) and Harvard (Ph.D.). He has taught at Harvard University and Dartmouth College, and is a frequent contributor to the Washington Post, The Village Voice, The Nation, Smithsonian, and other publications. He lives in New York City.