Reading Books About Higher Education

Reading Higher Education

As I near retirement, I have been systematically weeding my personal library. This is not as painful as many have discussed. I have focused on retaining a small portion of my library to support some ongoing research projects and possible guest lectures and other teaching. In the process, I have been able to cull the books down to the essentials and, as a byproduct, I have decided to prepare some bibliographic essays of core and classic writings on subjects of interest to me.


This first essay concentrates on an array of interesting, essential, and classic texts on higher education. I started reading on the topic thirty years ago as a means to understanding the world I now worked in. What follows should not be read as the best books on the topic, but merely as a set of useful readings that could be of assistance to faculty and others seeking to understand what the university in society represents, how it has evolved, and how it has responded to the challenges it faces. Many of these texts were used in my own writings about higher education and in my teaching a doctoral seminar on the nature of being a faculty member (a topic that has been given shrift in many doctoral programs).

The History of Higher Education

Colleges and universities have a long and rich history. We have a number of good histories of higher education. William Clark, Academic Charisma and the Origins of the Research University (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2006) traces the rise of the research university in early modern Europe, drawing on the use of rich archival materials; this is a a good context for understanding the historical context of later debates about and critique of the university. Roger L. Geiger, The History of American Higher Education: Learning and Culture from the Founding to World Two (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015) provides a richly textured assessment of the development of such education in the United States. Other excellent one volume histories are James Axtell, Wisdom’s Workshop: The Rise of the Modern University (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016) and John R. Thelen, A History of American Higher Education ((Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004).

We also have studies of the development of American research universities, providing the historical context for understanding what we now possess in terms of these institutions. Jonathan Cole’s The Great American University: Its Rise to Preeminence, It’s Indispensable National Role, Why It Must Be Protected (New York: Public Affairs Press, 2009) is a celebratory, but useful and informative, study of the subject. Cole followed this book up with his Toward a More Perfect University (New York: Public Affairs, 2016), addressing the emerging challenges such as increasing costs and the role of the humanities. A different, and noteworthy, historical study is Garry Wills, Mr. Jefferson’s University (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2002) focusing on Jefferson’s original campus design for the University of Virginia and his vision of higher education.

A Public Target

Higher education has been experiencing so much change, so many issues, and so many public attacks and critiques, that we even possess a genre of commentaries on the commentaries and research studies. Deborah L. Rhode, In Pursuit of Knowledge: Scholars, Status, and Academic Culture (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006) is a worthy example of this. Rhode, a law professor, considers the changing nature of the mission, the impact on scholarship and teaching, the barriers to being a public intellectual, and other such matters. Some have noted the number of memoirs written by academics and have tried to assess what these mean, such as Cynthia G. Franklin, Academic Lives: Memoir, Cultural Theory, and the University Today (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2009). Others have focused on a few major sources of change. Kevin Carey, The End of College: Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere (New York: Riverhead Books, 2015) considers how the growing costs of obtaining a college education can be offset by the uses of new information technologies; it is a book that received considerable attention, but it raises as many questions as it provides answers about what higher education should be. William G. Bowen and Michael S. McPherson, Lesson Plan: An Agenda for Change in American Higher Education (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016) debunks many of the typical critiques or jeremiads about higher education, focusing on the most serious challenges, such as the need to develop a corps of professional teachers who are there to teach not to do research, administrative tasks, or other activities. There have been some research efforts to get at the heart of just what college students are learning, notably Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011). English professor Louis Menand, The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University (New York: W. W. Norton, 2010) wrestles with the question of whether universities are preparing students in the best possible manner, examining liberal arts, professional education, and the preparation of individuals to become professors.

Classic Perspectives

There are a few classic volumes everyone should read about higher education. The nineteenth century book by John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University, ed. Frank M. Turner (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996) is the starting point for nearly every commentary on the modern university and its purpose in society. Clark Kerr’s The Uses of the University (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1963) is considered by most to be the foundational document for the modern research university, emphasizing the idea of the “multiversity,” complex organizations serving many different groups and supporting many different purposes. For a more recent revisiting of the Newman classic, see Jaroslav Pelikan, The Idea of the University: A Reexamination (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992); the Pelikan book should also be required reading.

Jacques Barzun, who lived longer than most of us, penned a number of influential books and essays about higher education, its mission, and its shifting fortunes. My favorite one is The House of Intellect, originally published in 1959 and reissued in 2002 with a new introduction. Barzun, in a manner seeming to be very current, addresses the challenge of what a university offers to society in the way of learning and knowledge production: “Though millions have literacy and hundreds of thousands have ‘education,’ plus the rudiments of a profession, it becomes harder and harder to find the few tens of thousands who are willing, let alone eager, to attend to intellectual matters” (p. 13). We have shifted farther into vocational training over the nearly six decades since Barzun published his book, reminding us that the problems we now face are the result of a long process.

Religion and the University

At the heart of Newman’s classic was religion as one of the pillars of the university. He is not the only one who has written about this. Warren A. Nord, Religion and American Education: Rethinking a National Dilemma (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995) examines the debates and controversies of this relationship as part of the culture wars then raging twenty years ago. A thorough historical analysis of religion in American higher education can be found in George M. Marsden, The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994). Some scholars, such as Stanley Hauerwas, The State of the University: Academic Knowledges and the Knowledge of God (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007) and George Marsden, The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), have attempted to make arguments about theology and religious perspectives as having legitimate places within the university.

From the Inside Looking Out

We should not be surprised that many former university and college presidents and other administrators have provided commentaries on the purpose and nature of these institutions. Many of these are collections of addresses given while they were in their academic positions, and, while interesting and sometimes useful, they are mostly not worth too much attention. There are exceptions. Donald Kennedy’s Academic Duty (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997) lays out the essential contributions universities provide to society, such as teaching, providing research, and telling the truth.

One of the most prolific commentators on higher education has been Derek Bok, a former president of Harvard University. From my perspective, his most important book is Universities in the Marketplace: The Commercialization of Higher Education (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003), one of the earliest assessments of the emerging corporate university. Bok considers the implications of the new corporate model on athletics, scientific research, teaching, and the role of the university in society, with some disturbing conclusions but some possible hope as well. Every book about this topic Bok has commented on and amplified his arguments. Bok also provided a kind of summing up of his perspective of American higher education in his Higher Education in America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013), examining the origins of higher education, the nature of undergraduate education and then graduate education, the research function, and the issues challenging the continuing value of the universities. Another outstanding analysis of the corporate university is Gaye Tuchman, Wannabe U: Inside the Corporate University (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), a detailed account of one university and how the corporate model has transformed it.

The Rise of and Controversy About the Corporate University

The notion of the corporate university has become the locus of debate about higher education. Some, such as sociologist Stanley Aronowitz, The Knowledge Factory: Dismantling the Corporate University and Creating True Higher Learning (Boston: Beacon Press, 2000), have posited plans to end the corporate university, taking on the current educational enterprise’s loss of any sense of the differences between “education, training, and learning” (p. 158). Others have addressed other contested areas, such as the control of intellectual property, as in Corynne McSherry, Who Owns Academic Work? Battling for Control of Intellectual Property (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001).

The Endangered Humanities and Liberal Arts

One of the casualties of the new corporate university has been any sense of the value of liberal arts, lost amidst the intense vocationalism and stress on getting good paying jobs. The role of the humanities and the liberal arts has been under much discussion and is the topic of many books. Here is a sampling: Frank Donoghue, The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008); Victor E. Ferrall, Jr., Liberal Arts on the Brink (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011); Martha C. Nussbaum, Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010); Mark William Roche, Why Choose the Liberal Arts? (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2010); Michael S. Roth, Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014); Helen Small, The Value of the Humanities (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013); and Fareed Zakaria, In Defense of a Liberal Education (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 2015). These books represent many different views about the importance of the humanities and the cost to society and students of its diminution in the curriculum.

Professional Schools

There have been some outstanding studies about the origins and subsequent development of professional schools in the university, including Rakesh Khurana, From Higher Aims to Hired Hands: The Social Transformation of American Business Schools and the Unfulfilled Promise of Management as a Profession (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), stressing how schools moved away from their primary goals to create and sustain a profession to merely market the MBA as a product; Neil Henry’s American Carnival: Journalism Under Siege in an Age of New Media (Berkley: University of California Press, 2007) evaluates how the proliferation of new media has undermined professional journalism and the schools preparing journalists; David Labaree, The Trouble with Ed Schools (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), is a detailed account of the challenges that such professional schools face in preparing teachers, connecting to educators and education associations, and securing a relevant role in the university; and Brian Z. Tamanaha, Failing Law Schools (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), evaluates the problems these schools have had in sustaining themselves and placing their graduates. One would expect that in the modern corporate university that professional schools would thrive, but these studies suggest otherwise.


Teaching has always been one of the core functions of the professorate, but it also been the subjects of much soul-searching and debate. Should teaching be restored as the central responsibility of the faculty? One of the best sources on higher education is the University of Chicago Guides to Academic Life, providing basic handbooks on all facets of the academy. Alan Binkley, et al, eds., The Chicago Handbook for Teachers: A Practical Guide to the College Classroom, 2nd edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011) is a good example of this series with advice on everything from preparing a syllabus to delivering lectures and administering tests.

Not surprisingly, teaching has continued to be a major topic for reflection and advice. Ken Bain, What the Best College Teachers Do (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004) is the result of a multi-year study of what award-winning academic teachers do, offering lots of cogent advice for anyone embarking on an academic career. Given that one of the weakest aspects of preparing doctoral students for academic careers is in the area of teaching, this is a very valuable and useful book. Other notable and user-friendly books about teaching include James M. Banner, Jr., and Harold C. Cannon, The Elements of Teaching (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997); Mark Edmundson, Why Teach? In Defense of a Real Education (New York: Bloomsbury, 2013); and Jay Parini, The Art of Teaching (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005). One academic commentator, Leonard Cassuto, The Graduate School Mess: What Caused It and How We can Fix It (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015), even goes so far as to argue that the source of the problems in graduate education stem from an over-emphasis on research and ignoring teaching and offers solutions to amend matters. Gerald Graff, a professor of English and Education, has offered two interesting books on the topic of teaching. Beyond the Culture Wars: How Teaching the Conflicts Can Revitalize American Education (New York: W. W. Norton, 1992) is one of many texts addressing the challenge for universities in the hey day of the culture wars, but it also offers up some timeless advice for those reflecting on teaching. Graf’s Clueless in Academe: How Schooling Obscures the Life of the Mind (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003) is an argument for making ideas more intelligible not just for students but for others. Michael Bérubé, What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts? Classroom Politices and “Bias” in Higher Education (New York: W. W. Norton, 2006) explores what goes on in the classroom, addressing the many critiques about how faculty supposedly indoctrinate students in liberal political agendas. Some academics have called for a return to a focus on teaching, rather than research, as the most important aspect of higher education, such as Mark C. Taylor, Crisis on Campus: A Bold Plan for Reforming Our Colleges and Universities (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010) and Charles Muscatine, Fixing College Education: A New Curriculum for the Twenty-First Centure (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2009), the latter castigating the traditional publish-or-perish mentality and calling for research that supports teaching.

Some aspects of teaching, such as forged student papers and plagiarism, have been the focus of considerable hand-wringing and discussion. The most important and well-balanced book on the topic is Susan D. Blum, My Word! Plagiarism and College Culture (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009), offering not only surprising revelations about the extent of cheating but insights into a student and university culture that fosters such actions. Jeffrey Alfred Ruth, Papers for Pay: Confessions of an Academic Forger (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Co., 2015) offers a unique, and disturbing, picture of fraudulent student writing. Others, such as James M. Lang, Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013), try to show ways of turning student dishonesty into better learning opportunities.

Teaching has also been subsumed into the debates about distance education. It is fair to say that the intensity of the debates increased with David F. Noble’s polemic, Digital Diploma Mills: The Automation of Higher Education (New York: Monthly Review Press, n.d.). He made many good points in his critique. At the other extreme has come the very positive predictions about how online education will transform the university, such as Taylor Walsh, Unlocking the Gates: How and Why Leading Universities Are Opening Up Access to Their Courses (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011).

Academic Research

The literature on academic research is both deep and broad. There has been much written about the failure of academics to reach the broader public. A seminal writing that generated lots of responses, and continues to spur on debate, is Russell Jacoby’s The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe (New York: Noonday Press, 1987), lamenting the disappearance of the “public intellectual” and diminution by highly specialized academics primarily writing for each other. While Jacoby gives us a polemic, Thomas Bender, Intellect and Public Life: Essays on the Social History of Academic Intellectuals in the United States (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993) provides a series of case studies demonstrating a rich history where academic scholars have engaged the public. Others have made cogent arguments about why and how academics need to engage in research that is relevant to society, such as David Damrosch, We Scholars: Changing the Culture of the University (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995) and Edward W. Said, Representations of the Intellectual: The 1993 Reith Lectures (New York: Vintage, 1994). Thomas Sowell’s Intellectuals and Society (New York: Basic Books, 2009) offers an assessment of the successes and failures of public scholars.

There is also a substantial literature on how to make academics more productive scholars. Some of these primers focus on the volume of writing, such as W. Brad Johnson and Carol A. Mullen, Write to the Top! How to Become a Prolific Academic (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007) and Paul J. Silvia, How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing (Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, 2007). There is also a strong literature on how academics can write better and for broader audiences, led by Helen Sword, Stylish Academic Writing (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012), covering a number of different disciplines (and definitely becoming required reading for all academics). There are also some excellent discipline-specific guides, such as Eric Hayot, The Elements of Academic Style: Writing for the Humanities (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014) and Stephen J. Pyne, Voice and Vision: A Guide to Writing History and Other Serious Nonfiction (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009).

The Joy of Being An Academic

The nature of the literature about higher education is a complex one, ranging from stinging rebukes and critiques to celebrated defenses. There are, as well, occasional love letters to the academy. James Axtell’s The Pleasures of Academe: A Celebration and Defense of Higher Education (Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1998) is one of the best examples of the latter. Axtell, a scholar on early American life, assembles all of the positive aspects of being a professor, chronicling it in an amusing and engaging fashion. For other examples, see Randy Pausch with Jeffrey Zaslow, The Last Lecture (New York: Hyperion, 2008), a summing up of his academic career and aspirations as he was terminally ill, and Marjorie Garber, Academic Instincts (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001). An interesting contribution to writings about the nature of the academic’s life is Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber, The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016), offering advice about how to recapture a more reflective academic career (many will be skeptical that it is possible to ever do this, but it is worth contemplating).

The Ethical University

As universities have become more corporate in culture and approach, the matter of ethics in these institutions has become an important issue. An early contribution to this topic, now in an updated version, is Steven M. Cahn, Saints and Scamps: Ethics in Academia; 25th Anniversary Edition (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2011). The MBA Oath movement, an effort to revitalize the discussion of ethics in business schools, is documented by Max Anderson and Peter Escher, The MBA Oath: Setting a Higher Standard for Business Leaders (New York: Portfolio, 2010). Nannerl O. Keohane, Higher Ground: Ethics and Leadership in the Modern University (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006) is an interesting collection of candid reports and addresses by this individual while she was president of Wellesley College and Duke University. Harry R. Lewis, Excellence Without Soul: How a Great University Forgot Education (New York: Public Affairs, 2006) charts how the notion of educating students to function as citizens in society has been lost (the great university he writes about is Harvard). Julie A. Reuben’s The Making of the Modern University: Intellectual Transformation and the Marginaliztion of Morality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996) provides an interesting historical orientation to how the university has dealt with the topic of truth, knowledge, and objectivity. Elizabeth Kiss and J. Peter Euben, eds., Debating Moral Education: Rethinking the Role of the Modern University (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010) reveals how universities have become more interested in ethics and moral issues, establishing research centers, offering more courses, and encouraging a greater sensitivity to such issues. William Deresiewicz, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way of a Meaningful Life (New York: Free Press, 2014) is a book that received a lot of attention, stimulating debate about the purpose of higher education. Andrew Delbanco, College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012), defends the role of higher education in helping individuals become better informed citizens and laments that such education is in grave danger. Another similar book, trying to get to the basic purpose of higher education, is Anthony T. Kronman, Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007).

Guides to Being Successful

As with most fields, we have a number of guides to how to be successful in the academy such as Steven M. Cahn, From Student to Scholar: A Candid Guide to Becoming a Professor (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008). Frank F. Furstenberg, Behind the Academic Curtain: How to Find Success and Happiness with a PhD (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013) is a highly readable, commonsensical approach to academic life. There are a number of basic handbooks, such as A. Leigh Deneef and Craufurd D. Goodwin, eds., The Academic’s Handbook, 2nd ed (Durham: Duke University Press, 1995), with advice on every conceivable aspect of the academy. Karen Kelsky, The Professor Is In: The Essential Guide to Turning Your Ph.D. Into a Job (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2015) is a candid and at times irreverent advice book.

Academic Freedom

The academic freedom of faculty is a much discussed and debated topic. Stanley Fish, Versions of Academic Freedom: From Professionalism to Revolution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014) provides a nice, and typical of Fish, opinionated overview of the topic. Matthew W. Finkin and Robert C. Post, For the Common Good: Principles of American Academic Freedom (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009) provides a useful introduction to the parameters of academic freedom, some that Fish challenges. The former president of the American Association of University Professors, Cary Nelson, presents his views about threats to such freedom in his No University is an Island: Saving Academic Freedom (New York: New York University Press, 2010). This is a good place to start, examining the variety of perspectives on this and critiquing each one. The intensifying use of digital systems for everything from teaching to publishing has also generated some additional academic freedom issues, as discussed by Robert O’Neil, Academic Freedom in the Wired World: Political Extremism, Corporate Power, and the University (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008). Some particular cases are worth exploring. Classicist Mary Lefkowitz, the author of Not Out of Africa: How Afrocentrism Became An Excuse to Teach Myth as History (New York: Basic Books, 1996), became the target for her views, an experience she describes in her History Lesson: A Race Odyssey (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008). Another example of this can be seen in the acrimonious debates in the 1990s about the teaching of history, nicely captured in Gary B. Nash, Charlotte Crabtree, and Ross E. Dunn, History on Trial: Culture Wars and the Teaching of the Past (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997) and Peter N. Stearns, Meaning Over Memory: Recasting the Teaching of Culture and History (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993).

The Changing Roles of Faculty

The role of faculty has undergone considerable change in the university, especially in the past few decades. The decline of tenured faculty and the growth of administrative staff has been the topic of considerable discussion, such as in Benjamin Ginsberg, The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011). There have been many explorations into what some perceive to be the declining influence of faculty, such as Mary Burgan, What Ever Happened to the Faculty? Drift and Decision in Higher Education (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006), written from the perspective of a humanities professor. William G. Bowen and Eugene M. Tobin, Locus of Authority: The Evolution of Faculty Roles in the Governance of Higher Education (New York: Ithaka and Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015) is a carefully argued history of how the faculty roles have changed and how they need to continue to change in order to enable universities to resolve present challenges.

Fictionalizing the Academic Life

Many academics have tried their hand at writing fictional accounts of their lives and jobs, and we all have our favorite examples. Elaine Showalter, Faculty Towers: The Academic Novel and Its Discontents (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2005) demonstrates that such writing is a way of coming to terms with the many frustrations that faculty have with the modern university. Every faculty member has his or her favorite academic novel or mystery, usually with writers such as David Lodge, Jane Smiley, and Alexander MacCall Smith included on the list.

A Concluding Personal Note

As I noted at the beginning of this post, what is here is part of the process of my wrapping up my academic career. I suspect I will continue to think and write about higher education when I am retired. At the least my present plans include maintaining this blog.


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