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The Journal of Higher Education 73.2 (2002) 299-300

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Book Review

Distinctively American: The Residential Liberal Arts College

Distinctively American: The Residential Liberal Arts College, edited by Steven Koblik and Stephen R. Graubard. Somerset, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2000. 318+ pp. $29.95

In the preface and foreword to Distinctively American, Steven Koblik and Stephen Graubard note that the rapid expansion of higher education in the United States following World War II, occurred primarily at public colleges and universities. Consequently, residential liberal arts colleges came to represent a smaller proportion of the higher education population. Today, less than 5 percent of all U.S. baccalaureate degrees are awarded at these institutions. This is unfortunate, because the highest quality undergraduate education in the nation can still be found at residential liberal arts colleges. Moreover, these institutions continue to produce disproportionate numbers of the nation's scientists and scholars. Yet, according to the authors, even the best residential liberal arts colleges face an uncertain future. Why? Forces beyond the influence of individual colleges, such as demographic shifts, increasing utilitarianism, market economics, and technology threaten the status and institutional soundness of liberal arts colleges.

The edited volume presents fifteen essays on the origins, current condition, and future prospects of residential liberal arts colleges in the United States. The first chapter, "The Making of the Liberal Arts College Identity" by Hugh Hawkins, explores the history of liberal arts colleges. Hawkins notes that many institutions have been flexible enough to adapt to their changing social environments. Chapters 2 and 3 examine the financial challenges facing liberal arts colleges. Paul Neely describes how market forces beyond the control of individual institutions represent the primary economic threat to liberal arts colleges. In chapter 3, Michael McPherson and Morton Owen Schapiro conclude that the current market situation in higher education has led less affluent, less prestigious liberal arts colleges to increase their emphasis on the strategic use of aid and pricing decisions.

Alexander Astin identifies several positive student outcomes (e.g., student satisfaction) associated with liberal arts colleges, together with an analysis of the environmental attributes (e.g., small size) most responsible for these findings. Peter Gomes, in "Affirmation and Adaptation: Values and the Elite Residential College," suggests that by distancing themselves from their sectarian pasts, elite liberal arts colleges have lost a part of their mission that distinguishes them from larger secular institutions with which they now compete. In chapter 6, Geoffrey Canada reminisces on his experience as a Bowdoin College student to highlight the impact of a residential liberal arts education on the process of democracy. Eugene Lang's "Distinctively American: The Liberal Arts College" calls on liberal arts colleges to revitalize themselves by including responsible citizenship as a discrete component of their missions.

Chapters 8-14 focus on curricula. Eva Brann argues that liberal arts colleges are more apt than universities to possess the independence and tradition necessary to deliver a coherent liberal arts curriculum. In chapter 9, Richard Hersh suggests that a liberal arts education represents the very best in professional [End Page 299] education. Thomas Cech, in "Science at Liberal Arts Colleges: A Better Education?" documents the success of these institutions in preparing students for graduate study and attempts to explain the role of liberal arts colleges in the production of scientists. In chapter 11, Priscilla Laws, describes how curricula in the four major sciences, adopted at institutions throughout the country, were developed at liberal arts colleges. Christina Elliot Sorum's "Vortex, Clouds, and Tongue: New Problems in the Humanities" explains how the strong presence of humanities in general-education programs at liberal arts colleges increase student interest in the discipline. In chapter 13, Susan Bourque attributes the success of liberal arts college graduates in attaining PhDs in the social sciences to student opportunities for involvement in original research projects. Peter Stanley describes the affinity between international study and liberal learning. In the final chapter, "Stability and Transformation: Information Technology in Liberal Arts Colleges," Diane Balestri discusses the challenges of managing information technologies, together with the opportunities for shaping these technologies to...


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