What is distinctive, Derek Bok asks, about the American system of higher education, and how well does it perform? In particular, just how good is the education our universities offer? Are they doing all they can to educate their students, or do teaching and learning get lost in the pressure for ever more prestigious research and publication? Bok concludes that the competition characteristic of American higher education—competition for the best students, the most advanced scholarship, the most successful scientific research, the best facilities—has helped to produce venturesome, adaptable, and varied universities. But because the process of learning itself is imperfectly understood, it is difficult to achieve sustained progress in the quality of education or even to determine which educational innovations actually enhance learning.
Despite these problems, the last fifteen years have produced many promising developments, such as experimental curricula, computer-assisted learning, much-expanded offerings for nontraditional students, clinical legal education, schools of public policy to prepare students for public service careers, and many more. Such initiatives need a more secure and central place within the regular curriculum. In addition to the traditional focus on program and curriculum, Bok stresses the need to pay greater attention to improving the effectiveness of teaching and learning. He calls for a number of steps, including a sustained program of research directed toward evaluating educational programs and methods of teaching. Only through careful experimentation and evaluation of its own efforts, through many small improvements and occasional inspired advances, can each university move toward the goal of giving its students the best possible preparation for life in an increasingly complex world.