Friday, June 28, 2013

Jim is in southern Vermont, vacationing with his in-laws. In recent years, mountains have replaced the sea (that would be Maine) as the destination of choice, though he tends not to get too close to either. Instead, most of the traveling is interior (that would be books). Summer reading for this trip -- the assigned summer book for his school -- is Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. This 2007 book is considered Diaz's debut novel, but it's one that had a long gestation with a writer who first emerged as a literary star on the strength of his 1996 collection of related stories, Drown. Both books feature Dominican characters toggling between their native island and the states -- here more likely to be the suburbs of New Jersey than NYC. In its emphasis on migration back and forth, and a diaspora that moves beyond the city, Diaz's work reflects the contemporary accents of the immigration saga of the Americas, a saga in which Latinos currently occupy center stage. A stage which increasingly includes places like the previously lily-blanco environs of northern New England

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is an ambitious work of art that blends politics (notably that of the brutal Trujillo regime of the mid-20th century, aided and abetted by the U.S.), myth, and a vivid cast of inter-generational characters. But what really sets it apart is Diaz's unique voice, in which sinuous English prose is peppered with profane Spanish slang, much of circling around a fluid politics of race that has a distinctively Latino tint. It's a tour de force piece of writing, and the herald of a new, browner world.

But for now, an interval in the Green (Mountains).

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Horace's Resurrection

In the closing years of the last decade, my father-in-law, Ted Sizer, whose struggle with cancer ended in 2009, worked on a book in which he tried to distill a life's work in education reform -- one most vividly documented in his famous trilogy of books Horace's Compromise (1984), Horace's School (1991) and Horace's Hope (1996) -- into a vision of high school for the twenty-first century. When he died, my mother-in-law, Nancy Sizer, the author of a number of books herself and with Ted, promised to finish the project and shepherd it into print. I'm happy to report that both of them achieved their goal, which takes the form of the newly published The New American High School, which was issued last week by the well-known education house Josey-Bass. (Nancy wrote the introduction, which includes a foreword from Ted's dear friend collaborator, Deborah Meier.)

The  New American High School, which begins, literally, with an overview of the place of high schools on our national landscape, touches on a number of key Sizerian themes, always having at the center of them the primacy of a student-centered approach to learning. Ted scrambled some of the categories when it came to contemporary debates on education: a skeptic of standardized testing, he was also an advocate for school choice (he helped found a charter school) and here argues for the importance of religion as a component of a high school curriculum. He evinced the empiricism of a John Dewey, but an empiricism of inner experience, attuned to the sensory dimensions of schooling in everyday life. He was an American original, and is deeply missed. Fortunately, his deeply appealing voice lingers.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Jim is in Philadelphia. He's there with his son Ryland on a trip that's a birthday gift -- Ryland, whose school year ended yesterday, is the one of all his four children who shares his parents' affinity for American history. The trip, which will cover the territory Jim took with his oldest son in in 2002, will cover familiar terrain like Valley Forge and Independence Hall, along with a newer venue or two like the National Constitution Center.

Reading on the trip will be Jill Lepore's latest book The Story of America, a collection of essays. Lepore is a rock star in the history business: besides holding a tenured appointment at Harvard, she's a staff writer at The New Yorker, where most of the pieces in this book appeared. She evinces the very rare gift of the serious scholar who can write very accessibly, endowing familiar topics (the Puritans, Benjamin Franklin, Noah Webster) with a sense of freshness in terms of detail while at the same time putting an interpretive spin on them. Many of these pieces have a historiographic dimension; Lepore doesn't simply write about these people, but rather other people writing about these people and what their efforts reveal in the process. Her talents are enviable. But one puts aside one's avarice in the face of work that's so engaging.

Best to all now that summer is officially, undeniably, truly underway.

Monday, June 17, 2013

In The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, New Yorker writer George Packer turns his reportorial gaze toward a people who are losing their country

The following review has been posted on the Books page of the History News Network.   

Though probably unfair, my graduate school recollection of the three books comprising the John Dos USA trilogy of novels -- The 42nd Parallel (1930), 1919 (1932), and The Big Money (1936) -- is that of a better idea than reality. The sheer sprawl of the work, a veritable scrapbook of experimental prose that sought to encompass a broad swath of American experience, was impressive in ambition, but a bit tedious in execution. In terms of scale, at least, George Packer's The Unwinding is a more modest enterprise. It's also a piece of reporting rather than fact-based fiction. But the effect of such relative trimmed sails is a tighter, if more melancholy, book. And one at least as resonant in capturing its historical moment.

Coming in at over 400 hefty pages, The Unwinding offers a granular, empirical confirmation, at the level of lived experience, of what many of us experience as the defining perception of our time. And that is that we are moving backward, that the hard-won gains of the welfare state -- a story whose lineaments Richard Hofstadter sketched in The Age of Reform (1955) and whose trajectory extended into the Great Society -- are unraveling at an accelerating rate. This unspooling, or unwinding, became discernible during the presidency Ronald Reagan and its effects have been shaping the lives of an ever-greater proportion of Americans. For the few (i.e. those at the top), this has been an experience of liberation; for the many, it amounts to a dismantling of the American Dream among people reluctant to relinquish their loyalty to a myth that is ossifying into a lie.

Like Dos Passos, Packer's signal strategy is biographical. He gives us a kaleidoscopic array of characters centering on a three not-quite undistinguished Americans: North Carolinian Dean Price, a southern entrepreneur pursuing the promise of biodiesel fuels; Tammy Thomas, an Ohio factory worker turned community organizer; and Jeff Connaughton, a Washington DC political operative who struggles to maintain his optimism amid his growing disillusionment with American government (and, in particular, his disillusionment with his one-time hero, Joe Biden). These three portraits are augmented by others, among them Michael Van Sickler, a Tampa-based journalist with a front-row seat for the real estate crash of the last five years, and the Hartzells, also based in Tampa, a family perpetually poised on the brink of poverty-induced disaster. 

These primary-source sketches are mixed with ten other, secondary source ones of famous Americans, among them Newt Gingrich, Oprah Winfrey, and Sam Walton, each of whom embody different aspects of our zeitgeist. These pieces are short, self-contained, and written with an edge that seeks to puncture the prerogatives of self-presentation that are the particular province of our celebrity aristocracy. "They had the things she didn't -- children, debts, spare time," Packer writes of Oprah's audience. "They consumed the products she advertised but would never buy -- Maybelline, Jenny Craig, Little Caesar's, IKEA." Packer notes that anyone who met Oprah had to sign a non-disclosure agreement signing away the right to talk about it, and notes similar excesses among the much lionized Gingrich (low-hanging fruit, to be sure) and Jay-Z (perhaps less so). His portraits of Raymond Carver and in particular Elizabeth Warren are more charitable; that of Silicon Valley libertarian billionaire Peter Thiel attempts to be fair-minded, but the more time you spend in the company of the man the more repellent he becomes, however perspicacious his observations. Packer's compassion -- and he has plenty of it -- is largely reserved for his primary subjects like Tammy Thomas (so deeply admirable in her quiet decency) and Dean Price, who, from the perspective of a bi-coastal liberal seems seriously deluded in his affection for crackpot New Thought disciples like Russell Conway, but who you nevertheless find yourself rooting for.

In a recent review in The New York Times, David Brooks expressed admiration for the quality of Packer's reporting -- he first rose to promise on the strength of his 2005 book on Iraq, The Assassin's Gate -- but lamented the lack of an explicit ideological scaffolding with which to interpret his subjects. Brooks is certainly right that Packer avoids prescription, but such a criticism probably misses the point (indeed, it seems at least as likely that in the event such scaffolding was evident, Brooks and others would complain that Packer was too polemical). Here I'm reminded that Dos Passos, who certainly did wear his politics on his sleeve, moved sharply to the right later in life and became a staunch champion of Richard Nixon. Such an outcome seems less likely for Packer (who himself comes from a storied, and quite politically diverse, family -- see his memoir Blood of the Liberals), if for no other reason that his deep personal engagement in the lives of his subjects, many of whom have a skepticism about politics that often seems misguided to elites but all too often has a sensible foundation rooted in memory and history. One could accuse Packer of fatalism, but as he reports, that's not a perspective that's the sole property of the left -- Thiel seems to arrive at a similar conclusion from a very different direction. But where Thiel's fatalism leads him inward toward a literal quest for immortality, Packer takes his cue from his subjects, all of whom look outward. If this particular unwinding -- Packer begins by suggesting there have been many in American history, though he never really returns to the point -- is final, it really does seem better that we go down together.

Thursday, June 13, 2013


To mark the end of the school year, here's a reprise edition of my old running series.


The Felix Chronicles, # 35

 In which we survey the annual spring harvest

I make a detour when I arrive at school for a final round of faculty meetings to take a look at the Quad. Surprisingly, there are no obvious traces of yesterday’s ceremonies. Less than 24 hours ago, this space was teeming with parents, grandparents, alums, along with hundreds of students —- some of whom were wearing caps and gowns and about to dissolve into living ghosts. Today, all that remains is a sole folding chair. And since it’s brown, not black like the hundreds that had been set up, I’m not even sure it was here yesterday. The only sign that anything relatively unusual had happened are the distressed stripes of grass running horizontally across the Quad. The maintenance crew will take care of that in pretty short order, and this space will revert to a stretch of silence, punctuated only by the occasional round of elementary school kids singing here on summer afternoons, or administrators walking to and from their cars. Birds and bees will hold dominion for a season.

I’m relieved it’s finally over. It’s been three weeks since the seniors finished classes, a period punctuated by end-of-the-year parties, final exams, the prom, the senior dinner, and other rituals. Graduation is the most tedious. People typically experience a string over a string of a dozen or so years: elementary school and middle school, then high school, college, each a little more bittersweet and dogged by anxiety, followed perhaps by a postgraduate degree. And then that’s it for a generation. But we teachers (especially high school teachers) go through the motions every year. The students, the speeches, the recitation of the school song: they all tend to run together. If anything is likely to be memorable, it’s the weather: hot or rainy, surprisingly cool or surprisingly beautiful. There’s usually a moment of genuine gladness at some point in the morning, as we witness the visible signs of maturity in some of our charges. And there’s often a moment of genuine regret, too, when we face an esteemed colleague’s retirement, the graduation of the final child in a cherished family, or a fond farewell from a clutch of friends who complemented each other so nicely. Any of these people may reappear at some point, in some perhaps transfigured way. But the uncertainty of such scenarios, and the certainty of time’s passage, make such moments bittersweet at best.

It’s always a relief when you get in the car and head home after such rituals, and I’m glad to seize a life, however quotidian, that’s truly my own. For years now, it’s been my habit to come home from graduation and mow the lawn. I think of Winslow Homer’s 1865 painting “Veteran in a New Field,” which depicts a recently returned Civil War soldier threshing wheat. Figuratively speaking, my campaign is over, and I’m eager to get back to my farm.

This notion of closure is among the greatest satisfactions of teaching. Other walks of life are comparably cyclical. But I don’t think any afford the kind of clean lines and closed books that a life in schools does. Many working people take extended summer vacations, but few of them are as expansive and sharply chiseled as that afforded by an academic schedule. As we are all veterans of schooling, this experience is a virtual birthright. But only teachers refuse to relinquish it.

The time will come—unexpectedly quickly —when my longings will turn away from completion and repose toward the rebirth that comes with the fall. In my case, the longings typically return long before it's time to actually return to the classroom. But as I make my way from meeting to meeting, from a final faculty softball came to a final trip to the local watering hole before we all disperse, I pause to savor the cadence. The present is past. And history will be born anew.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Big School

 In this graduation season, a reprise of the address I delivered the Senior Dinner, held at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School on June 8, 2010.

When I learned that I was to be the speaker at Senior Dinner, which I regard as one of the great honors of my career, my first reaction was joy. My second, of course, was dread, dread of the sort I’ve been inflicting on my students for years. Now it’s my turn to try and be interesting. Touché, kids. That’s a French term. It means "also awake at 3 a.m."

One thing I’m always telling my students when they sit down to write for me is that they should always begin with a question of audience: To whom are you speaking? This is a simple question, but a necessary one. The answer for this particular assignment seems obvious enough: I’ve been chosen by the student body to address the student body. But insofar as it’s true, I’m not only addressing the student body. As my students know, if I was only addressing the student body, this speech would have a great many four letter words in it. But that would get me into a bit of trouble with some of the people our principal, John Love, generously calls “grownups.” Of course, it should be said that my penchant for using four letter words is a piece of pedagogic stagecraft I learned from one of the important grownups in my life, my father. I don’t know whether my dad acquired his distinctive patois from his years on the New York Fire Department, or whether he got it from his father, a longshoreman down at Chelsea Piers, also known, thanks to our good friends the Bernsteins, as ECF South. Now, there, ladies and gentlemen, was a workingmen’s school. I will also tell you, good students of Fieldston, that if your apartment was on fire, my Dad would be cursing you every step of the way as he carried you from the burning building. That’s just the kind of guy he is. (When I mentioned this to him, he laughed and said, “Goddamn liberals.”)

Now, my dad isn’t here tonight. But of course your parents are here tonight. That’s why, as part of a Senior Dinner speech, I probably should be using phrases here like “precious cargo,” and expressing thanks on behalf of the faculty for lending us your children, and all that crap. This is also the place where I insert a joke about how writing that check to Wash U is going to feel downright painless compared to all these years of paying Fieldston tuition. Then I can cross parents off the checklist.

 Then it’s on to the faculty and staff. This is the point in my speech where I gently rib my colleagues by wondering how long it takes the inimitable Bob Montera to metabolize a cannoli (in some ways, probably about fifteen seconds). This is also where I reveal, on good authority, that Felix Adler loved Broadway theater, because Bill Werner used to take him to backstage to meet people like Eugene O’Neill and Lena Horne. “Act like you’ve been here before,” Bill would whisper to the starstruck Adler.

Then we come to the audience participation part of the speech.  I say, “blah blah blah Dotty Hanson, ladies and gentlemen, let’s give her a hand.” (Please applaud.)  I say “blah blah blah Mark Stanek. (Please applaud.)” I will now demonstrate my good progressive credentials: “Blah blah blah catering crew.” (Gesture.)  We’re like family, right, Liz? Never around when it’s time to clean up.

That done, I will pivot and turn my focus to the people who are texting about the party that will be starting about an hour from now, and that of course is you, soon to be ex-Fieldstonians. (Semiolon; close parentheses.) But insofar as I can possibly make things interesting tonight, I thought I’d tweak the formula by addressing you not as who you are tonight, but instead as the people you will be in ten years, because I think that’s about the length of the next segment of life course you’ve now embarked upon, that increasingly long stretch in our society  between when childhood ends and adulthood begins.

I want to begin the process of talking to your future selves, however, by first inviting you for a quick trip down memory lane and asking you to remember that long ago time when you were just starting the college process. Actually, as some of the people in this room know, I happen to be the father of a Form V Fieldston student, and this spring break we began that journey that you all recently finished. You remember how that goes: You start by thinking in terms of broad categories: near versus far; city versus country, and, of course, big versus small. From the start, my son Jay has been very open-minded about the process, but he was also clear at the outset that he wasn’t much interested in a small liberal arts college. Can’t be small. No Williams, no Amherst, no Sarah Lawrence, where his mother teaches (God forbid he should avail himself of the free tuition.) Small is been there, done that. Jay has loved going to Fieldston, but let’s face it: Fieldston is small – my own graduating class was one and a half times the size of this whole high school. Now Jay is a good kid, and he indulged his father and his college counselor Harry Dawe by paying a visit to Davidson College down in North Carolina three months ago, which is, by liberal arts college standards, on the small side. As it turned out, he really likes it, and he plans to apply. As you know, experiences like these can be formative ones in the life of a family. So it is only natural that a father like myself will bring his paternal instincts to bear and helpfully say, “I told you so.”

We of course have no idea what will happen with Jay and the whole college process. Though I will say that if all goes well, this time next year I’ll be sitting where you are now, glancing surreptitiously at my watch, and grousing that at least at Fieldston you don’t have to pay housing fees.

Now by that point, you all will have your first year of college behind you. You will have had that bizarre experience of freshman orientation, meeting and befriending people for little reason other than the fact that they happen to live two matchbox-sized rooms away from you and don’t like their roommate any more than you like yours. And in the coming days, you will find yourself standing beside one of these people at three o’clock in the morning, lending your moral support as she vomits profusely beside you behind the frat house. And as she retches, you will marvel how it is that you find yourself placing a gentle hand on her back – that in a life that has been so much a matter of deciding what you want, of choice, that you find yourself in relationships that are not entirely a matter of your control. Five years from now, you’ll be a cherished guest at the wedding of this cookie-tosser. Twenty years from now, you’ll be writing a check for her kid’s bar mitzvah. He’s a spoiled brat, but what can you do? This is what friendship means.

 But I’m getting ahead of myself. About four years from now, you’ll be graduating from college. It will turn out to be much easier than you expected, because after surviving a year of intensive chemistry with Compton Mahase, pretty much anything seems easy by comparison. And so your parents will once again be trudging through another set of rituals not unlike the ones you’re finishing up now. They’ll be gazing surreptitiously at their watches listening to some speaker making a lame joke about how paying tuition at Duke Law School will be a breeze because it’s only be a matter of three years rather than four. You’ll bounce around for a while in the months and maybe years following your college graduation – it’s likely to be one of the more unsettling moments in your life – while you try to figure out what you’re going to do with yourself. By your late twenties, you will either have started graduate work or started kidding yourself that you might go; you’ll be married or starting to wonder why you’re not; and a few of you will actually have children of your own while the rest of you try to avoid making the same mistake. Hopefully, by the time you’re at the end of your twenties you’ll have a pretty good idea about what you want from your life. You’ll spend your thirties chasing what you want; your forties realizing you’re not going to achieve what you want; your fifties realizing you’re going to lose what you have; your sixties actually losing what you have; and your seventies trying to find your glasses. In your eighties you’ll be hallucinating that you’re back in Form IV, telling a bewildered Coach Bluth that it doesn’t matter that you suck at basketball. You’re still a good person. “He knows,” your daughter will be telling you, placing her hand gently on your back. He knows.” But again I digress.

 My real point is that over the course of the next decade, I expect you’ll be paying periodic visits to your high school alma mater. At first it will feel weird, because life will have actually gone on without you, and you’ll walk into Lorenzo Krakowsky or Nancy Banks’s office to find that the kids there actually seem to think they own them the way you did. And as you walk around the campus, you’ll think: Jeez, this place is small. Way back when you were in seventh grade – and, of course, you’re old enough to have attended Fieldston before there was a separate middle school, back in those golden days before the catastrophic decline in admissions standards – the place seemed huge. Then it seemed to fit you just right. But now it’s shrinking. And it will keep shrinking over the course of the next few years.

And then a surprising thing will start to happen: Fieldston will start to get big again. You will have spent the last decade feeling so palpably that you’re a free agent, moving from school to school, job to job, city to city, establishing yourself. It will only be then, about ten years from now, that you’ll begin to see in a way you never quite fully grasped how much you’re a product no less than an agent, that you’ve been imprinted by an institution that has defined you all the time you thought you were inventing yourself. 

But here’s the funny thing about this institution: it’s based on an idea. Actually, this doesn’t happen all that often. Survival, economic gain, pleasure: these are some of the reasons institutions, even academic institutions come into being. But this one is premised on an idea, namely that the world can, in fact, be made into a better place.  Now, I will confess to you that I, who has been educated somewhat differently than you have, am not entirely sure the world can be made into a better place. And I’m mindful, as I know many of you are, that the people who came up with this idea, and those who of us who sustain it, can be a little full of ourselves.  But it’s a proposition that I’m willing to entertain, particularly because it’s one that has somehow conjured up a building in which toilets flush, emails get sent, and meals get eaten every day. Not bad for an idea.

But that’s not all this notion that the world can be a better has conjured. It’s also conjured up an institution where you can find a teacher whose work has been purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (That’s Nancy Fried; check it out.) It’s conjured up a place where an adolescent can not simply participate, but design, a community service action project that actually helps people. It’s conjured up things called MADs and FADs and ALPs.

All of this was in place when you arrived. But there are other things which, as you reflect on them in the decade since you graduated, were of your time, and which are now beginning to seem more striking. Perhaps that’s because they’ll seem ahead of their time, or perhaps it’s because they will be the kind of thing people make fun of, though more likely than not the people who do so will be ones you don’t like that much, like the idiot president we will no doubt soon have. (Because, let’s face it, kids: it’s all downhill from here.) I’m talking about things like fact that you had a “green dean” way back in 2009. Or that in a time when gay people were still being demonized in public life, you had a gay head of school, about whom the most relevant facts were how good he was at his job and how sorry everyone was to see him go.

And you’ll ask yourself: What does this mean for me? Who does this mean I am? And it’s at this point that I’m going to have to bail out on the prediction side of things.  Nor, since I am now a former teacher as far as you’re concerned, will I be dispensing any pearls of wisdom, which was never my strong suit anyway. Instead, I will end by expressing a series of hopes. One, that you will prosper in your chosen endeavors. Two, that you will savor the joy of friendship – which, among other things, will involve placing a reassuring hand on the back of a barfing friend at three a.m. behind a frat house. (You can always use the opportunity to reminisce at length about a speech you once heard by an old History teacher back at your high school, which I’m sure will go over very well.) And finally, that you will always have room for an idea – a good idea – a possibility that will remain alive because at the start of a life in which you remain blessedly young, you had the good fortune to attend a surprisingly big school.

All right, kids. That’s all for now. See you on Facebook.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Fast food for the mind

In College (Un) Bound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students, Jeffrey J. Selingo surveys the a transformation that is already underway

The following review has been posted on the Books page of the History News Network.    

My teeth were on edge a few pages into the introduction of this book when Jeffrey Selingo first deploys the term he uses repeatedly to describe higher education in the United States: he calls it an "industry." The first sub-heading is called "A risk-averse, self-satisfied industry." A few pages later, he writes, "Colleges [by which I think he means administrators, or perhaps more specifically admissions officers] now view students as customers and market their degree programs as products." The proposition that students might be the product, and that this product might be civic, as opposed to simply economic, never appears to have crossed his mind -- or, at any rate, be taken seriously.

But of course I'm speaking from the point of view of a vanishing species on the cusp of virtual irrelevance, if not extinction in this ecosystem (even though I don't happen to be a member of it myself): the liberal arts professoriate. Whether or not such people actually deserve their marginality is in any case beside the point: change is coming. Actually, it's already here: barely a third of all college students today are 18-24 year-olds attending traditional college institutions. And that, Selingo seems to believe (and seems to believe most other people with skin in the game also believe) is a good thing. They're right -- to a point.

The title of this book is indeed apt: Selingo describes an educational landscape in which the traditional bundling of educational services into a single collegiate experience is replaced by one in which an à la carte menu of goods and services gets procured in a way comparable to one buys an airline ticket or telecommunications services. Actually, the book itself seems redolent of the same logic: Selingo is an editor at the Chronicle of Higher Education, where parts of this book first appeared. It's published by New Harvest, an imprint of, and distributed through Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

But I digress: the point here is that a college education is increasingly a matter of a student attending a series of institutions with different kinds of accreditation; of classes that are held in office parks rather than campuses; and courses that begin and end at all hours of the day or months of the year.

At the center of this transformation is technology, specifically online classes of the MOOC or Coursera stripe. Though widely viewed by traditional educators as cheap, freeze-dried learning of dubious value, Selingo makes a persuasive case that such a view is far too simplistic. For one thing, such courses are often produced by rock-star faculty who are far more engaging than "risk-averse, self-satisfied" lecturers relying on stale notes and a dry manner. For another, the interactive features in many online courses allow students to tailor their pace and zero in on difficult material in ways that are genuinely superior to that of the one-size-fits-all approach of the traditional classroom. Even the supposed unique strength of the intimate seminar -- serendipitous conversation and interaction between student and teacher -- can at least be approximated in the growing social dimension of study groups, social events, and other tools of community-building. In fact, Selingo argues, any notion that the future of education pits online vs. classroom learning against each other is mistaken: they're increasingly converging toward each other, and a hybrid experience (of admittedly varying proportions) is likely to be the default setting for college education wherever it takes place.  

Such developments are putting already cash-strapped institutions under enormous pricing pressures. Colleges and universities have long used low-cost, high margin basic courses to subsidize the cost of more expensive specialized ones, which makes them reluctant to cede ground to challengers that will destroy their economic model. But in this regard they hold a trump card: As Selingo notes, a website can compete with a newspaper at any time, but online schools can't issue diplomas. Online educators are experimenting with credentialing devices like "badges" that its graduates can sell on employers, and over time that may well work in breaking the credentialing firewall.

Then again, it may not. One of the more striking near-silences in College (Un) Bound is the dearth of space Selingo gives to for-profit institutions and the genuinely plausible skepticism they have engendered in their financing and the experience they purvey to students. DeVry University gets a single entry in the index; the University of Phoenix gets a passing mention two times before getting a paragraph in the conclusion that notes that it's not faring so well. Amid all this breathless discussion of the "the disruption" reshaping higher education, one might have liked to see a chapter on how the disrupters themselves have been disrupted, and whether or not there are cautionary tales for those who think they know what the future looks like.

As a high school teacher, I also found myself wondering what the implications of all this might be for secondary education. Adolescents, for example, are no less likely to learn better online than they do in a classroom (indeed their tolerance for sitting still in a for more than ten minutes without an electronic device is virtually nonexistent). But also it's hard to imagine adults leaving children to those devices. Perhaps schooling really truly is more than information, a grade, a degree. Then again, I too may soon be out of a job.

Still, as Selingo notes, Harvard isn't going anywhere. And, he faithfully reports, employers regularly invoke the need for critical thinkers, people who are as more likely become that way by reading novels than by clicking boxes. But such people are -- have always been -- a minority. Notwithstanding the pastoral imagery landscape architects conjure on country-club campuses, the finest institutions of higher learning have usually been scruffy places. It's a small price to pay for that precious (yes, in both senses of that term) freedom: a life of the mind.