College Quarterly
Spring 2007 - Volume 10 Number 2
Reviews Ivory Tower Blues: A University System in Crisis
James Côté and Anton Allahar
Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007

Reviewed by Dave Armishaw

To date, the only publication purporting to serve as a comprehensive buyer’s guide for would-be university students, and their parents looking for maximum leverage from their investment, would be Maclean’s magazine’s annual rankings. Not surprisingly, those institutions consistently finding themselves near the bottom tend to find the criteria both arbitrary and unfair. To be sure, there is more to a memorable and successful university experience than what can be adequately captured in a consumer report. Some of those significant issues, though of less importance to the editors of Maclean’s, are the substance of a new book, Ivory Tower Blues by James Côté and Anton Allahar – both sociology professors at the University of Western Ontario.

The specific concerns of three groups of primary stakeholders in degree delivery are the focus of this book, their second major contribution to understanding the struggles of modern youth as they progress from adolescence to adulthood. Their previous book, Generation on Hold, dealt with delayed maturity among youth compared to previous generations who entered work and family life immediately after secondary school. Ivory Tower Blues, on the other hand, deals with the consequences of making a university degree the entry requirement for corporate employment, and also of opening doors wide to include large numbers of students who may be neither ready for, nor capable of, the kind of rigor that used to be the hallmark of a university education.

University professors, the first stakeholders considered by Côté and Allahar, have been caught between the need to maintain high standards and efforts to make a university education available to students who may have been excluded in the past for a variety of reasons. The consequences of “open doors” have included the dumbing-down of curriculum and the ubiquity of glossy, expensive and pre-digested textbooks.

Conscientious professors struggle to maintain high academic standards out of personal professionalism and for the sake of students and the institutions. They also contend with the impossibility of accommodating underachievers without neglecting high achieving students. The former group has made an art form out of reducing their workload to a minimum and, because they are well aware of the effect of student ratings on a professor’s career, they know how to leverage faculty to give high marks for little or no effort. They generally lack, it could be added, intellectual curiosity or desire; either while in school or later in life.

Côté and Allahar also express concern for parents, the second group of stakeholders, who hold high expectations of what a university education will do for their children, not only for their individual maturation and learning, but also as a guarantor of successful employment, just as a secondary school diploma once was for them. They may recognize that job readiness is a moving target, since credential inflation keeps what is asked for by employers well above the level of skill actually needed to do the job well. Regardless, parents view their children’s university graduation as a personal milestone and as the reward for a financial sacrifice that is, in turn, important to their own well-being. The students themselves, the third set of stakeholders, are all too often entering university ill-prepared for the quality of academic work needed to succeed, let alone prepared for eventual independent work at the graduate level. The authors despair at how many students lack the fundamental skills required for university level performance and thinking, and also at the shift away from “sorting out” students in the first year and the move toward the increasing practice of adjusting grade-scales so that students don’t fail out. They also make clear the high price any academic will pay who tries to force students to increase their workload, especially if that teacher wants to achieve tenure.

A fourth group of stakeholders (though absent from the center stage) could be added: individuals within community colleges seeking a comprehensive, useable and transparent overview of just what degree delivery entails. Many of them share concerns with the authors. They worry about textbook quality, the dumbing down of education, and the emphasis given to placating students rather than upholding high academic expectations for intellectual effort and written work. Ivory Tower Blues is a must read by any individual, whether in the education system or not, who wants an honest presentation of what a university education should be, and why that may be a struggle to achieve. The book is a product of the authors’ extensive research, teaching experience and concern, and of the long standing tradition of healthy debate and open criticism within the academic community; one that is always staunchly defended when the need arises.

This form of open debate is just the outcome that the authors’ hope for in writing their latest book. Taking up the challenge could be both beneficial and rewarding to those willing to articulate the community colleges’ perspective, which changes while emphasis moves from diplomas to applied degrees. Put another way, while this form of debate has not been part of how the community colleges have done business, it is an essential function of full partnership in degree delivery.

College campuses differ from university campuses: and not just by being ivy-free. Could those differences provide answers for some of the authors’ concerns? For example, small class sizes can provide increased opportunities for contact, be gratifying to professors and enhance student learning. Is there a possibility of inspiring scholarship and intellectual desire in the middle group of students who would be lost in a large class? Finally, could these factors be attracting first-rate academics who feel isolated in large classes on traditional university campuses? These and similar questions are worthy of responses, and this is just the book to inspire them.


Dave Armishaw teaches at Georgian College in Barrie, Ontario. He can be reached at <darmishaw@georgianc.on.ca>.

Reviews

• The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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2007 - The College Quarterly, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology