There is no claim of original research in COMMUNITY OF LEARNING, and none is provided. Oakley seeks to marshal sources to support two claims: one, that the controversy over the nature of a liberal education is as old as the liberal arts tradition itself; two, that despite unprecedented numbers of students participating in higher education, the quality of education in America is the envy of the world.
The book was composed in the midst of a busy academic schedule, and it shows. The first of five chapters plunges the reader into a convoluted history of the development, and differentiation, of universities and colleges. There are some 3400 institutions of higher education in America, and Oakley sees their freedom to pursue “truth” wherever it may lead as the meaning of liberal education. In the second chapter, however, he acknowledges a competing tradition which seeks to ground students in the ancient, classic works of literature; the controversy over education is as old as Plato and his rivals.
Chapter three is thirty pages of mostly undigested statistics intended to show the pressures on academia to respond to the needs of millions of students. There are almost a quarter million full and part-time faculty, so it’s small wonder that critics of the state of higher education in America can find (unrepresentative) examples to fill their books.
In the last two chapters Oakley responds to critics by noting that a larger historical perspective suggests quality education has survived and prospered. Oakley is concerned that the many courses taken by undergraduates don’t complement each other very well, and he regrets narrow academic specialization. In the end, however, in a cloud of cliche, he gives “thumbs up” to higher education.