An unquestionably provocative book that hopefully leads to productive debate.

EXCELLENT SHEEP

THE MISEDUCATION OF THE AMERICAN ELITE AND THE WAY TO A MEANINGFUL LIFE

An extended essay about how elite colleges and universities are failing to serve students and society.

Deresiewicz (A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things that Really Matter, 2012, etc.) received an elite education at Columbia University and taught at both Yale and his alma mater. The author uses his experience to deliver an indictment of top-tier higher education, especially regarding undergraduate students. Deresiewicz does not advocate that intelligent, motivated students eschew a college degree. Instead, he presents a program for how the students, their parents, government officials and the private sector can push college administrators and professors to graduate truly educated citizens. The author is unrelentingly critical of students who attend college just because it is expected or might increase their future incomes. In the author’s opinion, most elite college educations are merely extensions of elite high school educations, with students more interested in good grades and resume padding than in finding their true passions. It’s likely that the author will reach readers who confirm his dark critique of American higher education, but it’s just as likely that the book will find detractors—not only due to its deep pessimism, but also due to the author’s selective supporting evidence. When Deresiewicz states that elite colleges "do little or nothing to wake students up from the values and habits they bring with them from high school,” he offers little more than weak circumstantial anecdotes. Many of the author’s anecdotes are interesting case studies, but even those are often presented only superficially. Deresiewicz’s desire for change is admirable, and he is not mistaken about the many problems of higher education. This book has its genesis in an essay published by the American Scholar, an essay the author describes as "cranky." While expanding that essay into a book, the author falls into repetition that might be construed as padding.

An unquestionably provocative book that hopefully leads to productive debate.

Pub Date: Aug. 19, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-4767-0271-1

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Free Press

Review Posted Online: June 5, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2014

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A moving meditation on mortality by a gifted writer whose dual perspectives of physician and patient provide a singular...

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WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR

A neurosurgeon with a passion for literature tragically finds his perfect subject after his diagnosis of terminal lung cancer.

Writing isn’t brain surgery, but it’s rare when someone adept at the latter is also so accomplished at the former. Searching for meaning and purpose in his life, Kalanithi pursued a doctorate in literature and had felt certain that he wouldn’t enter the field of medicine, in which his father and other members of his family excelled. “But I couldn’t let go of the question,” he writes, after realizing that his goals “didn’t quite fit in an English department.” “Where did biology, morality, literature and philosophy intersect?” So he decided to set aside his doctoral dissertation and belatedly prepare for medical school, which “would allow me a chance to find answers that are not in books, to find a different sort of sublime, to forge relationships with the suffering, and to keep following the question of what makes human life meaningful, even in the face of death and decay.” The author’s empathy undoubtedly made him an exceptional doctor, and the precision of his prose—as well as the moral purpose underscoring it—suggests that he could have written a good book on any subject he chose. Part of what makes this book so essential is the fact that it was written under a death sentence following the diagnosis that upended his life, just as he was preparing to end his residency and attract offers at the top of his profession. Kalanithi learned he might have 10 years to live or perhaps five. Should he return to neurosurgery (he could and did), or should he write (he also did)? Should he and his wife have a baby? They did, eight months before he died, which was less than two years after the original diagnosis. “The fact of death is unsettling,” he understates. “Yet there is no other way to live.”

A moving meditation on mortality by a gifted writer whose dual perspectives of physician and patient provide a singular clarity.

Pub Date: Jan. 19, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-8129-8840-6

Page Count: 248

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Sept. 30, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2015

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The value of this book is the context it provides, in a style aimed at a concerned citizenry rather than fellow academics,...

HOW DEMOCRACIES DIE

A provocative analysis of the parallels between Donald Trump’s ascent and the fall of other democracies.

Following the last presidential election, Levitsky (Transforming Labor-Based Parties in Latin America, 2003, etc.) and Ziblatt (Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy, 2017, etc.), both professors of government at Harvard, wrote an op-ed column titled, “Is Donald Trump a Threat to Democracy?” The answer here is a resounding yes, though, as in that column, the authors underscore their belief that the crisis extends well beyond the power won by an outsider whom they consider a demagogue and a liar. “Donald Trump may have accelerated the process, but he didn’t cause it,” they write of the politics-as-warfare mentality. “The weakening of our democratic norms is rooted in extreme partisan polarization—one that extends beyond policy differences into an existential conflict over race and culture.” The authors fault the Republican establishment for failing to stand up to Trump, even if that meant electing his opponent, and they seem almost wistfully nostalgic for the days when power brokers in smoke-filled rooms kept candidacies restricted to a club whose members knew how to play by the rules. Those supporting the candidacy of Bernie Sanders might take as much issue with their prescriptions as Trump followers will. However, the comparisons they draw to how democratic populism paved the way toward tyranny in Peru, Venezuela, Chile, and elsewhere are chilling. Among the warning signs they highlight are the Republican Senate’s refusal to consider Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee as well as Trump’s demonization of political opponents, minorities, and the media. As disturbing as they find the dismantling of Democratic safeguards, Levitsky and Ziblatt suggest that “a broad opposition coalition would have important benefits,” though such a coalition would strike some as a move to the center, a return to politics as usual, and even a pragmatic betrayal of principles.

The value of this book is the context it provides, in a style aimed at a concerned citizenry rather than fellow academics, rather than in the consensus it is not likely to build.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5247-6293-3

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: Nov. 13, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2017

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