There are two reasons why Choosing The Right College: The Whole Truth About America's Top Colleges 2006 is useful and necessary.
The one that excites editorial writers can be glimpsed in recent events at two presumably not especially exceptional American public institutions of higher education: the Universities of Colorado and South Florida. Both recently had public scandals in which faculty members were found to have supported (and, in at least one case, actively abetted) terrorism and rape.
The terror-master at USF is Professor Sami El-Arian. One need not know much more to judge American higher education's current condition than that USF is considering restoring El-Arian to his faculty position in the wake of his acquittal from some of the counts in the federal indictment against him for his work on behalf of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror faction, crimes he denied committing when speaking with university officials and immigration authorities but which his lawyers admitted in his defense. Perhaps equally troubling, though, are the millions the University has spent building up its money-losing football program, which recruits violent and substandard students.
Colorado, by contrast, did finally dismiss its compulsive-gambler football coach Gary Barnett-although not until the program started losing games, and not just taxpayer money. Barnett's remarks to reporters expressing his sympathy for players who raped the team's female kicker don't seem to have bothered the university's president much. (Although why should they have? The school's president was equally passive in response to the revelation that faculty member Ward Churchill had called 9/11 victims "little Eichmanns", endorsed a repeat of the event and been revealed to be a fraud who had falsified his academic credentials, lying about his lack of a doctorate to receive tenure.)
Yes, the crazy state of academic politics and college sports are one reason to buy the book. After all, if something is much amiss with a campus's climate because sports stars are out-of-control druggies and the profs are admirers of Bin Laden, that's worth knowing about; and Choosing The Right College is the only college guide to show more than a passing interest in such matters.
But there is an even better reason why parents and high school students thinking about school should acquaint themselves with the book. It's the only college guide that asks prospective students to think about the education that they will get at college.
Most college guides provide information about the cafeterias, the average test scores of incoming students, application deadlines and the school's general rep. This book has that as well. But it also provides information that is largely absent from the Barron's and Newsweek books: detailed descriptions of what the curriculum at each school is and what this means for students. Providing this information serves not only to guide students to schools with meaningful courses of study, but to get students to think seriously about the question of what it is that they intend to learn at college when they arrive.
The truth is that most of us spend sums equal to what a small apartment costs on higher education, and then waste most of our thought and energy trying to find the beer-pong contests. If this seems to you an incomplete approach to buyer decision making, then the book may be worth a perusal. Almost every school snapshot includes specific, lengthy and detailed lists of the teachers that intellectually-inclined students have come to most respect for their teaching, their courses and how to map out a meaningful course of study.
Yet Choosing The Right College, while the work of a conservative foundation that seeks to re-focus college instruction on traditional teaching of the humanities, isn't consistent in praising conservative scholars. The book's description of Columbia University, for instance, begins its list of professors most worthy of student attention with leftist history professor Eric Foner. Similarly, the book's look at Princeton says that Bill Clinton's good friend and constant defender Sean Wilentz "certainly knows how to teach American studies." Likewise, it appreciatively notes that Claremont College recently had Tony Kushner and Janet Reno as speakers. And it's frank in describing free speech at Brigham Young: faculty members who endorse atheism risk dismissal.
Moreover, because Choosing isn't dependent on college flacks for its information, it is more critical than other guides in less obvious but obviously more important ways. For example, its accounts of campus life note in specific terms what the crime figures on various schools are. Thus, we find out that MIT has had a recent tripling in the number of campus burglaries to over 100 per year, and George Mason University had 19 rapes of its students reported in the most recent year for which data could be had. To the same end, the book accurately notes that Princeton's "town and gown relations aren't strained-they're nonexistent."
This is a welcome book.
Choosing The Right College 2006: The Whole Truth About America's Top Colleges
John Zmirak, Editor in Chief
ISI Publishers, $28, 951 pages.