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Thoughts on "The Great Upheaval"

Updated: Sep 7



I’m often asked what I’m reading these days. Well, I spent yesterday afternoon/evening (while watching some great college football on TV) reading the brand new book by Art Levine and Scott Van Pelt entitled “The Great Upheaval: Higher Education’s Past, Present and Uncertain Future” (Johns Hopkins Press). I won’t comment on the odd irony of reading about the sweeping changes and transformations in higher ed while watching 3 consecutive nationally televised college football games each played in front of tens of thousands rabid fans in sold out stadiums...


Levine & Van Pelt take three angles on the question of the future of our industry:

  • Looking Backward: a detailed but quite readable historical perspective on higher ed in the US and how adaptation/transformation has occurred in the past – especially the impact of industrial revolution.

  • Looking Forward: a discussion of major trends shaping present/future of higher education: demographics, the knowledge economy, and the information/tech revolution

  • Looking Sideways: a comparison of higher ed to the disruption that happened in the music, film and newspaper industries.

Theirs is a less apocalyptic view than in many recent works – and they strike a reasoned balance between what changes will precipitate adaptation versus transformation in higher education. They note that most colleges/universities may be able to adapt to demographic and economic realities just as they have in the past and can also adapt to the first wave of the tech revolution – but that the impact of the REAL tech revolution (e.g. AI ) will be truly disruptive and transformative but in ways not yet foreseeable. And theirs is a less hyperbolic view of the likely impact of technological change. The comparisons to music, film and newspaper industries were engaging and instructive.


Their concluding prescriptions for college leaders are abbreviated and a bit flat in my opinion – though insightful nonetheless. I wanted more discussion of the systemic resistance to change stemming in part from shared governance and academic culture and deeply-embedded incentive structures (like Brennan and Magness outlined in their highly readable, often humorous but fairly cynical 2019 book “Cracks in the Ivory Tower: The Moral Mess of Higher Education”) But Levine and Van Pelt embrace a long-term view of change, not a focus on quick fixes in the here and now. I was disappointed that they accepted the increasing career-focused unbundling of skill/competency-based education without giving much attention to the need for a new and integrative ‘liberal arts’ education that helps us tackle the world’s inherently ‘bundled’ array of complex, contemporary challenges in multi-disciplinary or inter-disciplinary way – as Joseph Aoun did in his 2018 book “Robot-Proof: Higher Ed in the Age of AI”. And David Epstein in his engaging, sweeping 2019 book “Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World” also presents us with a compelling call to NOT abandon the integrative nature of traditional liberal arts education – at least as it’s espoused if not always practiced.


All in all, I highly recommend Levine and Van Pelt’s book to all those grappling with helping their institutions prepare for the cataclysmic changes underway in higher education with neither pollyannish and naïve optimism nor gloom-and-doom despair. For as long as there’s football, there’s hope.


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