The Vitae Bookshelf: Leonard Cassuto

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Image: Bookshelves, by Giuseppe Maria Crespi, 1725 (Web Gallery of Art)

In a continuing series, Vitae asks academics, administrators, and Ph.D.s to pick the five books that most influenced them in some aspect of their work, professional life, and career — and why. Next up: Leonard Cassuto, a professor of English at Fordham University, who writes The Graduate Adviser column for The Chronicle. His latest book is The Graduate School Mess: What Caused It and How We Can Fix It, published in 2015 by Harvard University Press. Here he recommends five other books to read about academic culture in the American academy.

Behind most of my own writing about higher education is a conviction that we won't be able to confront the problems of today unless we understand where they came from. Every workplace tells a story, usually lots of different stories. The higher-education workplace has more than most — and at a time when academe is under pressure from within and without, these stories matter more than ever.  Here are five books that help to explain how American higher education got started, how it took on its present form, and how that form might change from here.

VeblenThe Higher Learning in America
By Thorstein Veblen

Veblen is often described as an economist, but that sells him way too short: He was a polymathic social scientist with a pen he used as a halberd. In this 1918 classic, he takes on the university during the time of its founding glory. Research universities had proliferated across America during the gilded age. Writing shortly afterward, Veblen indicts the new education industry for its hypocrisy. He may have been the first to suggest that beneath its professed dedication to education and learning, the university was ... a business.

MenandThe Rise of the Research University: A Sourcebook
Edited by Louis Menand, Paul Reitter, and Chad Wellmon

This book, just published last January, tracks the history of the research university through a well-curated collection of documents on subjects ranging from core curricula to coeducation. Short enough to read and not just consult, the book tells a story that begins with the German universities that inspired ours. It ends in Veblen's time, when American universities took on the shape we recognize today. The editors focus on description, not commentary; you'll be able to supply the latter for yourself.

KerrThe Uses of the University
By Clark Kerr

One of the most important books ever written about American academe, by one of its great visionary architects. Kerr designed the University of California system, which encompasses community colleges, the Cal State system of four-year universities, and the University of California research universities. "Uses" isn't a description of the edifice Kerr designed so much as an explanation of the realist ethos behind it: He understood that the university was connected to society, and had to evolve along with it. As a critical assessment of that relation over time, and of the American "multiversity," this 1963 book is without parallel — not least because of Kerr's revisions: The book went through five editions, as he added a new chapter to the book each decade, assessing the melancholy developments of succeeding generations.

VeyseyThe Emergence of the American University
By Laurence R. Veysey

This magisterial book carved such a wide swath of intellectual real estate when it came out in 1965 that few have dared to follow its path. Veysey wrote this book during the free-spending, post-Sputnik heyday of American higher education, when government investment in students and institutions spurred growth unmatched before or since in academe. Veysey looked closely and skeptically at the conflicting ideas that were muzzled and muffled when universities were founded at the turn of the century, and he showed that those conflicts — between utility and belletrism, between research and teaching — continued to smolder, and sometimes flare, afterward. They still burn today, and that makes this brilliant book as useful as it ever was.

DelbancoCollege: What It Was, Is, and Should Be
By Andrew Delbanco

Veysey writes of the enduring importance of "liberal culture" in American higher education, and there is no better history of that idea than this eloquent 2013 book. "College," writes Delbanco, "is our American pastoral" — and the rise of the American university upon collegiate foundations has given this country's higher education its distinctive landscape. Delbanco follows the declension from the optimistic idealism of the early age of the college (with its belief that education could make people and societies better) to the professionalism of today's university (driven by metrics of research output). Beware: This book will make you want to send your child to a liberal-arts college.

Got a booklist to share? Send it to editorial_at_chroniclevitae_dot_com. List your 5 favorite books in your field or in some other category — and tell us in a few sentences why you would recommend them — and we will consider your booklist for publication.

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