The New, New Education

Cathy Davidson’s new book is a manifesto on teaching students -- and institutions -- how to survive and thrive in the digital age.

August 24, 2017
 

“The American people are fighting the wilderness, physical and moral, on the one hand, and on the other are struggling to work out the awful problem of self-government,” Charles W. Eliot wrote in The Atlantic Monthly in 1869. “For this fight they must be trained and armed.”

Calling for a “new education” for the sons of the industrial age, Eliot wrote that American colleges were too “inflexible” for so rapidly changing a world. Moreover, he said, “A large number of professors trained in the existing methods hold firm possession, and transmit the traditions they inherited. Then there are the recognized textbooks, mostly of exquisite perverseness, but backed by the reputation of their authors and the capital of their publishers.”

Eliot’s words may resonate today, but his plea was successful: soon after he wrote that essay, he was named president of Harvard University. In that position, he helped lead a series of reforms on his campus and others to create the modern research university. Among other changes, the introduction of a graduate school, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, letter grades, and what Eliot called “spontaneous diversity of choice” in courses bridged culture and industry.

Time for Transformation

Nearly 150 years on, it’s time for another new education, argues Cathy N. Davidson, director of the Futures Initiative at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and Ruth F. DeVarney Professor Emerita of Interdisciplinary Studies at Duke University.

College students, soon-to-be students and recent graduates have been given a “raw deal,” Davidson writes in her forthcoming book, The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World in Flux (Basic Books). How? While institutions of higher learning are good at helping young people move from childhood to adulthood, they’re no longer good “at equipping graduates to succeed in an ever more complex and bewildering world.”

Eliot and his champions’ “prescriptive, disciplinary and specialized training worked well for most of the 20th century,” Davidson says, but it “makes a lot less sense for our post-internet world, in which the boundaries between work and home are far less distinct, work itself is more precarious, wages are largely stagnant, automation is expanding and becoming more sophisticated, democratic institutions are failing, professions are disappearing, and the new shock to the economy is on the horizon, even if we can’t see it yet.”

Teaching Students to Become Experts (in Anything)

Now is probably a good time to mention that Davidson’s New Education doesn’t offer a one-size-fits-all plan to reform academe: there is no silver bullet, not even technology. In separate chapters called “Against Technophobia” and “Against Technophilia,” for example, Davidson chastises proponents of technological “disruption” for their alleged narrow-mindedness, and alternately, opponents of technological innovation for being equally out of touch.

“Far too many of those who seek quick, expensive technological fixes are simply automating 19th-century ideas of education as synonymous with outputs, production, specialization, content, assessment and credentialing,” Davidson said in an interview. “That’s wrongheaded. Learning, almost definitionally, is that which isn’t automatic. You learn any time you change, any time you are required to stop, think, revise an opinion or change a mental or physical habit.”

Learning, she said, “is about insight, application, paradigm shifts, failing, trying again and so forth. Learning cannot be automated. Cognitively, learning is the opposite of habit -- the opposite of automation.”

At the same time, Davidson said, the new education requires colleges and universities to address all the changes that automation has wrought on the economy, politics and work.

What does such a transformation look like? Davidson argues in her book that it will be different on every campus. But it must happen from the inside out, “systemically and systematically, from the classroom to the Board of Trustees, from the fundamentals of how we teach and learn to how we measure outcomes," to how we “select, credential and accredit in this hyperconnected, precarious time.”

Students today, she says, “need so-called soft skills, including strategies, methods and tactics for successful communication and collaboration.” They need new ways of integrating knowledge, including by reflection on what they’re learning -- not more “teaching to the test.” They need student-centered, active learning and to be encouraged to make public or professional contributions beyond the classroom.

Such skills, she adds, “are necessary to navigate a world in flux, where [students] cannot count on continuing for any length of time in the job or even in the field for which they were originally trained.”

Davidson’s vision, ultimately, is that “students don’t just master what an expert sets out of them but, rather, learn how to become experts themselves.”

A common defense of the classic liberal arts education (the kind derided by politicians who call, say, for fewer philosophers and more welders) is that it doesn’t just prepare students for a first job, but for a career. Asked how the new education departs from that ideal, Davidson said what she’s advocating doesn’t just prepare one for a changing jobs landscape, but a “changing landscape” over all. Put another way, she said, institutions need to support students in learning skills “that will make them not just work-force ready but world ready.”

Unfortunately, she said, “as presently constructed, the traditional liberal arts education can reinforce the status quo. I champion an untraditional liberal arts, a new kind of general education that is expansive, deep, reflective, analytical, critical, creative, technological, sometimes combining a preprofessional application with a liberal arts grounding.”

Intellectual Space Travel

Davidson recalled, for example, an anecdote she discusses in her book, in which 15 in-class students in a massive open online course on the history and future of higher education are charged with turning an online class of 18,000 into interactive seminars. On the first day of the class, she asks who invented the printing press for an automatic A in the course. Wary that “Gutenberg” is too easy an answer, no one answers right away.

Davidson next challenges students to work together, using all their devices to find a verifiable source that challenges their initial response. Within 10 minutes, she says, students come up with an alternate history, going back to Bi Sheng’s development of the basics of movable type during China’s Song Dynasty. Students are next asked to look through course catalogs and syllabi online to see how many American courses incorporate that knowledge: few do.

(As something of an aside, the power of the internet can’t be overstated for Davidson, who -- quoting writer Ta-Nehisi Coates -- likens it to intellectual “space travel.” Education today means, therefore, retraining “to be hypervigilant about veracity, analysis, critical thinking, historical depth, subterfuge, privacy, security, deception, manipulation, logic and sound interpretation,” she said. “We have to be concerned about such traps as false equivalency.”)

Beyond the liberal arts, Davidson takes aim at common science, technology, engineering and math programs for their propensity to divorce content from human, social and cultural factors.

“That peripheralizes STEM, as if it has no impact or importance on individuals and society or vice versa,” she told Inside Higher Ed. “No wonder there’s a STEM crisis. No wonder we have Silicon Valley churning out products and profits that reify the 1 percent, rather than serving well the greater good of humanity.”

Pockets of Change

For all its criticism, The New Education offers profile after profile of people, groups and institutions it describes as rising to the challenge. Davidson lauds Sha Xin Wei, director of the School of Arts, Media and Engineering at Arizona State University, for example, who poses a complex question of study each year, such as, “What will life be like in Phoenix when there is no more water?” The notion, Davidson said, makes climate change an “urgent, collective social issue, in which every student, in every discipline, has a stake and a contribution to make. We’re in this together.”

Davidson is a fan of Arizona State, including President Michael Crow, whom she describes as empowering those around him to innovate. Touching on the challenges of reform, however, she also details the case of Alexander Coward, a math lecturer whose contract was not renewed by the University of California, Berkeley, because he failed to follow department norms of assessment. It wasn’t that Coward was a bad teacher -- he was incredibly popular and his students did as well or better in their subsequent classes than those from other sections. But he favored formative feedback over summative, grade-style feedback, based on educational research, and his department didn’t approve.

Davidson traces the problem back to the research university model that perversely relies on “flunk-out” gatekeeper-style courses as prerequisites for certain majors. Criticizing bell curves and grades as a be-all, end-all approach to assessment that comes at the expense of true evaluation, The New Education portrays Coward as a hero, and as a victim of the status quo. (Coward has since started an education company based in Berkeley.)

Other examples of new educators include Mike Wesch, a professor of anthropology at Kansas State University, who recently had his Anthropology of Aging: Digital Anthropology students temporarily move out of their dorms and into a local retirement community. The goal was to have students learn enough from their new mentors to create a video game on a serious topic: making end-of-life decisions.

At Olin College, in Massachusetts, assistant professor of design Sara Hendren asks her students to “co-create” assistive technology with her. Working with a fellow engineer who was born with one arm, Hendren and her students have learned that the engineer, Chris Hinojosa, doesn't want or need a heavy mechanical arm. So they've built him a lightweight, modular socket that allows him to switch out different extensions for different purposes. They've studied plants with grasping tendrils and read and looked at art in the process.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology, meanwhile, has granted Christina Ortiz, former dean of graduate education, the time and space to develop an entirely new university based on project-based learning.

The examples go on and on. But how do they become the rule, not the exception? Davidson said she was optimistic that the new education could be grown through careful collaboration, in part because the stakes are so very high.

Without hyperbole, she said, “the fate of all living things on this planet is in the hands of a next generation who are currently being trained, by our educational system, to excel at coming up with the one best answer from among five on multiple-choice tests. That’s horrifying.”

Where to Start

As a start, The New Education includes two appendices, one each for students and teachers. For students, it offers a top 10 list for getting the most out of college, including “form a study group,” “learn beyond the classroom” and “shop around for the right adviser, and use them. Often.” Additionally, Davidson says, “Make your major your minor. Look for a major in the field you think you might want to pursue as a career, but also look for one with the fewest requirements so, structurally, you can keep your options open, explore other fields and interests, and take all the electives you want in your major.”

For professors, for example, she advises collectively designing a syllabus with students on the first day, and setting up a Google Doc for shared note taking to eschew the “laptop or no laptop question.” Have all students raise their hands in response to a question, telling them they’re allowed to say, “I don’t know the answer” or “I don’t understand the question." And have them write “exit tickets” with a thought or question about the day’s class.

Davidson already has proven herself to be something of a contemporary Eliot -- or at least visionary -- via her early support for the digital humanities (she’s co-founder of the Humanities, Arts, Science and Technology Advanced Collaboratory) and general interest in how education intersects with the economy.

Indeed, Davidson’s previous books include Revolution and the Word, on the relationship between technology, community, education and social change; Closing: The Life and Death of an American Factory, on de-industrialization; The Future of Thinking: Learning Institutions in the Digital Age; and Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work and Learn.

“I have never stopped thinking about and researching those relationships between labor, social justice, social exploitation, technology and education, as both enforcer and enabler, engine of mobility and ladder of social inequality,” Davidson said.

All those themes run through The New Education. So is it a manifesto?

“Yes, I guess it is,” Davidson said.

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