Cathy N. Davidson, “The New Education”

Susan D. Blum reviews Cathy N. Davidson’s new book, The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World in Flux.

Out with the Old! What Students Need Now

Cathy N. Davidson has been writing about her experiments in education for years (for example here and here and here). She brings to her new book deep understanding of the context, history, successes, and shortcomings of the dominant forms of higher education—college—and highlights several dozen approaches that are more successful. These are more appropriate, she argues, than the conventional forms, which have not changed in more than a hundred years, because they respect students’ abilities, teach them to employ the affordances of not only technology but also other people, and anticipate that the content of whatever they do in college will have only limited relevance in the future—so they need to focus on learning to learn. Conventional colleges have outlived their initial purposes, which were to train managers in a newly industrializing and urbanizing society, when books were scarce and simply ingesting information was challenging enough. They selected only top students and churned them through a disciplinary mill, certified by authorities.

That’s not what we need now.

Information is hardly rare. We need, rather, to teach students—all people—to find it, evaluate it, use it, as they ask real questions and prepare for an ever-changing career and cultural landscape. Davidson rejects the idea of a simple vocational focus for higher education, because no matter how quickly students will find a first job if they have narrow skills training, it is almost certain that this will not be their only job. So the purpose of higher education has to be to prepare them for flexibility.

The New Education derives its title through citation, exactly, of a two-part essay published in 1869 in The Atlantic Monthly, by Charles Eliot, the transformative president of Harvard. (Titles are not subject to copyright, FYI.) After earnestly scouring Europe’s educational systems, Eliot brought to Harvard and then to the rest of us the familiar forms of college, with their disciplines, majors, requirements, entrance exams, grades, and “scientific management” methods borrowed from Frederick Winslow Taylor and his time-and-motion studies in factory production. Though Davidson admires Eliot, who was innovative in his moment, she also makes sure her readers understand that his vision worked for his time, and that it is now the moment for a new rethinking of the purposes and processes of higher education.

All the illustrations she provides are inspiring and hopeful, going far beyond what are now ubiquitous “STEM” or “STEAM” or “digital humanities” or “interdisciplinary” innovations (and rejecting MOOCs entirely). The vision is radical, and has many dimensions. Some of the cases she presents, in some luxurious detail, include the following:

  • LaGuardia Community College, whose president, Gail Mellow, believes that all students need to be nurtured rather than sorted and (some) discarded (pp. 59-63);
  • Olin College of Engineering where Sara Hendren teaches by co-creating the course with her students, just as engineers have to be responsive to and creative about solving real design problems (pp. 156-161);
  • The huge Arizona State University, under the leadership of president Michael Crow, now emphasizes inclusion and economic equity, tying classes to their location, reorganizing departments into integrated schools (pp. 141-152), and discarding “a narrow-minded ‘skills’ approach to higher education in favor of student-centered learning” (p. 151);
  • Alexander Coward at Berkeley where he was fired for his unconventional learning-focused approach, despite his students’ success on “objective” tests—and passionate appreciation; maybe he made other faculty look too bad (pp. 193-200)?
  • John (Jack) DeGioia, president of Georgetown, where The Red House aims to rethink higher education (pp. 227-246);
  • Michael Wesch’s “The Anthropology of Aging: Digital Anthropology” course at Kansas State, in which students live for a semester in a retirement community (pp. 216-226);
  • She provides a few examples of her own courses.

Davidson’s vision is not elitist. In the chapter on “Why College Costs so Much,” Davidson encourages greater public investment in higher education, claiming that the most successful “national business” of the United States in the last hundred and fifty years has been higher education (p. 187). Citing careful work by Sara Goldrick-Rab, Davidson shows how the states (using Wisconsin as her case study) have reduced drastically their share of support, resulting in life-destroying student debt (impossible to evade even through declaring bankruptcy) and a barrier to attendance and completion for many nonwealthy students and their families.

One way of measuring this is to compare state appropriations per thousand dollars of state personal income. In 1981, Wisconsin appropriated $10.18, falling in 1990 to $9.24, in 2000 to $7.52, in 2010 to $6.32, and in 2016 to just $5.00—so it has fallen by half (pp. 170-171). Another way to look at this is to note that even private colleges’ tuition used to be affordable. Yale’s 1970 tuition of $2500 could be earned by working 4.8 hours of minimum-wage ($1.45) work a day; in 2014 the $45,800 tuition would require 17 hours a day at minimum wage ($7.25)—an obviously absurd proposition. (Davidson ignores here the point that most students don’t actually pay the “sticker price” but rather the “net price”—and the finances of financial aid are another miasma, like airplane tickets…)

In addition to challenging the enormous expense of higher education, Davidson fascinatingly argues against both technophobia (fear of new technology) and technophilia (belief that technology is the cure-all). She compares slide rules and calculators (I’ve done this too) and looks at MOOCs Massive Open Online Courses (The New York Times declared 2012 “the year of the MOOC,” a fashion that came and went fast), which essentially reify the old elite lecturer model. Linguistic anthropologists will savor this nuanced approach to investigating the ideologies as well as the actual practices surrounding various media.

I love the affection and respect Davidson demonstrates for the students currently being allowed to work on more complex issues than simply mastering an old, tired syllabus. The most exciting sections of the book are when she shows the successful implementation of new approaches.

Davidson herself exemplifies the constant reinvention we anticipate for our students.

She began as a professor of English, studying in part the cultural, historical, political, and technological contexts of the American novel. One of her first creative detours was 36 Views of Mt Fuji: On Finding Myself in Japan, written following four stints living in Japan; if you are looking for a gift, this book would satisfy many readers. She did a book with a photographer about the closing of a century-old furniture factory in North Carolina. She taught at several universities and other educational institutions, where she grew interested in the mismatch between what students seemed to need and want, and the established expected curriculum (“Freshman Composition”), with its term papers and five-paragraph essays.

At Duke, she began to achieve public prominence and became Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies. In her role as a campus leader, she cofounded HĀSTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory), the “interdisciplinary community” claiming 14,000 members, aiming to “change the way we teach and learn.” There she developed a sophisticated understanding of the potential and limitations of new media-building on her nuanced understanding of how such earlier new media (printing press and affordable books) had influenced literature and politics. She moved to the Graduate Center at CUNY in 2014, where she is Distinguished Professor and Director of the Futures Initiative, to influence a greater number of students, with greater diversity. Many of the cases she details stem from the institutional partnerships among HĀSTAC, Duke, CUNY, ASU, and Georgetown

The New Education is a clear, compelling account of a truly dire situation.

Anthropologists might wonder about some dimensions, but these do not diminish the power of the presentation. Davidson states, as if there is no possible dissent, that “We all know that college has never mattered more” (p. 187) as she challenges it outrageous contemporary costs. This may not be the case; arguments about the economic benefits of attending and finishing college show that probably not everyone knows, or accepts, this.

Davidson’s baseline is that our world is “postindustrial and post-Internet,” that “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 next shock to the economy is on the horizon, even if we can’t see it yet” (pp 3-4). In this context, she sees college as having to do better. One might agree with her generalized, timeless present assessment of “the situation,” and still challenge its overly generalized conclusions: Some people do work in industry; some people (wind turbine service technicians, for example—the fastest growing category of jobs) may separate their work and home lives.

Davidson is driven in part by a vision of equity, and social class is a constant theme.

I was pleased to see John Mogulescu, dean of the School of Professional Studies at CUNY (pp. 63-71), point out that having an associate’s degree in and of itself won’t guarantee a middle-class life; that is society’s responsibility. Wages paid for all work should be living wages, so that jobs are justly compensated.

“We can do our part—we can give them a good education, we can ensure that they graduate. But if the jobs they are going into are paying several dollars an hour, then that’s not the fault of higher education. That’s the fault of a greedy society” (p. 70).

Anthropologists of education might want a little more in-depth study of the actual workings of all these experiments, however. Davidson tends to consult with the leaders and to make a quick visit, talking with a few students. In the LaGuardia Community College case, for example, she shows that all colleges could learn from the student-centered approach. I concur. (In fact I’ve decided that if I donate money to educational institutions, they will be to community colleges, which educate about half our students.) She quotes President Mellow, who spoke admiringly of “students who walk from Flushing to take one class and then walk back to get to their part-time, minimum-wage job… That’s ten miles each way. They are determined to get an education no matter what. You tell me we aren’t training our future leaders!” (p. 61). But what of the ones who stop walking, even if they do get a subway card?

What of the failures? Are all educators in these schools on board? Who resists? Colleagues frequently lament to me students who resist efforts at radical pedagogical transformation: A math teacher at a community college brought in all kinds of creative connections to the world, but his students wanted “real math”—worksheets and algorithms—rather than concepts. I have heard that not all faculty at Arizona State embrace the reorganized “schools” and that the actual results are not always as radical as the conception. This would be an ideal topic to investigate ethnographically.

But that is for another scholar to undertake. Davidson has significant strengths and access, and she need not write a two-thousand-page multidisciplinary study. (She rejects trans-, multi-, cross-disciplinary because she rejects disciplines entirely.) She has written an important book.

This book is easy to read, with profiles of inspiring individual transformers; it is a model of how to convey detailed and complex material accessibly and without jargon. The overall approach is informed by deep understanding of class (not so much gender, race, sexuality), focused on the United States in historical context. The author has both theoretical and practical understanding, and is critical in the best sense, providing alternatives and positive suggestions, not just tearing down a deeply flawed system. She strongly promotes a system of higher education, but not in its current form.

The concluding short appendices are for current college students and current college faculty who are not in a position to undertake radical transformation; they are reminiscent of James Lang’s Small Teaching (and of my own contributions in this vein). These are the kinds of advice that tend to be provided by teaching-and-learning centers on most campuses: practical, working within constraints.

As an anthropologist I may be missing a little broader, and international, context, but as a writer (and frequent reviewer of manuscripts) I am sympathetic to the notion that other people should not be trashed for failing to write the book I wish they had written. And this book has an excellent point of view; it builds on careful study; it is well presented.

Read it.

And change the world! If you are an academic or a student or an administrator, begin with college.

Susan D. Blum, Department of Anthropology, The University of Notre Dame.

Davidson, Cathy. 2017. The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World In Flux. New York: Basic Books.

One thought on “Cathy N. Davidson, “The New Education””

  1. The review convinced me to buy the book and to have a good idea what I stand to gain from it. And the review, rather than being primarily a judgment on the work is an unusually welcome dialog with the author and reader. Nice!

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