An Educator Makes the Case That Higher Learning Needs to Grow Up

Cathy N. Davidson Credit John Rottet/The News and ObserverTHE NEW EDUCATION

How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World in Flux
By Cathy N. Davidson
318 pp. Basic Books. $28.

American higher education still operates on a model of academic disciplines, lecture-driven teaching and ubiquitous testing that was put in place in the 19th century. Society, economy, technology and careers have all changed dramatically. But though academics pride themselves on their intellectual creativity, universities have changed less than business, the military or the practice of religion. Mostly, they've grown. Professional schools and "big science" are largely new developments. But the core model for undergraduate education is pretty much the same.

In "The New Education," Cathy N. Davidson argues that college could be so much better. She takes her title from an essay by Charles Eliot, the 19th-century Harvard president who largely pioneered the old model. Of course, Eliot worked when universities were few and small, and his ideas shaped their growth. Higher education is now a "mature industry."

Davidson argues persuasively that student-centered, active learning can transform classrooms and even online courses. Technology itself is neither the enemy nor the solution (recent fantasies about massive open online courses, or MOOCs, notwithstanding). She rightly rails against both rising costs and a public defunding of higher education that together mean students graduate with huge debt burdens and accordingly make educational choices based on guesses at how they can best pay them off rather than what they want to learn or how they can best contribute to the world. She criticizes disciplinary departments as too dominant and points out that neither the world's problems nor its jobs are organized entirely by academic disciplines. She complains that ubiquitous grading and ranking of both students and schools have produced not only an obsession with hierarchical standing but also an approach focused more on exclusivity and weeding out than on helping everyone learn.

Happily, Davidson also presents some heroes. She praises LaGuardia Community College and community colleges generally for showing that creativity and active learning are compatible with open admission. She is enthusiastic about Arizona State University's experiments in replacing the academic department structure with integrative fields of study oriented to solving real-world problems. She likes Georgetown's effort to empower students in its own efforts to innovate. She praises Hampshire College for ending reliance on standardized tests. Yet the Hampshire example is also poignant. It opened its doors in 1970, at the tail end of the last wave of optimistic creation of new institutions.

Davidson also praises individual faculty members who teach in ways that really engage students. She even offers tips both for teachers who want to run better classes and for students who want to get more out of college. And Davidson is herself a creative teacher as well as an accomplished researcher, an innovator in the "digital humanities" and an administrator who belies that label by not just running things but helping others transcend academic disciplines and the simple perpetuation of old teaching models. But part of her message is that she is an exception: The existing system dominates and discourages teachers who want to do better.

Davidson's enthusiasm and her examples should inspire creativity from a lot more college teachers. And in fact there is a lot of good teaching in American higher education. But the puzzle left by Davidson's book is why the overall model has been so impervious to change. It's not just that institutions are conservative but also that they are embedded in an enormous, complex system serving many masters. Good teachers by themselves can't fix this — and part of the problem is that good teachers and a better educational experience for students aren't valued enough. To explain why would require more attention to the political economy of universities, to the contradictory demands placed on them, to the reasons public funding has been curtailed and to the transformations remaking the whole societal context for the new education. But inspiration is a fair starting point.


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