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Why One Educator Says It's Time To Rethink Higher Education

Sam Rowe for NPR

"What would it mean to redesign higher education for the intellectual space travel students need to thrive in the world we live in now?"

That is one of the provocative questions that opens Cathy Davidson's latest book, The New Education. And unlike some of the journalists and business figures who have taken previous swings at that piñata, Davidson has a full career of research and practice to inform her abundance of answers.

Cultural historian and technologist Cathy Davidson finds the seeds of necessary innovation in unexpected places, like her home institution, the City University of New York.
John Rottet / Courtesy of Hachette Book Group
Courtesy of Hachette Book Group
Cultural historian and technologist Cathy Davidson finds the seeds of necessary innovation in unexpected places, like her home institution, the City University of New York.

Davidson spent more than two decades as a professor at Duke University. She taught English and humanities, but with the advent of the Internet, she saw the need for a new kind of interdisciplinary and student-centered learning. She opened up her classrooms, beginning in simple ways, trying to get more people to participate and collaborate — while lecturing less. She has even been known to interrupt her own keynote addresses to get people in the audience talking to one another.

In 1998, she became the university's vice provost of interdisciplinary studies. And in 2002, Davidson co-founded the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory, which has grown into an international network of more than 15,000 scholars, artists and technologists working on teaching, learning, technology, innovation and much more.

The New Education's title is taken from Charles Eliot, Harvard University's president for 40 years, beginning in 1869. He is credited for laying the framework that we now recognize as fundamental to formal education, such as credit hours, majors and distribution requirements.

It's time to rethink all of that, Davidson argues. And, the examples are already out there.

Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What led you to write this book now?

I've probably been thinking about it for about 20 years — getting more and more agitated and feeling like so much of what people say about higher ed is governed by that less-than-1 percent of students who go to the most elite private institutions. We have to break that apart and realize there are different goals for different institutions.

You put your money where your mouth is by leaving one of those elite institutions, Duke, for the City University of New York Graduate Center, where you direct something called the Futures Initiative. Tell me why?

First of all, it's the largest public urban institutional system in the country. And it's kind of a metaphor for all of higher education. Some of the CUNY campuses have acceptance rates and test scores on a par with NYU down the street, where the tuition is $50,000, not $6,000.

And, quoting Gail Mellow, the president of LaGuardia Community College: Our mission is to reach the top 100 percent. And if you think that's easier than reaching the top 4 percent, you're far-off.

We have to constantly think, who are we meeting and how are we finding those people? A sex worker, a gang member, someone getting out of prison, someone with severe handicaps, an elderly person retraining, immigrants who don't speak English as a first language.

It's an amazing system to be part of. I'm often frustrated, I often feel like a failure, but I've never met more inspiring students, teachers or administrators.

I have students who walk two hours one way to get to a class, and back two hours for a minimum-wage job — and do that every day because they don't want to take money for MetroCards.

So speaking of money, you talk about when you were in the hospital with a health crisis and got in a conversation with the doctors who saved your life about their crushing medical school debt. And essentially you say that if we are going to bring down the cost of college for students, we need to spend more money. Is that likely?

I think one reason college costs so much is because we've tacitly said college is for the 1 percent or 10 or 20 percent. I do think we have to do better at targeting money to the classroom.

In the best of all possible worlds, I want free tuition to everybody. In reality, I think a more calibrated solution is better. That's why I talk about the system in Australia [where you pay nothing upfront and repay a percentage based on income].

You write, "The new twenty-first-century education makes the academic periphery the core." What does this mean?

The basic structure of academe is the major. But the major is what's most ossified — the least likely to be a good match for anything out in the real world. Back in the late 1990s at Duke, I tried to get our computer science program to do something about the Web. They said no, this isn't computer science. So I created something now called Information Science + Studies.

At every university, there are cool professors doing amazing work antithetical to their real work — and overseeing collaborations too big for any one person. But rarely is it the major. It's often electives or a certificate.

This, plus experiential learning, community-based learning, co-curricular, study abroad programs, independent research projects and capstones ...

All those things on the outside are what people really remember.

You include a list of tips at the back of the book — for students, on getting the most out of their college experience, and for professors and teachers, on making their classes more participatory and more of a level playing field for all people. What are you hoping that people will take away from this book?

That there are things you can do tomorrow that will make an instant difference in how your students learn. And, if you do this, it will make you feel less impotent.

It's an Occupy or Indivisible approach.

And the same thing for administrators and accreditors. They don't want to be bureaucrats who are just doing evil.

I wish every person who reads this felt like it was their job to make a change in their classroom tomorrow.

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Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent at NPR. She joined NPR in 2014, working as part of a new initiative to coordinate on-air and online coverage of learning. Since then the NPR Ed team has won a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Innovation, and a 2015 National Award for Education Reporting for the multimedia national collaboration, the Grad Rates project.