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The New Education

I recently read The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University and Prepare Students For a World in Flux by Cathy N. Davidson. Davidson has long been an academic hero of mine for, among her many accomplishments, co-founding of HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory), a community of folks interested in “changing the way we think and learn.” This latest book of hers should be required reading for anyone involved in higher education in any capacity. It is hands down the best book I’ve read on how higher education has gotten to our current state and the changes we need to make to fulfill our mission of helping students to engage meaningfully with our current (and future) society. In fact, this book is a manifesto for what we at Plymouth State University are saying we want to implement with our integrated cluster initiative.

The book is full of cogent arguments, research summaries, and practical examples. Davidson starts with a history of the last time that higher education was overhauled–the 1850s and 60s. In 1869, Charles Eliot, the young president of Harvard, wrote an essay called “The New Education” for The Atlantic Monthly. In the essay, Eliot argues that 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.” The old education, Eliot argues, requires radical transformation to prepare young men for this important work. Eliot and his contemporaries embarked on this radical transformation , succeeding in completely remaking higher education.Β Taking the title of Eliot’s essay as the title of her book, Cathy Davidson argues that we continue to live by the values, assumptions, processes, and structures implemented by those reformers. But the new education of the late 19th century was designed for an industrial world. Today’s digital world has changed so drastically, Davidson argues, that we are no longer adequately preparing students for it. Davidson lays out her ideas for what we must do to revolutionize higher education to serve the students of today.

Nearly every page of this book contains nuggets of wisdom and truth worth quoting. In a short blog post such as this, it will be difficult to capture the richness of her vision. I’ll try to point out some of her most important observations and recommendations but reading this post will pale in comparison to reading the book.

Davidson’s discussion of the current structures we use to organize what we do–credit hours, semesters, exams at the end of a semester, grades, grade point averages, majors, minors, and so on–was one of the most thought-provoking parts of the book for me. She writes, “Eliot and his colleagues were part of the zeitgeist of industrialization, data-driven scientific methods, quantifiable outcomes, professionalization, specialization, new modes of manufacturing, and new ideas about labor and management.” (p. 36) Many of their ideas about structuring the modern university came from the work of Frederick Winslow Taylor, “whose principal objective was to apply quantifiable or ‘scientific’ measurement to labor to increase economic efficiency and productivity.” (p. 37) (By the way, Taylor was the first professor hired in one of the first business schools in the country–Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business right here in NH.) Taylor’s work focused on quantitative metrics, standardization, and time-and-motion studies, all designed to maximize efficiency of specialized labor. Understanding these roots for our current structures helped me to see that there is nothing “natural” about these structures and this in turn helps to free my thinking from some of those structures.

The third and fourth chapters of the book are called “Against Technophobia” and “Against Technophilia.” As a computer scientist who felt out of place in that field because of my interest in true human-centeredness in our technology development, I couldn’t agree more with these two chapters of the book.

In “Against Technophobia,” Davidson argues that we must incorporate technology into everything we do in higher education. For example, she argues that classroom device bans make no sense. Why would we ban laptops in the classroom when the students live in a world with nearly ubiquitous technology? Instead of banning these tools, our classrooms should make productive use of them. She writes, “It’s odd and even irresponsible that formal education is the one place where we’re not using the devices on which we do our learning all the rest of the time.” (p. 78) She challenges us “to rethink higher education so that our students are digitally literate–so that they understand, gain insight into, and maybe even exert more control over the technologies that have changed and sometimes dominated our lives and will do so even more in the future.” (p. 80) To effectively use technology in a classroom, she continues, the teacher must employ active learning strategies. Often, students have been indoctrinated to expect lectures where they takes notes, pass the class, and never think about the material again. The new education, Davidson writes, requires us to really put the students and their learning at the center. This challenges us all. A true focus on learning “requires more engagement from the student; it also requires more imagination from the faculty than simply standing in front of a lecture hall for a few hours and reciting what you already know.” (p. 86)

On the other hand, in “Against Technophilia,” Davidson warns us to be critical of the idea that technology is a panacea. Technology use for the sake of technology use is not the way to go. In fact, she argues, many of the ways in which technology is imposed upon higher education is actually damaging to student learning. She uses the MOOC craze from about 5 years ago as an example of bad use of technology that was doomed to failure, at least the way it was practiced in nearly every case. In case you were not paying attention to higher education or the news in the early 2010s, a MOOC is a massive open online course. They were supposed to disrupt education and put most colleges and universities out of business. The idea is that “MOOCs deliver ‘courses’ in the form of a sequence of digitized video lectures posted to an interactive Learning Management System … .” (p. 101) Davidson goes on to say (and I agree), “The MOOC pedagogical model of experts pontificating in half-hour videos feels retrograde to me, a digitization of the tired, passive, broadcast model of education, the one-way transmission of information straight from the expert’s mouth to the student’s ear.” (p. 102) Since the early 2010s, MOOCs have failed to live up to the hype and the promise of millions of dollars of venture capital because the vast majority of students failed to learn using this model. Davidson was asked during this time to teach a MOOC and so she decided to try to create one that embraced Seymour Papert‘s ideals of constructionism–student-centered, active learning (which I’ve written about before). The design and implementation of this MOOC were the subject of a series of Chronicle of Higher Education columns, which are worth reading on their own. Davidson’s point in this chapter is that preparing students to live in the digital world means that we have to help them look realistically and critically at technology design and use wherever they encounter it.

The final thing I’ll point out about Davidson’s book is that the last chapter provides “Ten Tips for Transforming Any Classroom for Active, Student-Centered Learning.” She has written about some of these ideas before. I won’t explain all ten of the tips. But the last one from the book is called Public Contribution to Knowledge. Davidson writes, “Students work best when they know their work is for their future beyond school, not just for the test, and when they realize their work contributes. For the last decade, I’ve refused to assign students any term or research project that they do only for me for the purpose of a grade.” I read this idea a few years ago and saw it as a challenge in my own teaching. This simple idea has transformed everything I think about how best to teach my students. My thoughts and skills in meeting this challenge evolve with every class and every assignment. I think this tip is at the core of getting students to own their education. It is the key to helping students change their relationship to knowledge. And I find that very exciting and promising for the “new education.”

There is so much more to think about and write about in this book. I haven’t even mentioned any of the inspiring and enlightening examples she provides. If you read only one book about higher education this year, it should be The New Education.

Article written by:

I am currently Professor of Digital Media at Plymouth State University in Plymouth, NH. I am also the current Coordinator of General Education at the University. I am interested in astrophotography, game studies, digital literacies, open pedagogies, and generally how technology impacts our culture.

1 Comment

  1. actualham

    I love this book so much. I also really appreciate the way she establishes a credible set of informed practices: she builds community and listens to practitioners and asks questions and tries things in teams and iterates… It’s such a neat model for both faculty development and institutional innovation– so much more sustainable, I think, than trucking in an idea from somewhere and laying it over some culture where it’s too unfamiliar or disconnected from daily experience. She is the best. Great write-up here!

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