Moving ahead

  • In education, innovation and transformation will continue, and the new and fresh will enrich the old and outdated
- Pramod Mishra, Kathmandu

Apr 12, 2018-

This past Monday (April 9), we had the first of two book discussion sessions on Cathy N Davidson’s 2017 book called The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World In Flux. Published by Basic Books, the book propounds Davidson’s new ideas about higher education in the United States. I must make a disclosure here that Davidson was my first academic advisor in graduate school and I took one of my first classes with her in the 1990s. Having established her academic reputation with the two novels Revolution and the Word and Reading in America, Davidson went on to write and edit books and journals for both the academic as well as popular press. She became the chair of an interdisciplinary humanities centre and co-founded HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboration), a leading organisation that aided the movement of the new wave of the Digital Humanities. She was also nominated by President Obama for a position on the National Council on the Humanities.  And now, she leads the Futures Initiative at the Graduate Centre of the City University of New York. So, Davidson is eminently qualified to write authoritatively about American higher education and what it lacks and what it needs.

Out with the old

In her 2017 book, Davidson argues that the college and university education we see today in the United States has become outdated because it was conceived and designed for the age of industrialisation and urbanisation in the post-civil war (1860-1865) America by Charles Eliot, the man who became a long-term President of Harvard (1869-1909) and established 

and implemented his vision of higher education culled from continental Europe, especially Germany, and moulded to suit the American reality of industrialisation, Taylorism and the emerging capitalism of the new age.  Eliot wrote a book called The New Education for his age.  Davidson has written her book of the same name for her era, an era where the internet, outsourcing, robotics and AI (artificial intelligence) have radically transformed the nature of professional work by creating a new economy. She argues that the existing structure of higher education with disciplinary silos and professors as fountains of wisdom can no longer prepare today’s millennial generation for the challenges of the future. The crisis and economic disarray that Eliot witnessed more than a century ago has gripped America today in a new way, and today, the university Eliot designed to provide a solution no longer works.

Davidson proposes a series of remedies for higher education today. In such chapters as “College for Everyone,” “Against Technophobia,” “Against Technophilia,” “The Future of Learning,” Davidson takes the middle path for the adoption of technology.  She emphases innovative, student-centred, collaborative, experiential, project-based learning. She is against both MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses) hype, insisting the role of active learning for students, and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) hype, insisting that what is fashionable in the STEM field today will go out of fashion tomorrow. Nimbleness, flexibility, adaptability to new environment, lifelong self-learning, skills to interact with multicultural, global workforce in diverse settings are the skills that will never become outdated in this dynamic, uncertain globalised economy.

And such learning can occur when STEM learning is combined in an interdisciplinary structure with the humanities and the social sciences. That’s why study abroad programmes, teamwork, internships and externships where students can get real life experience and learn by getting to do things along with their project-based course work, and collaborative, active learning will prepare students for the future. Combining Shakespeare learning with robotics is what will prepare students for the future.  

Propagation of new ideas

Many of the things Davidson advocates are already being put into practice in many places in the US and she chooses individual examples ranging from the New York City community college system to Arizona State to make her point. In the appendix of her book, she offers some practical tips both for college students and instructors. She asks students to diversify. Students should consider a college to be a foreign country, a place where they should seek out people who are different from them so they can learn about people, places and cultures. Similarly, they should also diversify their subjects by focusing on diverse disciplines so that they have a broader range of knowledge, because who knows what will come in handy in the working world? She advises instructors to run student-centred, participatory classrooms.   

One of the fundamental features of American higher education is this constant questioning, refining, and retooling of every aspect of the educational enterprise.  Professors have to fulfil three categories of responsibilities—teaching, research and service. The emphasis may vary depending on the institution. At a research university, there may be more focus on a faculty member publishing academic works than on teaching for tenure and promotion. But no matter the nature of the university, a professor has to serve in all three capacities.  And every academic serves at the departmental, college and university levels as chairs, directors or committee members, depending on their skills, inclinations and abilities. And these committees look into issues from the budget to the curriculum and constantly examine, vet, problem shoot and renew all aspects of the university.  This structure keeps the system oiled, dynamic and up-to-date. Nothing gets stale. As soon as something or someone becomes outdated or turns into deadwood, the emerging new replaces the old. And the surprising thing is that each institution of higher education, even the colleges and universities in the same state system—otherwise connected to the same economic pipeline and feeding source—functions independently, devising their own curriculum, choosing their own leaders and faculty. Yet, each is bound by systems of checks and balances that are called accrediting agencies to adopt the best practices of the peer and aspirant institutions, and new ideas from new sources, such as Davidson’s book that a professor like me picks up somehow by word of mouth or on social media and gets funding from the university to buy 20 copies of the book so they can be read by 20 faculty members through a university-wide advertising process.

I chose the book, 20 faculty colleagues joined from diverse disciplines and we had our first discussion on Monday. Next Tuesday, we will have our final meeting and those who couldn’t come on Monday will attend and bring their own perspectives. This is how, new ideas will spread.  Because professors are free to design their own syllabi based on best practices, new ways to teach a class will soon emerge. Thus, innovation and transformation will continue, and the new and fresh will enrich and even replace the old and the outdated.

Mishra is department Chair of English Studies at Lewis University in the United States

Published: 12-04-2018 07:18

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