The New Education: An Interview with Cathy Davidson

Think about the disruption that we’re seeing. Uber and Lyft are beating taxis. Airbnb’s $30B valuation crushes those of even the largest hotel chains. And Amazon has its tentacles just about everywhere. Against this backdrop, is higher education next? Sure, the bark behind Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) has vastly exceeded its bite. Still, does higher ed need to change to survive and, if so, how?

Against this backdrop, I recently sat down with lifelong educational innovator and instigator Cathy Davidson to discuss her excellent new book The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World In Flux.

Disclaimer: Her publisher sent me a copy gratis for a potential review or interview.

Here is an excerpt from our interview:

PS: What was your motivation for writing the book?

CD: I believe we are at a tipping point in higher education. We’ve had two failed and unpersuasive reform movements in higher education since the Internet changed all the arrangements of work and life. The edtech idea (especially the 2012 MOOC—Massive Online Open Courses—moment) was classic technophilia, believing technology would solve the problems of technology. It never works that way. And that’s a terrible idea of pedagogy. You cannot simply put videos of famous profs online and hope students learn. A one-way transmission model of education is classic 19th century assembly-line, industrial age, hierarchical pedagogy. To simply digitize the 19th century model does nothing to prepare students for a world in which anyone who has an idea can communicate that with anyone else with an Internet connection, and vice versa—as friends, lovers, hackers, or trolls.

The second idea, that you need to just teach skills not so-called “frills” is just as bad. In a world where any occupation can disappear tomorrow, specific skills training prepares you to be exploited and easily rendered obsolete. It is also a bankrupt idea of technology. We’ve gone far too long with Silicon Valley making products that are insecure, threaten our privacy, monopolize our spending, put people out of work, and often fail to serve anyone but those profiting at the top. We need to be holding our technology innovators far more responsible for the problems their technology is making. We’ve been dazzled long enough.

What we need now is a new way of training students outside the silos of academe, with connections made across disciplines, thoughtful and deep reading (including in history and philosophy) to help us understand this vexing era in which we live. Those in STEM need to work with those in the human and social sciences and the arts so that, together, we can begin to address the horrific challenges to labor, industry, economics, democracy, and the environment of our era. It’s time! I keep waiting for the Upton Sinclair of our era to write The Internet Jungle. Sinclair’s book made Americans aware of worker exploitation, lack of sanitation in the meatpacking industry, and many of the connected ills of the assembly line era. We need students who understand the connected ills—as well as the shiny innovative promises—of the Internet era and can think about what kinds of protections, safeguards, responsibilities, and ethics this industry needs too.

PS: In the book, you praise what my employer, Arizona State University, is doing. Sum it up here.

CD: At the most elite institutions in the country, one sees lots of innovation and one reads about higher education innovation coming from these elite institutions that become more expensive and more elite all the time. One hears that the single most common occupation of recent graduates of some of the Ivies is tending to the portfolios of other recent graduates of those universities. That cannot be the purpose and mission of higher education in a society that has purported to want a strong middle class and a strong democracy. What is remarkable and laudable about what’s happening at ASU is that it has become more equitable, opened its doors to more students from lower income levels, and, at the same time, aspires to ever more creative, innovative ways of addressing major social issues. It is leading the way in creative reblending of all the talents of the best researchers at the university, it is inspiring students to tackle very big and important questions, even against odds.

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PS: What can institutions of higher ed learn from more progressive community colleges?

CD: President Gail Mellow of LaGuardia Community College, part of the CUNY system, says it’s the mission of community college to teach the “top 100 percent.” Instead of selecting out just the top 4 or 5%, community colleges ask, who are we missing, and how do we take those students from where they are to a place where they might be able to have a better, productive, responsible life? That means really understanding how to teach, how we learn. It means giving students tools not just to get right answers on tests but to understand how what they learn is a tool for living after they graduate. In most higher education, it’s assumed that students will simply learn what their profs know. They will learn from experts. What every university needs to emphasize is a “meta” conversation: learning how to learn. That’s not just a remedial skill but the key to a successful life in rapidly changing, complicated, frustrating, and sometimes overwhelming times.

PS: Talk to me about the cautionary tale of Alexander Coward. That reminded me of a real-life Dead Poets Society.

CD: Alexander Coward was an instructor in the Math Department at Berkeley, a legendary math teacher who might teach 400 students who would clamor to his classes because of his extraordinary ability to explain math even to students who were sure they had no math ability at all. He was warned to teach in a way more consistent with that of other professors in the department. He refused. He’s the rare professor who actually studied research on learning and modeled his own teaching on the best research on ways to learn. He has some of the best teaching evaluations the department had seen in decades. His contract was not renewed. The department should have set him up as a mentor, someone who could teach other professors how to teach, who could train graduate students who wanted to be math profs in the best ways of teaching. His students saw him as a hero. His department considered him a threat. Berkeley is the only public university consistently ranked in the top five schools in mathematics. That ranking system was also created in the late 19th century by Eliot and his peers, and was created to reward original research, not teaching. It was designed to reward selectivity, not 400 students suddenly “getting” math. It’s a disaster for rankings if Math 1A is no longer the “flunk out course.” Too many high grades and a department or professor or university is accused of “grade inflation,” not of “educational breakthroughs.” Alexander Coward’s big mistake was in thinking higher education is about helping students to learn. The whole emphasis on selectivity—and that includes in K-12—is about weeding out, excluding, not inviting in.

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