Cathy Davidson’s “The New Education” (Basic Books, 2017; 2021) is an updating — and to an extent a repudiation — of Charles Eliot’s 1869 book of the same title. Davidson, who teaches at the City University of New York, believes that after 150 years higher education needs to be taken apart and put together again. As a CUNY professor, Davidson is concerned mainly with public education.
Lectures as a conveyance of knowledge no longer work with much of the current generation of students, the author asserts. Along with credit hours, final exams, grades, standardized tests, term papers, IQ tests and SAT scores, lecture courses should be discarded in favor of semester-long cooperative research projects that engage all students. A large lecture class in sociology could change itself into a video production company, for example.
Davidson points to a class that did just that at Kansas State University, in Manhattan, Kansas, where professor Mike Welsh’s 200-student lecture class produced “A Vision of Students Today,” featuring lifeless lecture halls, demoralized students, unread books and empty seats. The students did research in multiple archives, made surveys, conducted interviews, wrote scripts, shot scenes, and edited, advertised and released the film to the public.
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The “new education” encourages a more active student capable of working with others. These students cultivate the ability to tackle complex problems through the full utilization of all sources, especially the Internet, the birth of which signaled that “a new world was born.” Davidson notes, “This is almost an unimaginable extension of the human reach.”
The college professor here is a coach, a motivator, an advisor rather than an authority. In a math class, the instructor introduces a problem and divides the class into teams of two who attempt to solve it. The students study the problem, diagnose it, compare notes, make mistakes, get stuck. The instructor listens, encourages, suggests a different approach. Finally, one team comes up with the solution, explains it to the others. “Learning is social,” the author stresses.
In composition class at Chapel Hill, North Carolina, writing is not an exercise you hand in to the instructor for a grade, an academic duty. The writing should be aimed at “making something happen in the world.” It could be an op-ed piece for a newspaper, a computer app or a mental health pamphlet.
Literature has survived in the new education. Students in health studies read Boccaccio’s "Decameron," set near Florence at the time of the Black Death, and Daniel Defoe’s "Journal of The Plague Year" (1665); also, Nigerian author Chinua Achebe’s "Things Fall Apart" (1958), which depicts the effect of leprosy and smallpox on a colonized people; Camus’ "The Plague," set in Algeria in the 1940s; and Gabriel Garcia Marquez's "Love in the Time of Cholera." These works describe historical human reactions to disease, and examine the ethics, feelings, attitudes and politics involved in epidemics. STEM students need studies in literature, philosophy and history to make clear the human settings in which science and technology operate.
Speculation is the order of the day in this land of "what if?" “What if ... students in any field could achieve competencies without credit hours, formal courses and grades?” the author asks, apparently unaware that in the late 1970s, a competency-based program in secondary education was abandoned by the New York State Department of Education when it proved unworkable.
One wants more details. Were all of Welch’s 200 students constructively engaged in the project? My own (limited) experience in cooperative projects indicates that a few people end up doing most of the work. People learn how to cooperate. How did Welch go about it? Was the job performed by each student significant in terms of skills acquired and knowledge gained?
Same with the math class. Working on problems in pairs or small groups will work — unless the students get sidetracked into talking about ... other matters. Students must be carefully paired to make a common effort; if one is much stronger than the other, or others, the one student will do all the work. Again, cooperation doesn’t just happen.
After all the “What ifs?” Davidson’s new education stresses cooperative research to solve practical problems like, “What will the people of Phoenix do when the water runs out?” It is not about learning for its own sake, or individual exploration, or personal transformation. “Research in our time is a survival skill,” the author asserts.
More on “the new education” next time.