Alexander Coward was an introductory mathematics lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley until his popularity with students and their relative success in qualifying for the majors of their choice rendered him persona non grata with his “colleagues”. Eschewing loyalty to the departmental grading scheme and focusing instead on curiosity-driven learning was his undoing; his contract was not renewed.
In relating this anecdote (and numerous others) in The New Education, Cathy Davidson makes a range of points about the unfolding tragedy of US higher education policy. In her contemporary echo of Charles Eliot’s influential 1869 critique of US universities, she describes how the post-war American dream of universal college education was first seriously challenged by Ronald Reagan when he was governor of California. That ideal has since been systematically wrecked, so that today it may be observed that the US “has ended its era of strategic investment in its youth”.
The spiralling costs of tuition are compounded by a “broken” 19th-century institutional design that still judges student potential through standard tests rather than their ability to pursue fulfilling careers in a world dominated by “wicked problems”. Noting that a student at Yale University would now need to work 17 hours a day at minimum wage to offset her tuition fees, compared with fewer than five hours in 1970, and that new graduates emerge with average debts of about $40,000 (£29,600), Davidson makes the obvious if damning social observation that debt eliminates rather than promotes a student’s “ability to soar”.
Yet unlike many such commentaries, this is not a pessimistic book. Quoting Buckminster Fuller (“we are called to be architects of the future, not its victims”) and drawing inspiration from numerous experiments in community colleges, large public universities, and small and elite private institutions, Davidson sketches the broad outline of an agenda for reform.
The Synthesis programme at Arizona State University incorporates an approach to problem-based learning that requires students to deploy highly diverse forms of learning to address, reframe and propose solutions to the world’s most intractable problems. In the Red House at Georgetown University, a vice-provost encourages students and faculty to pose radical “What if?” questions on curriculum design and associated qualifications that would “keep what is great about a modern research university while shedding the inherited features and practices that make it difficult to prepare students for their futures”.
Davidson devotes two chapters to steering a careful path between the Scylla and Charybdis of techno-phobia and techno-philia, offers good advice on harnessing open access resources (including massive open online courses and Wikipedia) and shares insights into how to broaden the teaching of subjects in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, all with the objective of improving the life chances of millennials. She approvingly quotes Arizona State president Michael Crow in defining a public purpose for the New American University measured “not by whom it excludes, but by whom it includes and how they succeed”.
After publishing his 1869 essay “The New Education”, Charles Eliot went on to revolutionise Harvard University and thereby completely redefine the principles of university education in the US. Learning from the numerous pedagogic experiments described in this book, proving their value and then scaling them up in the face of inevitable resistance is going to be a daunting challenge. But for the sake of future students and the broader public good, nothing less is required.
David Wheeler, former vice-chancellor of Cape Breton University in Nova Scotia, is now based at York University in Toronto.
The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World in Flux
By Cathy N. Davidson
Basic Books, 352pp, £25.00
Published 28 September 2017