Cathy Davidson Speaks About Modern University System

Cathy N. Davidson is the author of “The New Education.”

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Cathy N. Davidson is the author of “The New Education.”


On the evening of Wed., Jan. 10, members of the College community gathered at Dana Auditorium to hear the talk, “The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World in Flux.” The talk focused on how the current system of higher education was designed to meet the needs of an increasingly industrialized, late 19th century United States. It showed how such a system is incapable of preparing students for today’s highly digitalized and multicultural society, since it fails to promote creativity, innovation, and social leadership among its students.

The speaker, Cathy N. Davidson, is a distinguished professor of English, and the founding director of the Futures Initiative at the City University of New York Graduate Center.. Davidson is also the co-founding director of HASTAC, (Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory). Laurie Patton provided her introduction.

Davidson began with the story of Charles Eliot, who studied theoretical sciences at Harvard University in 1853 and was a professor of Mathematics and Chemistry at the same institution in 1858. Controlled by clergymen, Harvard’s educational system followed a Puritanical model at the time, offering mostly courses in classical curricula, with few dedicated towards practical studies, such as the sciences or business. Eliot eventually left Harvard and travelled to Europe to investigate how their methods of education correlated with economic growth. Among Eliot’s discoveries was a system dedicated toward teaching technical knowledge and skills for essential occupations and trades.

Eliot believed that the United States was growing into a technological force, but the existing educational system was unable to prepare students for such a future. In an article for the Atlantic Monthly called “The New Education”, Eliot suggested than in education, while students should strive for moral character, they should learn to sharpen and exercise their intellect, so they can utilize it to sustain and transform society. Eliot was named President of Harvard at the age of 53.

A new, more efficient educational system began to emerge in the United States following Eliot’s tenure at Harvard. Secondary schools allowed farmers to become factory workers, while higher education allowed shopkeepers to become managers. Higher education now offered majors and minors, offering courses comprised of lectures and seminars. Such a system became reliant on placement exams for entering universities, and determined the educational success of a student through an “ABCDF” grading scale. To legitimize the existence of universities, graduate schools and secondary schools, a credentialing system was created.

The second part of Davidson’s talk focused on the present, and touched upon the rise of the internet since the early 1990s. She pointed out how the computer makes it possible to communicate ideas without interference from third-parties like corporations. According to Davidson, we live in a “new era in human connection and reach”. She then presented examples of educational institutions attempting to revolutionize the current methods of learning. Yale University utilizes a “cohort” instead of a “core” model for obtaining a degree in history, offering “Pre-Professional” and “Global” tracks. As a result, history has become Yale’s most highly enrolled major. In another example, Hampshire College removed SAT or ACT score requirements from its admissions processes, and is no longer ranked by U.S World New and Report. This resulted in an admissions yield increase from 18% to 26%, and an increase in diversity by 21%.

  Towards the end of the talk, the audience was invited to respond to the prompt, “What three things would you revolutionize about your institution and how?” on a piece of paper. Groups sizes of between three and five shared their answers amongst themselves.