Brett Ranon Nachman
| Nov 27, 2017
Brett Ranon Nachman is a doctoral student in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis at University of Wisconsin-Madison and a project assistant for WISCAPE. His research primarily focuses on the experiences and depictions of college students on the autism spectrum, as well as STEM community college students’ experiences and transfer pathways.
Take a snapshot of our current higher education landscape, and the innumerable challenges facing us might cause some to turn away from the picture. As Cathy N. Davidson points out in The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World in Flux, recently published by Basic Books, we are in a period of rapid transformations, akin to the Panic of 1857 with the rise of new technologies such as telegraphy.
Change is a constant. How we address such change in a setting where funding mechanisms, an emphasis on student learning, and institutional priorities continually fluctuate is at the root of Davidson’s narrative. She contends that we must embrace the cards we are dealt and look to pioneering institutions, programs, and practices to help inform how we tackle major issues.
Written in a conversational manner, Davidson presents an enrapturing narrative with each chapter anchored in a specific theme. Whether it is relaying the experiences of fictional community college student character Jeff Winger (from the TV show Community), to address challenges in this sector, or speaking to how Charles Eliot reformed Harvard by integrating various fields of study and programs under the private institution’s umbrella more than a century ago, this approach nicely frames the book's context. While each chapter addresses a different theme, clearer organization would have benefited the overall framework that touches on everything from MOOCs to college cost. Though Davidson's content is disparate in scope, the material she presents is substantial and raises questions on how postsecondary education can better prepare and engage students for their careers. Davidson’s several decades’ work in various capacities -- as a researcher, administrator, professor, and program director -- lend a well-informed touch to a complicated set of problems.
As one example, the divide between technophobia and technophilia is an interesting paradox that Davidson encapsulates with great depth. She suggests we should neither fear the tools that can enable us to more effectively engage with learning, nor believe that these technologies can solve much larger, more abstract problems. Educators possess the responsibility to steer the narrative from one of resistance to one of contemplation on how to best take advantage of these tools, as in the case of instructors who utilize clickers in a math class to gauge students’ familiarity with concepts.
Another noted challenge is the high cost of an education, in a nation that ranks highest among countries in terms of overall college attendance, yet ranks in the teens with regard to completion. Davidson highlights solutions to defray costs, such as attending community colleges, utilizing more efficient technological tools, and combining programs, yet does not elaborate on them. This represents a missed opportunity on how to rectify the monetary mess that many students experience.
Where the United States falls in worldwide rankings is similarly highlighted and criticized in a chapter dedicated to the perplexity of institutional rankings. Davidson asserts that too much of academia centers on outputs and measures of productivity, as opposed to the quality of students' learning experiences.
Davidson illustrates the notion of student-centered learning through portraying various institutional programs, such as Georgetown University’s innovation-based Red House, that offer the idea of rebundling education. Opportunities that allow students to confront problems in higher education head on, as in Red House’s seminar where students pitch concepts and receive critiques from judges from a variety of sectors, are at the front of this movement.
Similarly, programs that provide students with greater access to postsecondary education are also important. An example that Davidson highlights is CUNY’s Accelerated Study in Associates Program, which offers a variety of supports for students, such as Metro subway cards, to help defray student costs. Blending various campus offices’ and programs' objectives to meet student needs are vital, but her chapter on community colleges, akin to other segments of the book, scarcely touches on institutional potential on this front. Here is the gateway for a subsequent book that is more action-oriented, as opposed to illustrating currently promising programs at different institutions.
Also worth noting is that there are the occasional blanket statements that inadvertently paint a false narrative of certain populations and their institutions. At one point, Davidson writes “community college professors take pedagogy seriously.” While one could argue this is true, it fails to touch at community colleges’ dispersed adjunct faculty who may feel too stretched to maximize their teaching skills, and it could suggest that four-year institutional faculty do not prioritize pedagogy. These types of statements shed an inconsistent and unintentionally negative tone regarding academia, which she otherwise admires.
Nonetheless, perhaps the highlight of the book is situated at the end, in the form of two lists. One suggests ways in which college students can maximize their college experiences; the other promotes student-centered learning approaches. These are both practical and poignant.
Indeed, perhaps Davidson’s book is best in taking a bird’s-eye view of academia, the lens cast with a generally optimistic perspective of institutional innovations and programs at the forefront of leading positive change to our plethora of problems. Though likely intended for general audiences who may be removed from the issues that plague higher education institutions, The New Education also serves as a resource for practitioners and scholars who may find the anecdotes about inventive approaches inspirational and useful for their own institutions. Davidson notes the picture of what higher education should resemble is evolving, and collaborations forged among administrators, faculty, students, and community members will determine what factors are prioritized in the future.
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