Michael Roth is president of Wesleyan University. His most recent books are “Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters” and “Memory, Trauma and History: Essays on Living With the Past.”

At the beginning of the 20th century, Harvard President Charles Eliot helped reshape America's idea of a modern research university. To serve the needs of the industrializing economy, Eliot led higher education away from memorization and a fixed curriculum and toward specialization and electives. Now, in the digital 21st century, our economy is vastly different, and we need another rethink within our universities . So argues Cathy N. Davidson in "The New Education."

Davidson argues that the digital revolution of the past few decades requires a revolution in higher education. She seems to see Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University, as the Charles Eliot of our time. Crow wants to define the quality of his school not by how many applicants are rejected but by how many students are educated. And he is very willing to offer online programs to expand his university’s reach, while still supporting high-level research. His “New University” is hungry for market share and demands scale. Although Davidson would probably not put it this way, we could say Crow and his ilk, for better and for worse, are following a path laid down by Amazon.

Davidson, who for most of her career was a professor in literary studies, is one of the most thoughtful voices from within academia calling for a more student-centered university. “The New Education” is a welcome collection of stories detailing how professors, administrators and students are designing paths through higher education that are relevant to our changing culture and society. Many of her examples come from public higher education, which is, after all, where most college students are. She rightly emphasizes the damage done by policies that have defunded community colleges and public universities in the past decade. Forty-five states spent less per student in 2016 than they did before the Great Recession. The privatization of the state university and the rise of for-profit schools promising quick training for the newest jobs have had disastrous consequences for millions of students. As completion rates at these institutions have declined, student debt has soared. As student debt has increased, the range of choices that students have after graduation has decreased. But how these unhappy trends are related to the new, digital economy and culture celebrated by Davidson remains unclear in her account.

“The New Education,” by Cathy N. Davidson (Basic Books)

But by no means is Davidson merely a cheerleader for technology as a force for change in the economy and on campus. In two strong chapters, she makes the case against both technophobia and technophilia. She is critical of professors who refuse to let students use devices in the classroom that are ubiquitous outside of it, and she provides strong examples of how she has used technology to help her students work more effectively in groups. However, she is also critical of digital tools that make learners more passive, such as many of the highly hyped, and then much derided, MOOCs (massive open online courses). She does an excellent job of showing how her own MOOC created opportunities for active learning rather than just delivering video lectures to be passively watched by however many across the globe.

At its core, the new education Davidson envisions creates a platform for student-centered, active learning. Technology will be a part of that, but only if it enhances student agency. She cites approvingly the conclusion of Tressie McMillan Cottom, a sociologist of technology: “If you believe technology is the answer to everything that plagues higher education, you probably don’t understand technology or higher education.”

“The New Education” provides strong examples of successful academic innovations. At the City University of New York, where Davidson leads the Graduate Center’s Futures Initiative, the Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) has more than doubled graduation rates at community colleges in New York City. “Unlike most education reforms,” Davidson writes, “these treated students as full human beings with complex lives, not just test takers and statistics.” Paying attention to the everyday experience of students living near the poverty line was key. “We have your back. And your books. And your MetroCard” is the slogan of ASAP, and it works. Lots of advising at ASAP works, too. Lessons from the program are now being applied in various parts of the country.

There is nothing “new economy” about the success of ASAP, nothing high tech. The reforms that get results at community colleges, at large public universities or at small private liberal arts colleges are changes that put student learning as the highest priority. This means schools have to treat teachers fairly, too, attending to their work conditions and opportunities for continued learning, which means providing opportunities to do research. That, however, may not be the way to produce scale and market share — it’s not an Amazon strategy or a new-economy approach.

Nineteenth-century educational reformers also argued for active learning, and in this regard they were building on Socratic traditions. In the early 20th century, as college enrollments increased, many innovators of the time called for more vocational paths through higher education, paths more attuned to the economy of that era. Others, such as W.E.B Du Bois and John Dewey, resisted the effort to turn a broad, liberal education into narrow training. Du Bois argued that education should lead to the empowerment of the whole person and not just a sharpening of skills with short-term value. Dewey, while acknowledging that education must be relevant to its time, rejected the specialization called for by educational reformers with the memorable line: “The kind of vocational education in which I am interested is not one which will ‘adapt’ workers to the existing industrial regime; I am not sufficiently in love with the regime for that.”

At her best, Davidson writes in the tradition of Du Bois and Dewey, a pragmatist tradition that puts inquiry first and sees learning through the potential of the full, complex human beings students can become. If the new education is to be successful, whatever its use of technology, it will build on this tradition — as teachers and students make it their own, adapting it to changing times.

The New Education

By Cathy N. Davidson


318 pp. $28