Maybe you saw the headline in The Wall Street Journal: “U.S. Colleges Slip in Global Rankings.”
America still boasts more elite schools than any other country. But a growing number of schools in other countries — especially in the U.K. and China — are pushing U.S. universities out of the top 200.
It shouldn’t be all that surprising that what worked in the 20th century doesn’t necessarily serve students well in the 21st. So maybe it’s time for an overhaul of the American system of higher education.
Cathy N. Davidson, who directs the Futures Initiative at the City University of New York, notes that the way we “do” college in this country is still very much influenced by the vision of Charles Eliot, the Harvard president who realized his school was training students for management — not ministry.
But that transformation is more than a century old now. The Digital Age requires different skills than the Industrial Age did, and this time the change is not originating in the Ivy League.
Davidson shares her ideas for making college work again in her book, The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World in Flux.
How did universities operate before the mid- to late 19th century, and who really went to a university back then?
The only people who went to university in 1869, when Charles Eliot published his famous manifesto called “The New Education,” were the very elite, and originally they were being trained to be ministers. By the time Eliot is writing, only about 20 percent of the students of the elite, what we would now call Ivy League schools, were going to a ministry. So he writes that essay because a friend of his sends him a distraught letter saying, “What can I do with my boy? My boy’s not cut out for the ministry, or to be a college professor, and that’s all Harvard is good for.” So Eliot published “The New Education” essay over two issues of The Atlantic Monthly. It was a big deal. He was trying to critique the system and to talk about what kind of system you needed for this whole new world of industrialization and urbanization that America was fast becoming.
What sort of knowledge did Eliot consider essential for an educated person to possess at the start of the Industrial Age?
The most important thing was he felt that education had to be professionalized. We were just creating professions. So before, for example, there were law schools, but you could go to law school straight from what we would now call high school. What he wanted was a track system where you went through a very rigorous college, then specialized majors and minors with electives but also required courses. That prepared you for a career or professional school or graduate school, both of which were new inventions.
Eliot couldn’t quite bring himself to imagine women studying at Harvard, but he did believe strongly that women were worthy and capable of education.
He felt they were capable of it, and he brought in friends to amp up the women’s college, which would become Radcliffe, to make it suitable for elite women of the time. He invested a lot in that. But he couldn’t fathom men and women in the same classes. He thought that would be way too distracting. To his credit, though, he also went against the ruling prejudices of the day and admitted African-Americans, most famously W.E.B. Du Bois, the first African-American to get a PhD in America. He also admitted Jews and Catholics, although he was a little more nervous about Jews. But all of those were unusual. He also believed in financial aid, because he said that if you only give education to the richest people, you’re not going to get the smartest. And he felt that the richest people deserved to be challenged. So I’m not sure he was really altruistic in extending financial aid to the poor people; he just thought that would be a better education for the ruling class as well as an education for those who were on scholarship.
The era of industrialization was marked by great leaps forward in productivity, and as a society we came to be enamored of this idea that we could quantify that progress. Can you talk about how the interest in measurement on the factory floor filtered into university culture?
The most famous person to study outputs was Frederick Winslow Taylor, and he was kind of the Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates of his era in that he started to go to Harvard and then quit. Instead, he joined with a pig-iron factory and worked on how you measure productivity in industrialized labor. He would sit with a stopwatch and figure out how long it took to move a wheelbarrow with pig iron on it from one shop to another. What was the optimal that a good worker could do? He believed in merit raises for what he called “good soldiers,” those who could produce the same output in the morning as they could at the end of the evening. He wanted humans to be like machines. He thought that if you couldn’t do that, you were a malingerer and you should be fired. The whole point of the productivity was to measure humans in standardized ways. This is happening at the same time people are inventing standardized IQ tests and multiple-choice testing. So Taylor’s system became an obsession with how you objectively measure workers, in this case intellectual workers in school. Never before would you reduce the complexities of all the ways we think and solve problems to how you did on an A-B-C-D or none-of-the-above kind of test. When you think about it, we don’t measure learning in that way anywhere else in higher education. If you had to give a two-year-old a “B” on his toddlering, you would fail pretty quickly as a parent. And none of us learns anything new, whether it’s studying for a driver’s test or learning tennis or learning how to do new code. You don’t learn by doing A-B-C-D testing, you don’t learn by getting an end-of-grade test. But that was the prevailing management theory at the time Eliot was creating the new university.
We don’t consider community colleges universities, but you found so many of them doing things right. You suggest that’s because they’re not set up to be selective; their mission is to serve all comers and to make sure nobody leaves without having learned something.
I teach at the graduate center — I prepare graduate students to teach undergraduates — and we have many programs that work with our community colleges, including one designed to teach graduate students how to work in community colleges. I began my career teaching in community colleges while I taught at Duke University for more than two decades. I worked closely with the community colleges in North Carolina, and now I work most closely with La Guardia Community College, a fantastic community college in Long Island City. The president of La Guardia is Gail Mellow, who says, “We have the hardest job in the world. We are very selective. We select the top 100 percent.” Then, she says, “If you think Stanford with its 4 percent acceptance rate has a hard job, or Harvard with its 5 percent, think about what it means to constantly, every day, wake up saying: ‘Are we really reaching 100 percent? Who haven’t we met? What about people coming out of prison? How do you take somebody who’s come out of prison and give them the skills to survive in the world. What about homeless people? What about mothers who dropped out of high school because they had a baby and never came back? What about immigrants who don’t speak English at all?’ ” Her job, and the job of faculty at La Guardia, is to take students wherever they are and get them to a place where they can do better in the world. That’s astonishing. It’s a very different thing than taking the smartest, wealthiest, best-prepared, best-supported, most-pampered, most-beloved students — children of the upper classes — and make them better and give them skills to continue that life vs. somebody who has nothing and your job is to make them a
viable, active, productive, happy, responsible citizen of the world.
You advise students to make their major their minor. What do you mean by that?
I don’t think specialization is what it’s cracked up to be. Specialization was designed by Charles Eliot for professional worlds, and our system of accrediting faculty is based more and more on being specialized. So, how many articles you publish in an academic journal is very, very important to your own advancement as a professor. But the courses we teach in our undergraduate classes, where students go into a major and become majors, often map onto professional fields of their professors, but not on to the way things happen in the world. I’m very intrigued by programs that break apart the minor. I visited one recently at the University of Texas at Dallas. It’s a new program called ATEC, which is Arts, Technology in Emerging Communications. It was incredible, because there are people on the top floor of this beautiful new building on easels — old-fashioned easels — doing paintings. And then there are people in other rooms making virtual reality — a next-generation virtual reality — and they’re talking together. That’s what I mean by making a major minor. Instead of a major, those students are learning, cross-cutting different ways of thinking across the boundaries and the silos of a traditional major.
This Q&A is condensed from a recent episode of Think. You can listen to the full episode at kera.org/think. Krys Boyd can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.