The Acorn's Interview with Cathy N. Davidson

September 13, 2019

Acorn: So you already went over a couple of the questions that I had, which is fantastic, in the conversation with Baldwin students. But just to start it off, what specifically provoked you to write “A New Education?”




Cathy Davidson: I've been teaching a long time and not many people who are scholars (besides scholars of pedagogy in education) actually write about education. But it felt to me like it was really important; I think we are at a tipping point, where we need to think about our educational systems and think how we can change those. I think from what I've been reading, Drew is way ahead of most places and really thinking about the kinds of qualities students need to take out into the world. And I think that's really important. For 150 years, the point of education has been graduation. The point of the course has been a grade. And I think that motto of it being actually the Launchpad — I loved the line — of your future is great. But I think that, thinking of it as a Launchpad rather than an end point, is really crucial. So I know Drew has already started on that path and really gone much further than most, and I think that all education needs to do it. So it's really, I'm thinking about students who I highly love. I always get reviewers who say that. They always call me such a funny thing — they always say I'm an optimist, “We say she likes students too much,” like I would much rather hang out with students than with faculty! I think this is an amazing generation. That's another reason I think this generation has been the victim of such garbage from pundits and adults, whatever that is. Old people saying that, you know, all kinds of things that really mean “I don't know how to work the internet.” “I don't know how to work my cell phone.” “So I'm going to say that you’re shallow because you're spending your time with selfies. How dare you take a selfie.” “Because everything I do as an adult is sophisticated and important and intellectual. You take selfies.” I mean, it's a defensive mechanism, but I actually think this generation of students, and I've been teaching for a long, long time, is the best informed, the most socially concerned, and we've got the data on that. It's true also in terms of all kinds of statistics about that. I think it's a great generation and they deserve, you guys deserve, better education than many institutions give.


A: You mentioned that you've been teaching for a long time, you've been writing for a long time. And I know this talk was centered around “The New Education,” but I was also looking at some of your older books and “Now You See It” from 2003. You talk a lot about the free iPod program that you advocated at Duke, and the controversy around that. Would you just talk a little bit about that, and do you think something like that would still be relevant and workable today? 


CD: So, I think that book was like 2011, and I think the iPod experiment was 2003, because at that time iPods were just, they barely existed. And they literally, you know, iTunes did not exist so people thought they were music listening devices. They were like a radio only. It was a different kind of radio, and Apple wanted six campuses to be Apple campuses and they let us [Duke University] become one of them; and they said we could choose the technology for our students and everybody else [in the faculty] wanted to use laptops. And I thought well that's not exciting. Let’s make iPods be what makes us an Apple campus, and let's challenge students to convince their professors to somehow use the iPad in the class and challenge the whole campus to come up with educational uses. Well, many, many years later I wrote a retrospective, I think it was the 10th anniversary and someone on in the “[New York] Times Literary Supplement” or “The Guardian” said, “Hey, I was the person at Apple that invented that. You guys gave us billions of dollars if not millions of free ideas. Your students came up with so many great ideas that we then said, ‘well let's try that.’ Let's try that.”  And she said, “We had no idea what you'd come up with.” To me, that's what learning is. The phrase “we had no idea” should be, at least, in one class every student has taken during their college career. If you're not taking one class where the professor doesn't begin it by saying “We have no idea where this class is going to lead. We have no idea what's going to turn out. We have no idea what you're going to do in this class,” you've been shortchanged. You should have at least one experience where you have no idea what the outcome will be. 


A: So the universities are, right now, in flux, as you said. Do you think they know the outcome of the flux? Do you think it’s possible to know? Or is it a wait-and-see situation?


CD: So we think we do, cause we've standardized tests, we've got accreditation boards, we have all kinds of metrics, most of which were invented in 1890. How you measure success and how you measure outputs. Those metrics don't make any sense, but they feel like they do. Cause we can say, “Ooh, those standards,” for the standard GRE, it's this versus that. The standard SAT is this versus that. So we think we have metrics now. You know for example, that essay, the thing that SAT scores correlate with the most is the education level of your parents and the wealth of your school district. How does that happen? How can that possibly measure your intelligence, your creativity? But when we go to something bold or like our own output, what we want is our goal is for our students to have rich, fulfilling, successful, productive lives — not just make money. Cause a lot of people who make money are miserable. If you don't mind being miserable, that's fine. Make as much money as you want and that's fine. And some people will make a ton of money, and they’re delighted, that's all they want to do and that's fine. But nobody should have to do something just to make money and have a job that makes them miserable, whether it's as a hedge fund operator or as a ditch digger. And that, to me, is the definition of inhumanity, that you're doing something only for material goods and you're robbing your own soul. How do you measure that? That output is impossible, right? But maybe impossible outputs are what colleges should strive in. It's scary because colleges have to go through accreditation processes that are very bureaucratic and regimented. But I think it's really important for schools to try. Once for Duke, I wrote for the Duke Magazine for its 50th Anniversary or something, and they said, “What one thing would you change about college?” And I said, “I would love it if for one course, that every student took once a year, it would be a wildcard course that you literally picked out of a hat, no credits, and it could be calculus or it could be physical anthropology or Latin II and if you hadn't had Latin I it would be okay, it wouldn’t be pass/fail, it would be pass/pass. You came for a semester and you learned something about a field you had no idea about, or no interest in. I think that would be the best thing a university could do.” Now, no university is really going to do that, but what an amazing thing that would be if once a year you were kind of thrown into the deep end and just because there wouldn't be, you wouldn't, you're not going to drown. That's built into the structure.


A: Do you think part of what you mentioned --  like the push for output, and the outcome that a lot of students are pushed into careers solely because it makes them money— 


CD: Oh they do. And we know the least of what this research came out this year. One of the least likely careers to stay in 10 years after graduation is a business career for somebody who has an undergraduate major in business. I don't know what your major is. And the reason is this is because so many students feel that if they don't major in business, they'll never get a job. In fact, it's a great way to short circuit your career. The thing we know is, the most likely way to make a successful career is by doing something you’re passionate about, whatever it is. People find ways and passion shows. I mean, you'd go into a job interview and you're bored with something and people can tell that and, you know, you thrive by thriving and feeding the things that drive you and being aware of what makes you shrink and shrivel and feel like you're two inches tall versus the thing that makes you feel 200 feet tall.


A: Do you think it's connected to the discourse over pushing STEM versus pushing humanities or not? 


CD: Absolutely. I think we've had a major wrong turn in the education revolution. People just panicked. “Oh my God, the world is changing so much and we have to keep up. Let's do, let's put everything online and have everybody learn as if they're robots.” And the world is now filled with robots. “If you don't want to get replaced by a robot, act like a robot,” well that's stupid. Acting like a robot. Do this, the thing that robots can do, so that's going to get you replaced. That's just ridiculous to think that being like a robot, the more you're like a robot, the safer you are, the more protected you are, from the robots taking your job. No, the things that robots can't do are the things we'd want to be cultivated and those are always about your passion, your imagination, your creativity, your tribe, your willingness to take chances.


A: I don't know how much you know about Drew's Launch Program, but do you think that's a step in the right direction? Is it a route that more universities should be taking? 


CD: On paper? It looks great and I hope it is. Okay. So I'm just saying that — pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will — processes that led to thinking about those things was already great because most people have, most universities, most colleges haven't begun to think what a university would look like if we weren't worried just about majors and minors, but looked at, we're concerned about 14 things that actually could serve students beyond and for the rest of their life, whether it's perfect or not, or is this perfect as we want it to be? Probably not. Never is, but that they would even think that is astonishing to me. So when I read about that, I was very excited, and I'm now writing a textbook even more basic than “The New Education” where it actually says any professor in any field, whether it's STEM, English, Latin 101, whether it's at a college like Drew or at CUNY or a community college or it’s a graduate education problem, there are things you can do in any class that can allow students to learn better and in ways that make a difference in their life beyond. And so [the textbook] walks people through, this is how you do it, this is why you do it, this is the research that says why you should do it. This is how you explain it to your supervisor's who’s going to be mad at you. This is, if you're a student, how you put it on your resume. So it really walks you through things, you know, it can be very stressful. And Drew will be one of the universities I put in the sidebar and highlight for thinking something that's non-conventional, that's daring, that's trying something different. Again, I have no idea if it's succeeding or not, but that you've tried something different is amazing. Cause I would say 100 percent of universities are trying to think what we do next. But 5 percent probably have actually enacted something that you see in the catalog that's actually happening. I know that there's some courses you actually take that are basically planning your life. That's astonishing that nobody else is doing that. Very, very few places are doing that. And it’s very special.


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March 13, 2020

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