Cathy Davidson Kicks off Drew Forum Speaker Series

September 20, 2019

The Drew Forum, Drew’s annual lecture series, kicked off in the second week of September with Prof. Cathy N. Davidson. She is currently a professor at the Graduate School of the City University of New York, where she is the Founding Director of the Futures Initiative, a group which describes itself as focusing on “designing innovative, equitable futures in higher education.” Davidson is a prolific author, most recently writing A New Education, (2017) in which she argues for a “revolution” in higher education.




Speaking to a group of Baldwin Honors students before her Forum talk, Davidson briefly discussed her time as a professor at CUNY, as well as her previous position as a professor at Duke University. One of her first experiments in education was at Duke in 2003, where, as part of a partnership with Apple, Inc., every student was given a free Apple device. Much of the faculty wanted the students to receive laptops, but Davidson advocated for a free iPod instead, saying she wanted to “challenge students to convince their professors to somehow use the iPod in the class and challenge the whole campus to come up with educational uses.” When Davidson wrote a reflection a decade later, she says a writer for the newspaper The Guardian reached out to her and 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.’” From this stems Davidson’s core belief about learning:  “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’... you've been shortchanged.”


This mindset was evident in Davidson’s next activity — she then asked the students to each write down the question they most wanted to ask, then briefly discuss and decide on one question in small groups of two or three. Questions discussed ranged from how her ideas proposed in A New Education could be applied beyond higher ed, to broader subjects such as how students can deal with being afraid of the future.


Davidson’s Forum talk focused on three aspects of education — its history, its current state, and where she believes it should go. She traced the roots of the modern grading system from Harvard and the United States Department of Agriculture’s system for grading meat all the way through to modern attempts to move away from standardized tests. According to Davidson, standardized tests and the modern grading system all too often set the goal of education as making money. But, says Davidson, “a lot of people who make money are miserable…[a]nd that, to me, is the definition of inhumanity, that you're doing something only for material goods and you're robbing your own soul.” Instead, she says students should be encouraged to branch out and take courses in fields they have no experience in, ideally even just drawing random courses out of a hat. (However, Davidson says she recognizes that the chances of any university actually implementing this would be incredibly slim.)


Davidson closed the evening by talking about Drew’s Launch program. While she had not read extensively about it, she particularly liked the “Launchpad” slogan, saying “I think if we’re going to do one thing to change education, it’s to think of graduation as the launching pad for what comes later; not the endpoint, but actually the beginning point of everything else. That change changes everything about higher education.”


President MaryAnn Baenninger, introducing Davidson, also announced the next two Drew Forum speakers. While Davidson is the only speaker this semester, an episode of the National Public Radio politics podcast “Road to 2020” will be recorded in the Dorothy Young Center for the Arts in January. The following month, former Secretary of Homeland Security and Chief of Staff to President Donald Trump Gen. John Kelly will speak at the Morristown Performing Arts Center. Both events, as part of The Drew Forum, will be free for all Drew students. 


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