Liberal Education

Educating Higher

Editor’s note: In 2011, the New American Colleges and Universities established a national award to honor the legacy of Ernest L. Boyer by recognizing an individual whose achievements in higher education exemplify Boyer’s quest for connecting theory to practice and thought to action, in and out of the classroom. The 2016 Boyer Award was presented to Cathy N. Davidson at the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. The following article was adapted from the address given by the author on that occasion. A podcast of the original presentation is available at  

Simply stated, what we have on many campuses today is a crisis of purpose. —Ernest L. Boyer, Scholarship Reconsidered 

In every myth, there’s a doorway, a gate, a portal, a river, a ladder, a mountain, a pathway. There is a threshold, and, if you are the hero, your journey requires you to cross over. It’s that simple. You start on one side, and your challenge is to make your way across to the other.

In American life—in most of modern life, worldwide—the threshold that looms largest and that defines almost everything else is the age of majority. One day you are the legal responsibility of a parent or guardian, the next you—and you alone—are legally responsible for yourself.

At seventeen years and 364 days old, your parents can tell you what to do. When you wake up the next morning, at eighteen, they cannot.

You have crossed over. Before and after.

In individual and social terms, the consequences of that crossing are so vast that they are constantly being debated in our society. How old do you have to be to drink alcohol? To be tried and executed as an adult? To go to war? To vote? Sometimes it is eighteen, sometimes twenty-one, with the exact age fiercely argued. Because it matters—and not just to you, the individual, but to your society. Your journey is a stand-in for something else, for all the life-and-death issues we grapple with as a society. That is why we can’t make up our minds about when childhood ends, when adult responsibility begins—when the torch will be passed. The journey is a stand-in for what we believe should be the future of our entire community. Your journey is our journey. How you are prepared to enter and perhaps lead a community, a generation, matters to those who have gone before you and those who will come after.

You are crossing from definition by others to self-definition, from dependence on other human beings to legal independence.

If you were born fortunate, you’re moving from a life of nurturance by others into a new time of self-care. Self-care for the rest of your life.

This is the stuff of mythology, from the Epic of Gilgamesh forward.

In America, we call it “college.”

Workforce readiness or world readiness?

I have witnessed this transition thousands of times over the four decades that I’ve been teaching in college. I started young, teaching my first class when I was twenty-two. I began as a skeptic, but as I witnessed the transformation of my students, I came to realize that, no matter how good (or bad) I might be as a teacher, my real role is that of a guide along a much greater journey that begins after my course ends, after the streamers from graduation come down.

And it doesn’t matter if my students are traditional or so-called nontraditional. They are in college, and that’s the key. In one of the first courses I ever taught, I was twenty-four and my youngest student was thirty-two. Those returning, nontraditional students still looked to me as a guide. Depending on how you count, 40–70 percent of our current students are nontraditional. It doesn’t matter. All of the twenty-one million students in college are on a journey. They have one thing in common: they are there willingly. No one makes them do it. They are voluntarily making sacrifices of time, money, and character—willpower—to be in college because they want something bigger, better. It isn’t just a job. They don’t just want to be workforce ready. Most students today already have jobs, often several. My students who live the most precarious lives have had and lost jobs, have witnessed their parents find and lose jobs. As they make their way through college, they want something more: a career, a vocation, a life path.

At the coffee shop in my neighborhood, the barista is a student at one of the City University of New York colleges, a first-generation American and first-generation college student who majors in actuarial science with a second major in his true love, philosophy. I stop by on Sunday mornings after my dance class, and we talk Aristotle and Kant and Arendt. I ask if he hopes to be a “Philosopher Statistician” and, without a hint of irony, he says “of course,” and adds that he wants to “give back” to society. I ask how he plans to do that, and he tells me that, actually, he already does. He is good at reading and filling out forms, and he knows a lot of people who have a hard time with English and with online digital skills. After he gets off work, he hangs out at the coffee house where there’s free Wi-Fi and offers assistance where he can. This week, he helped a bright high school senior and his parents fill out complicated financial aid forms for college.

Ernest L. Boyer would be pleased.

I’m convinced that none of the “workforce readiness” pundits spend time in actual college classrooms, talking with real college students like this one. They miss the special qualities of our students today. The pundits are just plain wrong about this generation. Google hasn’t made them stupid; their iPhones don’t make them lonely; college hasn’t made them dumb and dumber. Whether at Duke University, where I was for most of my career, or at the City University of New York, where I moved in July 2014, I have found students to be engaged, aware of the problems they have inherited, and determined to gain the skills necessary to address serious social ills. They want to learn enough about the world to change it. They want to do a better job of addressing major world problems than their elders, frankly, have done.

Do they want jobs? Of course. But they don’t only want jobs. They are far too realistic for that. These are the “Uber Generation.” If they are traditional-age college students, they were born after the invention of the Internet and, thus, have spent their entire lifetimes living within the ecology of a disappearing, disrupted, distributed, disturbed, and disturbing economy. They have watched whole industries and professions disappear: the music business, journalism, law, college teaching. For the Uber Generation, the new normal is contingent, on-demand, part-time labor, without benefits, without insurance or assurances, expenses paid out of pocket, with no advancement, and with no futurity. “Adjunctification” means that the person who teaches their classes likely has no job security—and, likely, neither will they, after they graduate.

College has to be more than training for skills soon rendered obsolete. Here’s what we should be telling our students. College has to arm you to take on a very difficult world, not merely to adapt to it. You go to college, now, to learn how to learn, how to succeed in a world changing so fast that no one can predict what will happen next. You need to know how to network, to draw strength from those around you, to learn together, and to be able to learn on the fly—widely, deeply, broadly, critically, and creatively. You have to be an analytical thinker and a synthesizer. You have to have enough confidence in your ability to unlearn your own habits and to learn new ones so that, when the next innovation disrupts your profession, you are prepared to build a new career and then rebuild it, if necessary, all over again. That doesn’t just require information and skills. It requires self-knowledge.

Any pundit who reduces college to skills training misses the point. You are in college for something more: you are in college as an act of faith and hope that you will be able to find the right kind of career path for you, the right match between your skills, your talents, and, if you are incredibly lucky, your passions. College will expose you to a full range of new possibilities that were not available to you before. You will have the opportunity to study with researchers and scholars who have dedicated their lives to fields you didn’t even know existed and, somehow, through the kind of liberal education that Boyer championed and that is uniquely American, you will have the opportunity to find a match between what you most want to do in the world, what you are uniquely capable of doing, and what, realistically, will allow you a way to support yourself. Ideally, you will be able to do so while contributing something meaningful to the world that you have inherited and that you, in turn, will help shape. You might become a Philosopher Statistician Who Gives Back.

This is far more than workforce readiness. It’s world readiness.

Fordism for the Uber generation?

Inspired by great educators like Ernest L. Boyer, I’ve spent the last several years committed to student-centered learning, to finding all the ways that higher education can help students find that special connection between their aspirations and ways of thriving in the world while improving it.

It’s a challenge. Student-centered learning reverses the assumptions of the research university that have dominated our academic value system since the late nineteenth century. Between approximately 1860 and 1925, the Puritan college was redesigned as the modern research university, a site of professionalization, credentialing, standardization, measurement, authorizing, hierarchy, regulation, accreditation, and professional development. The research university is not structured to foster a student’s self-realization, transformation, or social activism—what Boyer calls “purpose.” The research university is calibrated to certify the acquisition of expertise as defined and conferred by a certified expert.

There are historical reasons why this is the case. The great educational project of the nineteenth century was to train farmers to be factory workers and shopkeepers to be corporate managers. Urbanization and industrialization required new forms of professionalization, specialization, and credentialing. Consider the following infrastructural and institutional innovations of formal education that were not in place before 1860 and that were all fully operational in the United States by the end of 1925: mandatory public secondary schooling, K-12 curricular requirements, land-grant universities, research universities, junior colleges, extension education, majors, minors, electives, divisions, certification, graduate schools, collegiate law schools, nursing schools, graduate schools of education, collegiate business schools, degree requirements, credit hours, grades, IQ tests, giftedness, learning disabilities, multiple-choice tests, college entrance exams, multiple-choice entrance exams (SAT), the Association of American Colleges and Universities, tenure, sabbaticals, faculty pensions, school rankings—this list could go on for several pages, with each component connected to the other in complex ways.

Significantly, not a single item on that list needs explanation in 2016. Why? Because the apparatus designed a hundred years ago is still in place today. Our students, seeking a career path, self-actualization, and social engagement, must somehow find their own identities through a thicket of regulations, practices, silos, certifications, assessments, and educational assumptions that were designed to train the professional-managerial class in the era of the telegraph and the Model T. This is problematic on many levels. On an intellectual level, it’s a problem of anachronism: the world of the telegraph was a one-way broadcast world in an era of mass urbanization and industrialization. What Paulo Freire calls the “banking model” of knowledge transmission—transferring content from the expert teacher to the student—was suited to the standardization, production, and output metrics of the Industrial Age.

But the world changed on April 22, 1993, when scientists at the University of Illinois’s National Center for Supercomputing Applications announced that the Mosaic 1.0 browser would now be available for free for educational and nonprofit purposes and at a modest fee for commercial enterprises. Suddenly, anyone with an Internet connection could communicate with anyone else in the world with access to an Internet connection. Anyone could be a broadcaster. A company, an expert, an official outlet was not required. Anyone could make and exchange content without certification as an expert knowledge provider, without an editor, and without a pause button. We humans were suddenly given a new power, one fraught with promise and rife with danger.

Yet, all these years later, we still train youth by last century’s system of formal education, kindergarten through professional school: Fordism for the Uber generation.

John Dewey, Maria Montessori, and other progressive educators objected to the hierarchical, banking model of knowledge transfer of that time. Imagine what they would say now as the Uber Generation of students pays increasingly exorbitant tuitions to be schooled with the pedagogy, standards, apparatus, values, and assumptions of the assembly line, mass production, and industrialization limiting and delimiting a future now over one hundred years in the past.

In social terms, we have a problem of inequality. The system we have inherited has led to what Lani Guinier calls the “tyranny of meritocracy.” We have a legacy from a world in which structural inequalities of racism, sexism, homophobia, nativism, and even eugenics came bundled into the inputs and outputs of formal education. We have a legacy of summative, high-stakes testing, for example, that maps onto the income levels of those taking the tests. Yet we act as if we are testing for merit, intelligence, and achievement. It is a cooked system that skews the metrics by which we admit students, grade them, and rank them. We then rank and reward our colleges and universities by a standard of selectivity driven by the same logic, a logic that extends all the way up to peer review for faculty.

This leads to a societal mismatch. Some 84 percent of full-time full professors are white, even as we have a new “majority minority” of students entering our universities who are not.1 We have a full-time faculty that is nearly 70 percent male, with documented levels of gender bias at every level of the system.2 And those racial and gender inequalities become more extreme the higher up the academic hierarchy one moves.

Sadly, our classroom practices are not egalitarian either. If we teach only by an apprenticeship model, we replicate obsolete intellectual models and unequal social structures.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that we can change this.

The classroom as a site of transformation and engagement

The changes we need in higher education must occur on all the levels that educators addressed between 1860 and 1925, when they developed the structures we have now. Realistically, that means we have a few decades of work ahead of us—and, all over, educators are working together on all of these areas. It takes time, and the development is always “uneven.”

However, even as we are working together toward systemic institutional change, there is one area where we can all make change immediately and effectively: our own classrooms. We can make a difference on that transformational, aspirational, engaged level that Ernest Boyer so passionately advocated. We can change our pedagogical practices right now, in ways that empower our students and encourage them to experience their own agency and that, in turn, inspire us, as academics, to see what freedoms we, too, still possess and what we can accomplish in our realm.

So what holds us back? If how we teach and how we scaffold our students’ learning is the easiest thing to change, why don’t more of us engage in student-centered, engaged learning practices? The answer is simple: it requires us—professors—to learn, to change, to deconstruct our own training, legacies, status, and assumptions. We have to move from the banking model to what Freire calls the teacher-as-student and student-as-teacher model.

That may sound daunting. In fact, I’ve found it to be exceptionally rewarding to implement what the American Psychological Association calls “Total Participation.” Structuring a classroom for equality, where every student can be heard, turns out to model a better way of interacting with the world, organizing community action, modeling productive collaboration in the workplace, and participating in a democratic society. Following are six principles with simple, corresponding tactics (mostly learned from others) that I have found to be useful in helping to turn the classroom into a site of transformation and engagement.

1. Structure active participation: Think-Pair-Share. I learned this from a second-grade teacher, and I have seen it done in medical school. I use it nearly every class session—sometimes to start the class, sometimes as attention lags in the middle, sometimes as an exercise in “metacognition” at the end. It could not be simpler. I pass out index cards and ask for quick responses in order to avoid self-consciousness. The content changes; the structure remains basically the same.

For “Think,” I might say, “Take ninety seconds to write down the three most important ideas you learned from this week’s reading assignment.”

For “Pair,” students work with partners, with one reading the three items on the card while

the other listens, and then they switch roles. Only after each has read, and each has listened, do they decide on what one idea they will share with the class, sometimes blending two answers, editing, synthesizing, compromising, and collaborating.

For “Share,” they then take turns, with each pair reading their combined idea to the class and leading that portion of the class discussion. If the group is large—I once conducted Think-Pair-Share with six thousand International Baccalaureate teachers in the Philadelphia 76ers arena—I have them “share” on an online collaborative tool, rather than read aloud.

Think-Pair-Share is simple, fast, and it works. It gives the shy student an opportunity to write and to speak and to be heard. It gives everyone practice in listening and working together. It’s more structured than an open-ended seminar and more egalitarian. Students don’t just learn content from “the expert”: they learn how to become expert themselves.

2. Let students collectively establish the principles and practices for learning. On the first day of class, I give students the chance to write a class constitution. I give them a guide—either a constitution previous classes of students have written, or we’ll use something like the Mozilla Manifesto or even the preamble to the US Constitution. The point is for students to decide what they hope to accomplish, why, and how they will work together to achieve their goals, in the classroom and beyond it. Rarely are students afforded the opportunity to discuss the outcomes they perceive as important in their education.

3. Practice digital literacy. You cannot just talk about digital literacy; you must practice it. A large portion of all my courses happens online and in public for this reason. Students decide about security, privacy, self-representation in public, data management and use, and communications strategies for our class website. Students may use pseudonyms. We work with librarians and technology advisors, and students learn how to create a portfolio of their work so that, when future employers or graduate school admissions officers “Google them,” they find a careful, thoughtful, and a curated self-presentation—not just an OkCupid profile, goofy Tweets, or an incriminating Instagram account.

We typically make a simple site for the course as well as a Group on the site (the world’s first and oldest academic social network, with a strong community of graduate and undergraduate student leaders).3 Typically, I have one or two students blog each week about the reading, and then the other students comment. Students learn to write with a public voice, for a larger audience, and with the purpose of having an impact on the world.

4. Turn endings into beginnings: The exit pass. At the end of each class—and this technique works well at meetings, too—each student jots down one or two pressing questions that still remain. They sign these cards and turn them in. One friend of mine does this in a lecture hall with six hundred students. It is faster and easier than taking attendance, serves better than a pop quiz, helps the professor prepare for the next lecture, and gives every student a chance to reflect on what they have learned. Win-win.

5. Contribute to public knowledge. I have stopped requiring any paper or project for which I am the only audience. Every final project—whether accomplished individually or by a group—now must make some kind of public contribution to knowledge. These range widely. At Duke several years ago, my students contributed new history to the town museum of Wilmington, North Carolina, to include documentation of the race riots of white citizens against African Americans during Reconstruction and helped put on a major centennial to commemorate those devastating events, remapping the town’s African American history. A few years ago, a class wrote an entire textbook on student-centered learning, Field Notes to 21st Century Literacies: A Guide to New Theories, Methods, and Practices for Open Peer Teaching and Learning.4 To date, more than thirty thousand people have used chapters from this resource. The projects are as limitless as the problems higher education is designed to address.

6. End with a mission statement. I used to begin my courses by having students write a mission statement. Now, I have them do it on the last day of class. I have them reflect on all they have learned in the course—the content, the collaborations, the methods, and the relationships. And then I have them write a mission statement about how they might use all of these in their imagined, projected, ideal future. I like to have them find something they themselves have written in the class and incorporate that into their mission for the future. I want them to be inspired by their own aspirations.

To my mind, that is educating higher: helping students find their own voices, words, learning, paths, journeys, and purposes. It’s the best we can do in higher education.


1. “Race/ethnicity of college faculty,” US Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, accessed March 26, 2016,; “Characteristics of Postsecondary Faculty” U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, accessed March 26, 2016,

2. Danica Savonick and Cathy N. Davidson, “Gender Bias in Academe: An Annotated Bibliography of Important Recent Studies,” HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory) Blog, January 26, 2015,

3. See

4. See Cathy N. Davidson, Cristiane Damasceno, Omar Daouk, Christina C. Davidson, Jade E. Davis, Patrick Thomas Morgan, Barry Peddycord III, Elizabeth A. Pitts, and Jennifer Stratton, Field Notes to 21st Century Literacies: A Guide to New Theories, Methods, and Practices for Open Peer Teaching and Learning (CreateSpace, 2013); also available online at

Cathy N. Davidson is distinguished professor and director of the Futures Initiative at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. The author expresses her deep gratitude to the New American Colleges and Universities (NAC&U) for honoring her with the sixth annual Ernest L. Boyer Award. She especially wishes to thank NAC&U President Nancy Hensel for encouraging her to focus her remarks on the ways Dr. Boyer’s inspiring ideas about engagement might be relevant to pedagogical change in the classroom, and she also thanks doctoral student Danica Savonick for her research assistance in preparing this address. Davidson is currently completing a book on the future of higher education that will be published by Basic Books in 2017.

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