Liberal Education

Why We Need a New Higher Education: We Have a Responsibility to the Next Generation of Students

The past decade has seen a concerted effort by pundits and experts at the nation’s think tanks to say both that higher education is no longer worth the soaring tuition costs and that the public’s confidence in higher education is falling. Yet the supposedly negative view of higher education is not borne out by the statistics. The simple statistical fact is that, if people can afford it, they send their children to college. Indeed, there is an almost perfect correlation between wealth and college attendance. The more money you have, the more likely you are to send your offspring to college. More than 92 percent of those in the upper 5 percent of incomes in America send their children to college.1

I begin with this simple fact because higher education is receiving a lot of negative attention right now. Who bears the brunt of this negative evaluation? If college is not “worth it,” presumably those with the most resources to pass on to their children would be most likely to encourage their children not to go to college. But the opposite is true: if you are rich, you make sure your child receives a college education.

Higher education remains important to the public good but is also in need of reformation. Indeed, because postsecondary education is vital, it is incumbent on those of us who work in higher education to make sure our field is doing what we say it is doing: training the next generation not only for jobs but also to be leaders who can create better and more equitable futures—in the workplace, in their communities, and in the larger world. We have to fight for our universities, but we also need to create universities worth fighting for.

We need a revolution in the Copernican sense: a fundamental change in the way we think about the purpose of higher education. Implicitly, now, our majors and minors are designed to replicate the professoriate. Professors train students the way they were trained, in specializations that have been developed in our academic fields and not necessarily in skills and specializations that map onto the needs of the contemporary world our students are inheriting.

Equally important, we have a glaring disparity between our rhetoric about the purpose of higher education and the demographics of the professoriate. Despite decades of research and theory about race, gender, and ethnicity, the number of scholars of color and women in higher education, especially in leadership positions, has not significantly changed.2 Clearly, theorizing about equality has not changed the actual profession. We cannot alter structural inequalities simply with good words and goodwill. We have to build new structures that put equality at the core.

This extends to our students, too. We are passing on value systems as well as implicit bias. Who speaks in a classroom? Who is encouraged to move ahead? Why are some fields (in our universities and in the world beyond) still mostly male or almost entirely white? Why are others female? Who is making this selection? We will not see changes until we know who our students are, who our faculty are, and what our challenges are.

In making that paradigm shift, we need to ask two main questions: Are we doing what we actually say we are doing, and is it working?

We don’t have to blow up higher education in order to make this shift. We already have the elements we need. However—and this is our major challenge—all of those ingredients need to be redistributed, reconsidered, and realigned if we are truly going to remake higher education in a way that supports our students’ futures. If our main goal is certification, not much needs to change. If, however, we believe our rhetoric about higher education being a training ground for democracy, then we have to think about the ways that we can transform the university to empower students. We need to shift from a model of learning that is about the transmittal of our expertise to a model in which we give students the tools to become experts themselves. These changes are crucial to the future success of our students, especially first-generation college students.

School bells and standardization

Before we look at what we might do to transform higher education, let’s take a few moments to consider how higher education came to be what it is today.

In US higher education, our inheritance is a hierarchical, industrial set of structures and infrastructures. The great project of the nineteenth century was to train farmers to be factory workers and to turn shopkeepers into a professional managerial class. Everyone from Karl Marx to Adam Smith talked about how formal, compulsory schooling was designed to train children to time, task, duty, hierarchy, and authority. This is one reason the school bell became the century’s symbol of public education.

The modern American research university arose between 1860 and 1925, and a range of systems and structures for regularizing, specializing, and measuring learning became fully institutionalized at that time, including majors, minors, electives, graduate and professional schools, degree requirements, credit hours, grades, multiple-choice tests, college entrance exams, tenure, sabbaticals, faculty pensions, school rankings, donor-named chairs, corporate-sponsored research, failure, and more.

In the United States, perhaps no one had more impact on the shape of modern higher education than Charles Eliot, president of Harvard from 1869 to 1909. The Harvard he attended as a student had changed little from its original goal of training ministers, even though only 10 to 20 percent of Harvard graduates went on to the ministry. Eliot’s goal was to transform the Puritan college into the American research university, with the purpose of preparing students for the new, industrial world of global capitalism. Eliot was influenced by the great corporate leaders (also known as “robber barons”) of his day and partnered with many of them in financing the newly specialized and expansive version of Harvard.

At the same time, Frederick Winslow Taylor was theorizing what he called “scientific labor management.” Taylor was also from America’s elite but, instead of going to Harvard, he (like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg in our own era) decided industry, not education, was where his future lay. Taylor worked in a pig iron factory and wrote treatises on measuring worker productivity. He emphasized timeliness, uniformity, regularity, outputs, and outcomes. He believed workers needed to be machine-like. He rewarded the “soldier” (his term) who was equally productive at 8:30 in the morning, when he was just starting out, and 6:30 at night, when he was ending the day. That thinking and those methods were translated into higher education when Taylor became the first professor of business at the first place in the world to offer a master’s in business, the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College. Part of Taylor’s calling was to translate scientific labor management into scientific learning management.

Evaluation moved from extended comments and conversations with each student to “scientific” outcomes-based grading, namely reducing everything a student learns in a course to a letter or a numerical grade. Similarly, institutions, departments, and individual faculty members were also being ranked and graded. Almost all of America’s higher education professional associations were formed at this time, partly to standardize, regularize, and sometimes credentialize what counted as “professional.”3 In addition to serving as Harvard’s president for forty years, Eliot founded the accrediting body the New England Association of Schools and Colleges. Not surprisingly, the implicit standard by which other institutions were judged was Harvard, America’s oldest, richest, and most elite institution.

Our students and our institutions vastly differ from one another, yet we have inherited rigid ideas of “standards” for what counts as “excellence” across these differences. Today, eighteen million undergraduates attend college. More than 40 percent of those students are enrolled at a community college. More than 40 percent are working thirty hours a week, with 25 percent working full time and attending school full time. Twenty-five percent of undergraduates are older than twenty-five and usually have family responsibilities. Thirty percent are first-generation college students, 24 percent are from low-income backgrounds, and 25 percent face food and housing insecurity.4

The Ivies are not representative of the majority of our students, our faculty, or our lives. Only 0.4 percent of those eighteen million undergraduates are enrolled at an Ivy League institution,5 yet a disproportionate number of today’s books and articles about college students are written by people who went to the Ivies, who have kids at the Ivies, or who assume the Ivies are the metric for everybody else. And the grading and accreditation systems—from what we do to our students to what institutions do to us, to what is done to our institutions—are standardized hierarchical systems that were made for another era and a completely different kind of undergraduate population.

Saving ourselves from technology

In early 1993, the scientists at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois made the Mosaic 1.0 browser available for free for all noncommercial use. This meant that anyone who had an internet connection could communicate directly with anyone else who had an internet connection, without an editor, a publisher, or a censor.At that time, all the world’s websites could be listed on a single sheet of notebook paper. By 1995, more than ten thousand websites existed, most of them user-created, and internet use grew exponentially.6

Much has changed since 1993. As technology scholar Zeynep Tufekci has noted, Web 1.0 was all about information. In Web 2.0, we went social. Now in Web 3.0, we have weaponized and monetized fraud, bots and trolls, the manipulation of attention, Uber-ized unregulated labor, unequal access, censorship and information blocking, the end of net neutrality, and ubiquitous surveillance.7

My traditional college-age students were born after 1993. They didn’t experience life before the internet, but they are learning how to interact and learn in a system of higher education created for the world of the Model T and the telegraph. The technocratic solutions we’ve had for higher education assume that technology makes the world a better place. It does not, unless we take charge of it and remember that humans made technology. Technology is not going to save us from technology. We have to be involved. Anne Balsamo, inaugural dean of the School of Arts, Technology, and Emerging Communication at the University of Texas at Dallas, has suggested that we should teach computer science like we teach epidemiology: What does this code do? For whom does it do it? How does it spread? Is it toxic? If so, how do we safeguard against infection? Balsamo suggests that “for game and app designers who want their products to ‘go viral,’ it would be useful if they understood the way viruses and biological agents are spread, reproduced and mutate within populations of people who may or may not realize they are infected.”8

For a while, it seemed like the only solution educators (and for-profit companies) could propose for remaking higher education for the internet age amounted to putting everything online. The results were, far too often, thoughtless, mechanical, and standardized in an assembly-line way. Hand-in-hand with the MOOC (Massive Online Open Courseware) mania came rhetoric about the need to “unbundle” the university and streamline it by getting rid of everything that wasn’t STEM—teaching “skills,” advocates said, not “frills.” This educational philosophy turned out to be bankrupt. Even at Google, a company dedicated to hiring only “A” students with computer science and engineering degrees, it turns out that advancement requires a range of those “frills,” or what in business are often called “soft skills.”

When Google conducted Project Oxygen, the biggest human resources survey a company has undertaken, it found that technology skills were not what led to advancement at Google.9 The top skills for those who rose in the company were the human skills that are a part of a general education with a liberal arts foundation: writing, reading, cross-cultural communication, and the ability to translate technical information so that a nonspecialist can understand it.

Next, Google conducted Project Aristotle, a study of its two types of teams, which I will call the A and the B teams. For the A teams, Google grouped together the smartest people in every subfield and told them to compete against each other to come up with the company’s most brilliant ideas. The B teams consisted of people with different skills organized so that everyone had a chance to contribute ideas.

It turned out that Google’s most important products and innovations came out of the less competitive teams. Google was shocked. It has since changed the organization of its groups. The longevity of an A group was about six months. The B groups last longer, are healthier, and are more productive. The most important rule: no bullying. Learning how to listen to one another turns out to be a vital workplace skill.

Teaching the “why”

There is ample evidence that one factor (after material conditions) for students’ staying in school—especially first-generation students—is knowing why they are learning what they are learning and how they can apply it beyond the classroom. If you look at the thousands of syllabi online in different subjects, you quickly see that we tend not to be very good at making that “meta” connection. I would suggest that we all need to master the art of revealing what we are doing, why we choose the books and topics we do, and what we believe students will be able to take from our classes to other courses and to their lives beyond school.

Several instructors, schools, and departments have forged ahead to tackle learning with a purpose in a deep and meaningful way that can be useful to all of us. Each year, Arizona State University’s School of Arts, Media, and Engineering organizes its general education curriculum around a problem that students must address together. A recent problem was “What will life be like in Phoenix when there’s no more water?” This question deals with hydrology, toxicology, social systems, law, business, ethics, and history. What is, for instance, the history of water in Arizona? Phoenix doesn’t look like it did even twenty years ago, but its infrastructure still does. The problem-based curriculum tackles profound questions. When I visited, undergraduates talked about the water problem with interest and dexterity and learned from each other in a remarkable way. The mind-set was the opposite of “Oh my gosh, it’s 8:00 in the morning, and I have to get to that chemistry class I have to take in order to graduate.” Students instead felt as if they were learning skills that could help them address the most pressing problems of their time.

Yale University’s history department has also recently taken on the task of redesigning itself. This is significant because Yale’s history program is typically ranked as number one in the country. They do not need to change. But they have. They created two tracks for history majors—a “specialist track” and a general “global track” that focuses on comparative history. Their thinking was that history is crucial for anything one does in life, and history courses should not just be for those going on to graduate school to become history professors. The global track draws into contention two things that define history as a discipline: period and nation. Courses make comparisons designed to disrupt pat answers. For instance, one class on the US Civil War might be team-taught with a scholar of Indian partition—a different way of addressing massive social differences and a way for students to understand that solutions are complex and varied. Another feature of the new program is a cohort model. Each year, history majors take one class with their cohort, with a theme and books chosen just for that cohort. This promotes intellectual community without resorting to the “core” model, which requires every student over decades to read the same dozen canonical texts.10

Raising your hand

In his forties, the science fiction novelist Samuel Delany taught his first course at Wesleyan University. Although brilliant, Delany had never attended college himself. He couldn’t wait to teach his first class, where he thought every student would be throbbing with ideas. The first day, though, he asked a question, and only three or four students shot up their hands. Most of us feel quite satisfied if a few students participate, but Delany was devastated. What about the other 27 students? He later commented on that experience: “Don’t you realize that every time you don’t answer a question, you’re learning something? You’re learning how to make do with what you got. You’re learning how not to ask for a raise. You’re learning how to take it. That’s not good.”11

He now tells his students that whenever he asks a question, everyone has to put their hand up—whether they know the answer or not. If they don’t know the answer, they should say clearly, “I don’t know the answer to that, Professor Delany, but I would like to hear what that person has to say, and we’ll pass it on.”12 Delany really does this. When he asks a question, his students raise their hands. Everyone participates. Cognitive neuroscience tells us that even the simple act of raising your hand says, “I am here. I deserve to be here.”13 Most professors have experienced reading a brilliant final paper from someone they didn’t know was smart, because the student never spoke in class. That’s a tragedy.

We can figure out ways for every student in a class to participate, hear themselves speak, and have a way of integrating their knowledge in a group situation. When I teach, I use several inventory techniques, methods where each student participates in a low-risk, low-stakes activity. The American Psychological Association calls this total participation, or “teaching techniques that require evidence of participation and higher-order thinking from all students at the same time.”14

Classic inventory methods are “entry tickets” and “exit tickets”—rapid, low-stakes, ungraded exercises that can be used in small seminars or large lecture classes. In the former, one begins a class by asking a question, having everyone respond quickly in writing, and then having some way of sharing the responses. Some people use clickers; I tend to use pencils and index cards that do not rely on bandwidth in my classrooms. I rarely give students more than ninety seconds to respond, because I want them to think of these not as exams but as a method with no grades or evaluative components, designed entirely as a platform for supporting their contribution. A few years ago, one of my students came up with an excellent entry-ticket exercise: write down one sentence from this week’s readings that moved you in some way. We then went around the classroom, and everyone read their sentence out loud—no discussion, just reading. It is a quick exercise, and students immediately see that, although we read the “same” text, it’s not really the same at all. It’s a great way to begin a class discussion, and it gives students a voice from the beginning. A colleague in the social sciences who teaches enormous lecture classes ends each lecture with a question and has students answer it on index cards. Students sign their cards, so it’s an efficient way of taking roll, and the method also creates a jumping-off place for teaching assistants as they lead discussion sessions, again with every students’ ideas part of the conversation (not just the two or three eager ones who always raise their hands).15

Another way of having all students involved in learning together is to design techniques for students to help write the syllabus, come up with teaching methods, and take charge of the class. Sometimes I compose the first half of the syllabus and then have students work in groups to create the second half.16 Of course, I meet and talk with the groups, but I also give them the responsibility of choosing subtopics and texts that fit within the course theme. It changes the dynamics of the class, the desire to learn, and students’ sense of themselves. Sitting in a classroom, even a small seminar, where the same three students always answer the professor’s questions is demoralizing and demotivating, especially for first-generation students. Total participation invites everyone into the conversation. It’s one step toward changing the hierarchies of higher education and something all professors can enact in their own classrooms tomorrow.

Preparing the next generation

I wrote my book The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World in Flux with one mission: to inspire higher education transformation. I wanted it to be a page-turner so that it might reach the maximum number of readers—all kinds of readers—who might learn from the different ways educators have succeeded in making meaningful and significant changes at their institutions. If we’re going to change higher education, we need a community of students, faculty members, administrators, and trustees all engaged with these issues. In writing the book, I spent a lot of time talking to young people about what they wanted. This is an amazing generation of students. They’re working against formidable odds. The world we have bequeathed to them has myriad problems. The least we can do is think about the kind of higher education that will give them the tools to address those problems wisely and equitably.


1. Gregor Aisch, Amanda Cox, and Kevin Quealy, “You Draw It: How Family Income Predicts Children’s College Chances,” New York Times, May 28, 2015, ; Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren, Patrick Kline, and Emmanuel Saez, “Where is the Land of Opportunity? The Geography of Intergenerational Mobility in the United States,” National Bureau of Economic Research (January 2014); for more reading about income inequality and higher education, see also Eduardo Porter, “A Simple Equation: More Education = More Income,” New York Times, September 10, 2014,

2. Martin J. Finkelstein, Valerie Martin Conley, and Jack H. Schuster, Taking the Measure of Faculty Diversity (New York: TIAA Institue, 2016),

3. Among the US academic and professional educational associations created at this time are: American Chemical Society (1876), American Library Association (1876), Modern Language Association (1883), American Historical Association (1884), New England Association of Schools and Colleges (1885), American Mathematical Society (1888), Committee of Ten (1892), American Psychological Association (1892), College Entrance Examination Board (1899), American Philosophical Association (1900), Association of American Universities (1900), American Anthropological Association (1902), American Sociological Association (1905), American Association of University Professors (1915), and Association of American Colleges (1915, now Association of American Colleges and Universities).

4. Gail Mellow, “The Biggest Misconception about Today’s College Students,” New York Times, August 28, 2017,

5. Mellow, “The Biggest Misconception.”

6. Jason Levitt, “A Matter of Attribution: Can’t Forget to Give Credit for Mosaic Where Credit Is Due,” Open Systems Today 71 (May 9, 1994); “The Birth of the Web,” CERN, accessed July 20, 2019, ; “June 2019 Web Server Survey,” Netcraft,

7. Zeynep Tufekci, Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017).

8. Dean Anne Balsamo makes this analogy in public presentations to students and faculty. She amplified it in correspondence with the author on July 20, 2019. Quoted by permission.

9. See the outcomes from Google’s Project Aristotle in “Guides,” re:Work, ; and outcomes from Google’s Project Oxygen in “Project Oxygen: 8 Ways Google Resuscitated Management,” Impraise,; for a narrativized perspective, see Charles Duhigg, “What Google Learned from Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team: New Research Reveals Surprising Truths about Why Some Work Groups Thrive and Others Falter,” New York Times, February 25, 2016,; for outcomes from similar studies, see Anita Williams Woolley et al., “Evidence for a Collective Intelligence Factor in the Performance of Human Groups,” Science 330 (2010): 686–88.

10. Mohammed Hussari, “History Returns to the Top Major for the Class of 2019,” Yale News, April 6, 2017; and “The Global Track” and “The Specialist Track,” Department of History, Yale University,

11. Samuel Delany, “The Polymath, or the Life and Opinions of Samuel R. Delany, Gentleman,”

12. Samuel Delany, “The Polymath.”

13. See Cathy N. Davidson, Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn (New York: Viking Penguin, 2011).

14. William Himmele and Pérsida Himmele, Total Participation Techniques: Making Every Student an Active Learner, 2nd ed. (Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2017); also see William Himmele and Pérsida Himmele, “Total Participation Techniques,”

15. For an open resource on progressive pedagogy with blogs (to which anyone may contribute) describing many inventory methods, see Cathy N. Davidson and Christina Katopodis, “Progressive Pedagogy Group,”,

16. For examples of courses where students were involved in the creation of the course structure, content, syllabus, and evaluation systems, see two online open access collections of syllabi and course blogs, one for a course team-taught by Cathy N. Davidson and Michael Gillespie in 2017, “Teaching Race and Gender Theory in the Undergraduate Classroom,”,, and another team-taught by Cathy N. Davidson and Shelly Eversley in 2018, “Black Listed: African American Writers and the Cold War Politics of Integration, Surveillance, Censorship, and Publication,”,

Cathy N. Davidson is a distinguished professor in the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, founding director of the Futures Initiative, codirector of the CUNY Humanities Alliance, and author of The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World in Flux (Basic Books, 2017), which won the 2019 Frederic W. Ness Book Award from the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U). This essay is adapted from her talk at the Ness Award session at AAC&U’s 2019 annual meeting. The author wishes to thank Christen Aragoni for transcribing the talk and distilling it into a draft of this written essay and Christina Katopodis for assistance in preparing the final version for publication

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