In the 1860s, technology and industrialization were reshaping the globe. That included academia, widely criticized at the time for being too elite, impractical, and not preparing students for the modern era.
Sound familiar? Well, it should, says Cathy N. Davidson, author of the "The New Education." In her 2017 book, Davidson contrasts the modern university with that of the late 1860s, and she says today's leaders should embrace overhauls or face a future of irrelevance.
On Sept. 24, Davidson will headline UNLV's inaugural MSI Student Success Summit. Hosted by President Keith E. Whitfield, the event outlines a vision for student success at UNLV and the institution's duty as a Minority-Serving, Hispanic-Serving, and Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-Serving institution.
Davidson and Whitfield have a long professional relationship that stems from when they were both on the faculty at Duke University. Davidson now is a Distinguish Professor in the Graduate Center at the City University of New York (CUNY).
CUNY, like UNLV and other universities, enrolls an increasingly diverse student population. Davidson explains that those demographic changes present challenges to many universities because higher education has structural barriers to success for such students.
"Most of our schools just aren't set up to address any of the changes we're experiencing," Davidson said. "Students are working more, sometimes full-time, and balancing other obligations."
It's a similar challenge faced in the 1860s when Charles Eliott, president of Harvard, wrote "New Education," a two-part essay, advocating for a more egalitarian approach to college not entirely focused on literature, philosophy, and religion.
Davidson's book borrows the title as well as the urgency expressed by Eliott. She advocates for a more flexible college experience built so that students of diverse backgrounds can succeed. She says that the irrelevant curriculum, a fear of technology, and adherence to tradition are all barriers to access and student success.
Instruction, she argues, should be focused on preparing students to tackle problems of the future that we can't yet anticipate.
"People tend to think that there's professional training versus humanities general education training," Davidson said. "What we know is higher-order training and higher-order thinking, which is basically what you get in the humanities, is, in fact, one of the things that is most likely to guarantee your success, not just in your first term or your first job, but beyond that."
Her talk at the MSI Summit will outline her assessment of the woes facing colleges, but it's not all doom and gloom. Davidson is busy writing a second edition to "The New Education." It includes praise for faculty who quickly embraced change during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Nobody on earth would have thought stodgy academics, in two weeks, would put all their classes online," Davidson said of the COVID-19 pandemic and the rush to accommodate remote instruction. "We had two weeks, and 18 million students went online in two weeks, including by professors who had never taught online and barely knew a thing about remote instruction."
While some students found remote instruction off-putting, others recognized it as a way to balance their lives and their educational aspirations. For Davidson, it illustrated that reforms are possible.
"The pandemic was a crisis, but I would say all of education is in a crisis now," Davidson said. "We have a 19th-century form of education that is not suited to the students we're teaching, and we have to make a change. That's one silver lining from the pandemic. It's made us think about what we can change and what we need to change and how we can do that."