We must radically reform higher education to meet the most pressing needs of our age.
It’s Taco Day at Meadowlark Retirement Community in Manhattan, Kansas.
“The students usually sit with the other residents,” the host says, pointing to a round table with crisp white table linens at the opposite end of the dining room, beyond the buffet line. “But today they reserved a table for your visit.”
I’m writing a book on the future of higher education, profiling innovators, educators, and students all over the United States who are remaking pedagogy, courses, requirements, majors, and minors to make college more relevant to the challenges students face today. I’m here today to interview students in “Anthropology of Aging: Digital Anthropology,” taught by Professor Michael Wesch, associate professor of anthropology and university distinguished teaching scholar at Kansas State University. Wesch was the 2008 Professor of the Year, an award given by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. He is one of the most famous profs at K-state or anywhere, for that matter. His YouTube videos have been viewed somewhere over ten million times.
My personal favorite, “A Vision of Students Today” begins with a grainy, slightly sinister entrance into an empty lecture hall, in noir-ish black-and-white, with an epigraph in white letters from Marshall McLuhan:
Today’s child is bewildered when he enters the 19th century environment that still characterizes the educational establishment where information is scarce but ordered and structured by fragmented, classified patterns, subjects, schedules.
The world has changed dramatically since 1967 when McLuhan wrote those words. No one talks about information scarcity anymore. The Internet has changed our typical complaint to “information overload.” Yet school still retains the fragments, patterns, subjects, schedules, and other divisions designed specifically for the second Industrial Age, the era of the telegraph and the assembly line.
These structures, as McLuhan portends, were themselves created to meet the urgencies of their time. In the late 19th century in the US, educators retrofitted the Puritan college, exemplified by Harvard, founded in 1636 to train ministers, to become the modern research university. The architect of that change was Charles Eliot, who spent two years in Europe studying the modern Humboldtian German research university as well as French higher education. Then, during a record 40-year presidency at Harvard, Eliot worked with leaders at other universities to design virtually all the apparatus of higher education we’ve inherited today.
Supported by the era’s great philanthropists (sometimes known as “robber barons”) and bolstered by the theories of scientific labor management promulgated by Frederick Winslow Taylor, university leaders designed what was needed to select, train, credentialize, and authorize a new professional-managerial class to lead a newly centralized, urbanized, industrialized, and corporate society.
The list of their innovations runs to many pages. To name a few: majors, minors, credit hours, distribution requirements, electives, graduate school, and professional school. Eliot and his colleagues also implemented the new science of quantifying human abilities, including grades, IQ tests, bell curves, tracking, ranking (categories for ability and disability), and standardized single-best answer (multiple choice) exams. These features barely existed before 1860 and were fully institutionalized by 1925.
These are the fragments, patterns, and structures that McLuhan castigated as antiquated and irrelevant by 1967. If they were irrelevant 50 years ago, they are tragically inadequate today.
On April 22, 1993, the world changed. That’s the day scientists from the National Center for Supercomputing Applications announced that the Mosaic 1.0 web browser would now be available to the public, free to nonprofits and for a nominal fee for the commercial world. Overnight, anyone with access to an Internet connection could communicate anything at all to anyone else in the world who had access to the Internet. This isn’t just a new technology. It is a new conceptual, epistemological, economic, intellectual, and social model for human interaction. Our theories of what it means to be human and social — a “self” — don’t comprehend close ties of people who never physically meet, who can interact anonymously, who may not even be who they say they are. Suddenly we spend more time online than off, in a world where there is no centralized publisher, with no editor, no top-down corporate media source controlling or filtering or verifying content, and all of that vast power is available without a pause or a retract button. Everyone has a platform. No professional-managerial class is in charge. No degree required.
There is a tragic mismatch between our Industrial Age system of formal education and the dire needs and pressing problems our students face. School today (kindergarten through professional school) has become a reductio ad absurdum of what Eliot and his pals created. It is over-tested, over-standardized, over-selective, over-disciplined, over-focused, intellectually restricted, bureaucratically overloaded, over-regulated, radically unequal, outcomes-based, and hyper-managerial. By contrast, students outside of school inhabit an interactive, post-Internet, anyone-with-a-webcan-can, gonzo, selfie-obsessed information free-for-all. It’s schizophrenic, as if neither world comprehends the other.
Students have also inherited a future beset by massive problems that our traditional democratic (or even totalitarian) institutions are failing to address—climate change, police violence, poverty, global aging, right-wing populist anti-migrant and racist movements, terrorism, intolerance. The powerful figures in their world are less the political leaders than technocratic moguls—the CEOs of Facebook, Google, and Apple. They avoid taxes, are seemingly ungoverned by rules, often espouse libertarian politics, are mostly male and white, and offer us all “free” online goodies that turn out to really be platforms for turning our private data into opportunities for consumer marketing, government surveillance, black market exploitation, and hacker theft. This AI-driven enterprise is, every day, turning 19th century professional-managerial middle-class occupations into low-paid, insecure “ambient” labor (contingent, with no worker protections, no security, no benefits).
Houston, we have a problem.
Where is Charles Eliot when we need him today?
What would it mean to remake higher education for our age? This is why I’m at Meadowlark Retirement Community today. Wesch is less a polemicist or theorist than a role model, offering us fresh possibilities for rethinking our institutions. His classes almost always have a “digital” component, but it’s the opposite of “dumping iPads in schools,” the $10 billion a year “edTech” industry that profits someone, but certainly not our students. Wesch’s goal is to give students the tools and the platform in which to, collectively, master better ways of living together productively and meaningfully in the complicated world they have inherited.
Here’s an example. His YouTube video “A Vision of Students Today” turned the 200 students in a traditional lecture class in “Digital Ethnography” into a collaborative video production team. They conducted independent scholarly, ethnographic, survey, and quantitative research then wrote a script together using a collaborative online editing tool on which they made 367 edits. They learned about storytelling and video editing and then promoted their video on social media. In that process, they broke down virtually all of the silos of the traditional university—theorizing, researching, making, and proselytizing across disciplinary divides. They crossed the implicit barriers of the traditional, hierarchical university: between teacher and student, producer and consumer, thinker and maker, formal education and the world.
At Meadowlark Retirement Community, Wesch is remaking the seminar. His students are designing a video game to teach people how to understand and have empathy with and, eventually, plan for the complex choices that senior citizens make in their lives. They are doing research in ethnography, gerontology, cross-cultural studies of aging, cognitive neuroscience, statistics, demographics, institutional management, public policy, as well as in game theory, graphic design, game design, and computer programming. They are learning creative writing, storytelling, narrative techniques, and discussing key issues in the digital humanities. Today they happen to be discussing the sustainability of their business model and the accessibility of different game platforms.
Most important, they have moved out of their K-State dorms and, for a semester, are actually living together at Meadowlark. They are learning how you live and view life from the other side of the adulthood they are just entering. And they are learning how institutions structure lives. Meadowlark is part of the “Household Movement” in senior citizen homes. Like higher education reform, this movement works against over a century of traditions and regulations, ones that amount to infantilizing the elderly as no longer “productive” and therefore incapable of autonomy and independence.
For Wesch, the great tragedy of higher education is that you can go through checking every box, fulfilling every requirement, acing every test, without finding yourself or identifying and preparing for your life’s passion, without stopping, once, to ask what life means, what journey you want to take, what are the best ways that you can match your skills and talents and passions with opportunities and realities in the world in order to shape a meaningful, responsible, engaged life. When, in the course of everyday college life, do you have time to grapple with life and death issues? At Meadowlark, existential questions are everyday life.
It’s significant that this remarkable course is happening at K-State, a massive public university with nearly open admission and one confronting the serious cutbacks that public higher education is facing in nearly every state. What are we thinking as a nation? Kansas has seen the fourth biggest cuts in per-student funding but everywhere we are charging our students more and offering them less. Conservative legislators justify this by saying universities should be cutting everything but essentials, teaching “skills” not “frills,” focusing on vocational training not research. Nothing could be more cynical, antiquated, or short-sighted! Google executives predict that in a decade a third of those professional-managerial middle class jobs will be replaced by robots, smart machines, or Artificial Intelligence software. “Skills training” condemns this generation to obsolescence.
Eliot and his colleagues redesigned higher education for their world. Now it’s our turn. Mike Wesch and his K-State students are part of this movement to train active learners who don’t just fit into the status quo, they challenge it. That’s the future of higher education. Our mission cannot be just to train students to be “workforce ready” for work that no longer exits. They need to be world ready.
Cathy N. Davidson is distinguished professor and founding director of the Futures Initiative at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Her new book is The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World in Flux (Basic Books, September 2017).