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The American higher education system, as it exists today, runs the risk of ripping off an entire generation. That’s according to Cathy Davidson, an English professor and director of the Futures Initiative at the City University of New York, which focuses on envisioning the future of higher education. Students are paying too much to gain too little knowledge that is fundamentally useful to their lives, she said. Davidson, who wrote “The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World in Flux,” has some suggestions for how to fix this problem, and the stakes are high.

“If you’re ripping off young people, you’re ripping off your whole society,” Davidson said. “You’re ripping off the future.”

“The New Education,” which recently won the Association of American Colleges and Universities’ Frederic W. Ness Book Award for contributions to the understanding and improvement of liberal education, profiles faculty members and institutions that Davidson believes are changing to better prepare students for the modern world and workforce. They are emphasizing interdisciplinary studies, making lessons relevant to students’ lives, encouraging collaboration and teaching students how to keep learning and adapting to a changing world even after they leave college.

While these types of learning experiences aren’t the norm, they are widespread. Davidson said something is happening “on every campus in America.” Sometimes it’s a small initiative, led by a single professor, but sometimes it’s bigger. And any change at all in a system so committed to the status quo should be recognized as an achievement, according to Davidson.

“It’s happening against the whole weight of accreditation and rankings, which make it so hard to change,” she said.

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Universities tend to be set up with separate departments working in isolation. Students choose majors and primarily focus on the courses in their major, while checking the boxes of the other required courses on the way to their degree. This whole setup de-emphasizes the broad-based, lower-level coursework and it makes interdisciplinary studies logistically difficult. But Davidson argues that understanding the connections across disciplines is most useful for students in the long term and that the broader set of courses outside of students’ majors can powerfully prepare them for the workplace.

“Most jobs in the world require knowledge across fields,” Davidson said.

“Most jobs in the world require knowledge across fields.”

She highlights Arizona State University’s College of Arts, Media and Engineering as a positive example. To combine three traditionally distinct fields into a single college is, on its own, an innovation. But what Davidson finds even more impressive is that the college asks first-year students to tackle a capstone project that forces them to consider complex issues that bring together themes from across the general education curriculum in a particularly meaningful, real-world relevant way. The capstone question she mentions in the book is “What will life be like in Phoenix when there’s no more water?” Students consider the implications for work, housing, poverty, social justice and more. And because they do this as freshmen instead of as seniors, they get the opportunity to reflect back on their work throughout the rest of their degree programs, refining how they think about the problem with more knowledge and maturity.

“The New Education” is full of hopeful, inspiring examples like this. And they come from across the higher education landscape – community colleges, research universities, private colleges, and publics. Among public universities, Davidson finds it may be the regional state schools that are best positioned for transformation because they have “the most to gain and the least to lose by trying something innovative.” She sees a lot of promising changes at small liberal arts colleges, too.

And a key lesson learned from all of her research is that innovation can happen anywhere. “The New Education” lays out 10 principles that any professor at any university can put into practice tomorrow to start revolutionizing higher education.

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  1. The article by Ms. Matthewson succinctly draws upon the work of Dr. Davidson titled “The New Education.” High tuition, fees and related expenses to attend colleges and universities cause more students to consider the curriculum relevance and their post graduation employment outlook. The resulting decline of student enrollment in humanities, social sciences and other liberal arts courses should not come as a surprise. And yet, erosion of interest in courses that develop intangible skills is not inevitable, and may ineffectually prepare students to function in a world subject to unpredictable and undesirable change.

    My experience with senior executives reflects a pronounced desire for persons adept at independent thinking, innovation, articulating complex ideas, communicating effectively, working in increasingly diverse project teams, understanding ambiguity, and respectful discourse of contested ideas. Technical skills matter, but the ability to apply them in a continually changing environment is essential. Interdisciplinary curriculum offers a promising point of debarkation, provided that the process is student-centric, clearly articulates learning outcomes, and aligns course content and pedagogy in support of those objectives.

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