Liberal Education

Throwing Down the Gauntlet: The Need to Revolutionalize Higher Education

One of the highlights of the 2019 annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), “Raising Our Voices: Reclaiming the Narrative on the Value of Higher Education,” was the presentation of the Frederic W. Ness Book Award to scholar Cathy N. Davidson for The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World in Flux.1 The Ness Award recognizes outstanding works that contribute to the understanding and improvement of liberal education as an evolving tradition. Davidson, distinguished professor of English and founding director of the Futures Initiative at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, throws down the gauntlet and calls for her colleagues in the academy to revolutionize higher education. For Davidson, radical redesign is essential for preparing twenty-first-century students for work, citizenship, and life in a rapidly changing world.

Pointing to the incongruity of higher education’s continued adherence to a system developed a century and a half ago to meet the demands of a nation being shaped by burgeoning industrialization and urbanization, Davidson asks,

What would it mean to redesign higher education for the intellectual space travel students need to thrive in the world we live in now? What would it mean to reorient educational paradigms that, at present, overly standardize, test, diagnose (from disability to giftedness and all points in between), specialize, and discipline students in one-way transmission models inspired by the hierarchy of the factory and assembly line, not the interactive Internet? What would it take to really educate students who do not know how, a full generation ago, a new technology changed everything and yet who must contend with, be prepared for, and find a way to prosper among these vast changes?2

As public trust in colleges and universities continues to decline, clear and compelling responses to these pointed questions are needed more than ever. Amid a climate of anti-intellectualism, skepticism, and widespread concern that our institutions are too expensive, are too difficult to access, and fail to provide students with essential skills, we have witnessed a decoupling of higher education from the American Dream. The transformation Davidson seeks centers on restoring the promise of affordable higher education for Americans as the foundation for the American Dream and the concept of educating for democracy.

Reforming the academy in this way, Davidson recognizes, requires empowering students, helping them learn how to learn, and departing from the past century’s obsession with specialization and standardized measurements of outputs. The transition must be toward assessing authentic student work on scaffolded assignments spanning a student’s first to final semester and connecting the curricular and cocurricular. Doing so, she maintains, will necessitate abandoning a deficit model that emphasizes what students are missing and embracing an asset-based approach that leverages students’ strengths by fostering active, project-based learning.3 Indeed, throughout her book, Davidson reaffirms AAC&U’s conviction that a liberal education for the future mandates the acceleration of integrative, high-impact learning opportunities that engage every student in solving unscripted, real-world problems across all types of institutions, within the context of the workforce, not apart from it.

AAC&U’s signature Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) initiative is grounded in the notion that the curriculum should follow from an identification of essential learning outcomes as necessary for all students’ intellectual, civic, personal, and professional development and for success in a global economy. In a student-centered curriculum, assignments should make clear the relationships among areas of knowledge, ensuring that students see academic disciplines not as separate and disconnected silos of learning but rather as varied approaches to the same enlightened end. Moreover, equity and quality must be inextricably linked, with all colleges and universities disaggregating data to determine which students are engaged in high-impact practices that serve as engines for success.

Yet, as Davidson notes, we persist in maintaining existing structures of the academy often misaligned with best practices for student learning. In encouraging students to become innovators in their own lives, leaders of higher education at all levels must ourselves act as changemakers. The authors in this issue of Liberal Education serve as exemplars, interrogating the structures, reward systems, policies, and practices that create barriers to the very reform Davidson invites and blazing trails for the future.


1. Cathy N. Davidson, The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World in Flux (New York: Basic Books, 2017).

2. Davidson, New Education, 6–7.

3. Davidson, New Education, 73.

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