Blog Post

Edu-Traitor! Confessions of a Prof Who Believes Higher Ed Isn't the Only Goal

Edu-Traitor!  Confessions of a Prof Who Believes Higher Ed Isn't the Only Goal

I am an Edu-Traitor.   I am a college professor.  What I am about to say may well be perceived as supporting attitudes thought to be against the interests and well-being of college professors.   Here goes:  I do not think going to university should be the be-all and end-all of K-12 education. The importance of going to college should be intrinsically the rationale by which we justify public support of higher education.  Higher education is incredibly valuable, even precious, for many.  But  It is bad for individuals and society to be retrofitting learning all the way back to preschool, as if the only skills valuable, vital, necessary in the world are the ones that earn you a BS, BA, or a graduate and professional degree. 

Do I think it is criminal that we are de-funding higher education now?  Yes.  Do I think it is appalling to think we are charging larger and larger tuitions at state institutions (and private ones, but that is a different issue)?  Of course.  Is it shocking that such a rich country is not supporting free education?  Absolutely.  Do I believe there are benefits that accrue from a highly educated workforce, with an appreciation of an array of subjects (liberal arts to computer science) that are not strictly pre-professional training?  Definitely.    BUT . . . here's the Edu-Traitor part:   Do I believe we need to justify the investment in higher education in terms of it being a necessity for the 21st century for everyone?   Absolutely not.  

We justify higher ed so often because many of the careers of the 21st century need (reformed, definitely it needs to be reformed) higher ed.  But many occupations do not.  That is not my main concern, however.  I argue that, right now, we are deforming the entire enterprise of education, from preschool onward, by insisting it be measured implicitly by the standard of "will this help you get into college"?  The result is the devaluation of myriad important ways of learning that are not, strictly speaking, "college material." 

The world of work--the world we live in--is so much more complex than the quite narrow scope of learning measured and tested by college entrance exams and in college courses.   There are so many viable and important and skilled professions that cannot be outsourced to either an exploitative Third World sweat shop or to a computer, that require face-to-face presence, and a bucketload of skills--but that  do not require a college education:  the full range of IT workers, web designers, body workers (ie deep tissue massage), yoga and pilates instructors, fitness educators, DJ's, hair dressers, retail workers, food industry professionals, entertainers,  entertainment industry professionals, construction workers, dancers, artists, musicians, entrepreneurs, landscapers, nanny's, elder-care professionals, nurses's aids, dog trainers, cosmetologists, athletes, sales people, fashion designers, novelists, poets, furniture makers, book keepers, sound engineers, inn keepers, wedding planners, stylists, photographers, auto mechanics, and on and on.  

All those jobs require specialized knowledge and intelligence but most people who end up in those jobs have had to fight for the special form their intelligence takes because, throughout their lives, they have seen never seen their particular ability and skill-set represented as a discipline, rewarded with grades, put into a textbook, or tested on an end-of-grade exam.   They have had to fight for their identity and dignity, their self-worth and the importance of their particular genius in the world, against a highly structured system that makes knowledge into a hierarchy with creativity, imagination, technical skills, and the array of so-called "manual skills" not just at the bottom but absent.  

Everyone benefits from more education. No one benefits from an educational system that defines learning so narrowly that whole swaths of human intelligence, skill, talent, creativity, imagination, and accomplishment do not count.

I have been teaching in higher ed since I was 25.  I am a passionate and dedicated college teacher, a researcher, and I've been privileged to teach at many kinds and types of institutions.   And I think we have education all wrong.   Since the end of the 19th century, with the birth of the modern research university and the beginning of professional schools of education and graduate schools for training teachers, the grail of all education, from preschool to the present, is implicitly higher education. All of the multiple ways that we learn in the world, all the multiple forms of knowing we require in order to succeed in a life of work, is boiled down to an essential hierarchical subject matter tested in a way to get one past the entrance requirements and into a college. Actually,  I agree with Sir Ken Robinson that, if we are going to be really candid, we have to admit that it's actually more narrow even than that:  we're really, implicitly training students to be college professors.  That is our tacit criterion for "brilliance."   For, once you obtain the grail of admission to higher ed, you are then disciplined (put into majors and minors) and graded as if the only end of your college work is to go on to graduate school where the end is to prepare you for a profession, with university teaching of the field at the pinnacle of that profession.

The abolishing of art, music, physical education, tech training, and shop from grade schools and high schools means that the requirement for excellence has shrunk more and more right at the time when creativity, imagination, dexterity, adaptability to change, technical know-how, and all the rest require more not less diversity.   The shrinking of "what counts" would be counter-productive and dehumanizing in any era but in this world of constant, global change it is simply destructive.   (For an excellent and inspiring and witty discussion of this topic, I highly recommend Ken Robinson's TED talk: )

By funnelling of all the different ways we learn the world into a very few subjects that count and are tested--what I'll call "pre-professorial training "--we make education hell for so many kids, we undermine their skills and their knowledge, we underscore their resentment, we emphasize class division and hierarchy, and we shortchange their future and ours, underestimating talents that should be nourished and thereby forcing them to fight for themselves against odds, giving them obstacles to their own integrity and self-worth and value to fight when we should be giving them inspiration to flourish. Is it a surprise that so many people who don't go to college are defiantly "anti-intellectual" when we have defined "intellectual" in such an exclusionary, narrow fashion?

It is  appalling that we judge learning and skills in collegiate terms, as that which is taught in college and "gets you into" college.   Decoupling the goal of "going to college" from the goal of "learning" is, in fact, not actually detrimental even to college professors, those putatively in a position to be most privileged by the current system.   The opposite is the case. For now, many kids who have the means are going to college because they are supposed to.  That's not good for anyone.  Conversely, many brilliant kids who passionately want to go to college cannot afford to.  Another travesty.  And, finally, many brilliant, talented young people are dropping out of high school because they see high school as implicilty "college prep" and they cannot imagine anything more dreary than spending four more years bored in a classroom when they could be out actually experiencing and perfecting their skills in the trades, the skills, and the careers that inspire them. 

Right now, they feel like failures.   They are not.  They are only "failures" if judged by the narrow standard of values by which we currently construct educational success.   As an educator, I want to change that hierarchy of values in order to support a more abundant form of education that honors the full range of intellectual possibility and potential for everyone, regardless of whether they are college material or not.  



Cathy N. Davidson is co-founder of HASTAC, and author of The Future of Thinking:  Learning Institutions for a Digital Age (with HASTAC co-founder David Theo Goldberg), and the forthcoming Now You See It:  How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn (publication date, Viking Press, August 18, 2011).  below. For an early, prepublication review of Now You See It in Bloomberg BusinessWeek, click here.

A starred review in the May 30 Publisher's Weekly notes:  "Davidson has produced an exceptional and critically important book, one that is all-but-impossible to put down and likely to shape discussions for years to come." PW named it one of the "top 10 science books" of the Fall 2011 season.

For more information, visit or order on by clicking on the book below.

  [NYSI cover]



I edited this entry several times, with apologies to anyone who may have blogged an earlier version.   It is being tweeted and reblogged a lot and so I removed the personal aside with which it originally began to focus just on the topic--why it is wrong to judge all education, preschool onward, by collegiate standards.   My apologies for any confusion.  


Preach. And it's not just that this kind of education system silences the career goals of students who, for lack of a better phrase, don't want to become professors. It's not just that shop, art, and phys. ed. classes are constantly being cut and de-emphasized. Math, humanities, and science classes are also all geared towards producing professors, from a high school stage if not before. Why don't K-12 schools focus a little more on teaching people math that would be useful in their everyday lives, instead of rote arithmetic or the quadratic formula? Why don't high school history classes focus a bit more on the importance of humanities for appreciating the world and for informed citizenship, instead of how to produce formulaic essays? Why don't high school English classes focus a bit less on dissecting poetry and teach a bit more rhetoric, and non-academic forms of writing, like technical writing? Why don't science classes teach students a bit more about how to apply the scientific method to general problem solving, and how to inform oneself about and understand scientific issues such as global warming? Maybe then our education system might start to move, if not into the 21st century, perhaps at least into the late 20th.



Richard, this is exactly the kind of thinking I was hoping my post would encourage.   When college prep is the end of education, even college prep suffers!  It becomes narrow and "academic," in the worst sense, and deprives subjects of their urgency.   The end robs the means.  Thanks for contributing to the conversation.


hey cathy! i completely agree with you that not everyone needs to go to college, and that there are all kinds of other educational trajectories that should be provided. BUT -- and i'm sure you're much more informed on this than i am, so maybe you can help me out -- i don't get the feeling that most high school education actually IS geared towards higher education in the way that you're describing. it seems to me that what you're describing is the way that a lot of elite (or at least note completely financially strapped) and private school trajectories prepare students. which is to say, yes, a lot of smart students whose families have traditionally gone to college expect their kids to go to college, and force them into it in ways that might not actually maximize their talents. many, if not most, rural public and/or inner city schools, for example (which make up no small percentage of schools in the country) frequently seem to gear their curriculums towards just meeting minimum literacy requirements -- teaching to the test -- which isn't really about college prep (and lord knows i can tell you some stories on this front from my own background). i guess i'm saying, while i agree with the idea that literacies and trajectories should be multiple, better, and reformed, i wonder if the problem that solution would be attacking is really one of schools relentlessly preparing kids for college. it actually seems as though the sort of reform your suggesting would address a much larger (and, in fact, perhaps more pressing) swath of problems....


Hi, Lindsey, 

Thanks so much for writing.   I share your concern.  The EOG national standards are based on college-readiness, in rural and inner city areas as well as in elite schools.    Also, even worse, the cut backs to vocational education within high schools is really severe, has been getting worse for the last decade, and disproportionately has consequences in rural and urban schools where such skills not only translate readily to actual job availabilities within communities but, as Shapiro's work shows, correlate very highly (the "relevance" of his new 3R's) with kids staying in school or dropping out.  If they just see standard pre-college curriculums, with no opportunities for trade or technical training, and they know they cannot afford college or have no interest in college, the hs drop out rate soars.   So you are right to raise this issue and actually my concern is not so much with elite students---I figure that enough of the system is dedicated to them that most will find their way.   I care tremendously about the students who neither can afford college nor have been offered a chance at a form of job training where there are possibilities in their communities.   At some of the school districts I spent time in, individual schools had eliminated art, music, and shop/tech classes and then there might be one magnet school you could bus to that offered a curriculum with emphasis in that area.   But many didn't even offer that possibility.   I spent time in some fantastic schools in Chicago and NY that quite creatively and conscientiously were trying to reverse these trends, even staying within the school budgets of their working class or even impoverished districts.   It's hard given recent cut backs but possible.     For me, some of these programs offer the difference between honorable and respected employment in what used to be called "blue collar" jobs (some of which pay more than some white collar jobs) and a high school diploma too versus no job training, no diploma, and a dead end which, we know, increases one's likelihood of entering the prison system (which, tragically, is still well funded, often in inverse proportion to the monies cut out of schools).  I am guessing that thought I'd use this opportunity to emphasize this other negative and really tragic outcome of the attention to a pre-collegiate curricular model of education premised on a very inflexible idea of what constitutes "intelligence."


Part of the critique is reminiscent of "Shop Class as Soulcraft" by Michael Crawford, which in part called for a renewed commitment to education in the manual trades. As you've noted, college-oriented learning is not the only learning that matters. To many people, that kind of learning actually doesn't matter to their goals. There are a range of important careers that don't require the kind of knowledge and skills you learn in college.

More problematic than this in my opinion is what I would call the collegification of areas that were not traditionally considered college disciplines. Thus, people who simply would like to be cops or medical assistants are forced into college programs where they are forced to learn history and English literature. Personally, I love history and English literature and consider them valuable areas of learning, but I don't see a good argument for forcing future cops and medical assistants to learn them if they do not want to.

Some of the problem, as you point out, comes down to the rigidly hierarchical way of learning this has given us and the focus on passing tests to move ahead in the college world. Personally, I was pretty good at taking tests. And while I'm ok with where I'm at in my career, test-taking success did not necessarily translate into enormous career success for me. And that's because there were many other skills and knowledge that I needed to learn.

I think you get to the key issue here when you say, "It is  appalling that we judge learning and skills in collegiate terms, as that which is taught in college and 'gets you into' college." For me, this is where online, self-directed learning can play such an important role.

I hope someone starts listening to these arguments soon. And I hope we start seeing more edu-traitors speaking up.



Professor Davidson,
So are you suggesting that higher ed will change or that some other type of organizing will arise as a viable alternative? Will the business world learn to accept the "non-credentialed"?
I'm particularly disappointed that the resources available within public universities are not easily accessible to older learners, and to the extent that that access exists it tends to be patronizing and limited in scope. Adults not in a degree program are apparently not capable of rigorous thought or serious study.
I too look forward to your new book. Thank you.

As a long-time college prof who often suggested to some students that they may NOT want to be in college yet, and as a now Middle/High School Teacher who speaks to students about what college will and won't get them, I think we are going about it all wrong. Why are we teaching skills that matter, and not those that don't. Who needs to memorize the Periodic Table (and yes, I know people who still require that) or the exact equation for some advanced physics process that they can look up. Let's teach like we would train people in the work world. Thank God I taught at an alternative college (The Evergreen State College) and am now at a school that cares that we get the kids truly ready for college and the world by getting them the real skills they need and can use, not the useless stuff that teaching to the test makes the rest of the world know. I am showing my kids how to grow their own food, process their own food, know the nutrients that they are taking in, how to run a business, all while getting them the skills they need in math, in the scientific method, in critical thinking. Then they can truly make their own decisions with data that they collect, not parrot something somebody told them.

Bless you for speaking truth!


As someone who works in IT, I agree that my liberal arts education did not provide me with the hard skills that we need to do our jobs: programming, project management, networking topologies, security. That said, the soft skills of critical thinking, writing, basic knowledge of statistics, and rhetoric are key to getting our work done. To the extent that the k-12 curriculum focuses exclusively on preparing students to run the collegiate gauntlet at the expense of teaching these soft skills, then I agree with you. To the extent that the 'college prep' track helps with the development of these skills, and evolves as these skills need to evolve to meet up with the demands of the 21st century's global information infrastructure, evolving economy, and changing demands to be part of the educated citizenship, then the preparation for a good liberal arts education, whether or not you actually choose to go to a liberal arts college, is a good preparation for whatever lies ahead. 


This post reminded me from a quote in a paper I recently read as I was putting together a birthday present for my grandmother.  He father was the Principal of Sumner High School in St. Louis and she had never really read anything he wrote, so I went and found a bunch of articles and made copies for her.  He talked about a lot of the same things we are discussing now, including the value of using the report card as a tool to measure learning.  He also wrote an article on educational and vocational guidance in the modern secondary-school program (of 1939, focusing on black students though I think the points can be universally applied).

"In the first place, too few from the secondary school enter and remain in college; and in the second place, the need for preparing young people to do better those desirable things which they are likely to do, and to reveal higher activities and to make them possible and desirable; is far greater than that of preparing for college... The high school of to-day constitutes a highly democratic, cosmopolitan adolescent group. The fit and the unfit alike are encouraged to go and to remain." Guidance for the Modern High School,G.D. Brantley, NASSP Bulletin 1939

Apart from the datedness of some of his view points, there are lists of objectives, which I love, especially the following:

(3) Helping pupils to discover themselves

(5) Encouraging extra-curriculum participation along lines of
real interest.

(7) From time to time, show bearing of subject studied on vocations

(7) To emphasize the necessity of academic along with vocational

(11) Individual counseling, especially with seniors and freshmen

That is to say, I think that the change needs to start at the high school level and keep going to the University level.  It seems that these basic ideas of guidance are often absent at both levels of education, even though high school and college are now consider the minimum level of education people should strive for if they want to have any level of success later in life.



I agree, Cathy... Thank You. I don't take what is being said here to discount the importance of teaching "the soft skills of critical thinking, writing, basic knowledge of statistics..." By appropriately broadening the approach we take in educating today's learners, we would not stop teaching these skills. It isn't one or the other. And it also is not a matter of simply adding a wider variety of lesson plans. A sustainable approach, I think, would integrate more experience-based learning to allow students the opportunity to explore and participate in research and collaborative problem-solving... these lessons could teach soft skills while allowing a more individualized set of learning goals to be established and attained.


A fairly recent report by the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Pathways to Prosperity, dissects the single path to higher education-driven success of past years and why it does not work for many groups in the world today. Students’ decisions to drop out of high school in the United States is increasingly driven by their report that they do not find a connection between the materials with which they are presented and how their forthcoming knowledge will apply to their lives, career options and the world they see around them. The report also suggests that linking high school classes to career paths directly connected with two or four-year college programs or vocational schools would help inspire and motivate students to stay the course.


One lesson the text suggests we could learn from overseas is to more actively integrate apprenticeships into models of education. A second lesson, drawn from the OECD's 2007 study Learning for Jobs is that "school learning is abstract, theoretical and organized by disciplines while work is concrete, specific to the task, and organized by problems and projects (Harvard, 2011, p. 19)." To best serve today's students, our focus cannot be solely on "work skills" or traditional formal learning, but we must find a way to combine these disparate approaches.


Schools alone (k-12 or higher ed) cannot make these changes. Through my current studies at Teachers College I've grown a deeper understanding of the knowledge academia has amassed in the past few decades. Imbalanced influence by sectors not skilled in new theories of education could adversely effect the current education reform movement during an incredibly delicate stage. However, in my role as director of a college Career Development office, I have worked with many talented employers armed with industry knowledge, experience and a deep desire to support the development and success of our youth.


To tackle the increasingly complex problems faced today, we must develop a community of learners and a shared vision. I believe that an important element missing from the education reform movement is a sense of community that takes into account varied stakeholders' needs, challenges and available resources. How can we teach youth about valuing disparate ideas and skill sets and collaborating for the highest common good when academia so often rejects input from "those less qualified"? Cathy, you mentioned that you want to change the "hierarchy of values in order to support a more abundant form of education that honors the full range of intellectual possibility and potential for everyone, regardless of whether they are college material or not." I believe that changing the hierarchy of values may begin with widening the circle of value makers. We must all be accountable for bringing up today's youth... as we most certainly will all benefit or suffer from the outcome.