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History and Future of Higher Education: My (Draft) Course Description

History and Future of Higher Education:  My (Draft) Course Description


ISIS 640   Spring 2014 Duke University

Professor Cathy N. Davidson

 "The History and Future of Higher Education

Open to graduate and advanced undergraduate students.   

Wednesday  5-8 pm

"The History and Future of Higher Education" will look at the long history, from Socrates forward, of debates on the meaning, purpose, and access to higher education, with a special emphasis on the role of humanistic, critical thinking as foundational to all aspects of higher education.  Although we will be looking primarily at the Western tradition of postsecondary education, we will also look go different international and alternative models, including apprenticeship, vocational and skills training, monastic training, community-based learning, lifelong learning, and online peer-to-peer open learning.  A special emphasis will be on how contemporary higher education in the U.S. came to occupy its present shapes, methods, structures, and values, a process that began in the late eighteenth century, partly as a response to the last information age--the age ushered in at the end of the eighteenth century with the technological development of the steam-powered printing press and machine made paper and ink, that allowed working class and middle-class readers access to print in numbers never seen before in human history. 

A theme in this ISIS course will be the relationship between evolving communications technologies and technologies of learning.   Technology is social, and the mechanization of print brought with it a number of other social, cultural, and political institutions and reforms.   Among these were an increasing concern with compulsory public education, free and open access to books through public lending libraries, as well as a variety of new literary genres including the  popular novel, a new category of "women's fiction," protest and slave narratives, and various forms of newspapers and magazines, serial publication, and the creation of the author as celebrity fostered by a new attention to both mass publication and mass education.  Among the philosophers we will be reading: Diderot, Descartes, Kant, Newman, Matthew Arnold, William James, John Dewey.   We will look at Taylorism and scientific labor management and the birth of the research university and the apparatus of the modern university ("scientific learning management").  We will address the issue of how a Fordist idea of productivity and emphasis on standardized assessment became part of the fiber of the academic silos necessary for pre-professional disciplinary training in the late 19th century, a tendency that was thought to be especially important to training workers and business leaders for the corporate world and the Industrial Age.  

The "two cultures" debates of Snow and Leavis will be key here as will secondary histories such as Christopher Newfield's important Ivy and Industry:  Business and the Making of the University, 1880-1980 and Bill Readings' landmark manifesto The University in Ruins, and Cathy Davidson and David Theo Goldberg’s The Future of Thinking:  Learning Institutions in a Digital Age (available as a free pdf download from MIT Press).     We will also consider the state of the university today, worldwide, and will think, together and collectively, about the kind of university we would create for the complex world we live in today were we free to rebuild the university from the foundations up.   Judith Butler's inspiring 2013 McGill University honorary doctorate degree address will be one key document:    So will many visionary essays, blogs, posts, and examples of community-based, peer-based learning.   The distinction between "learning" and "education" will be discussed as will several visionary works about the importance of experimentation, of making as well as doing, of building upon critical thinking skills to realize creative contribution to society, to individual growth, to open source and participatory technology development, and to the activist reshaping of education itself.  

We will also be developing a syllabus of literary readings and talk about the genre of the bildungsroman--the novel of the building and education of the hero or heroine.  We'll ask the question of what kind of person do we seek to build, in society, through formal education, through informal learning experiences shaped by privilege, by class, by race and gender, by region and religion, and by access to higher education.  From Dickens' Hard Times to Junot Diaz's The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.   Students will have the opportunity to make selections and orchestrate online book and reading groups as part of their graded assignment in this class.

The course will also address what it means to defund education, or to make it accessible only to the "global 1%" in terms of wealth (due to its high cost) or the "achievement 1%" due to the increasingly high standards required to attend one's state university.  And we will look at the dismantling of the middle class, the increasing income gap, and the political interventions into free speech and research (scientific and humanistic) characteristic of too much 21st century education.  Key here will be the quip by former University of Michigan President James Duderstadt:  “We used to be state-supported, then state-assisted, and now we are state-located.” Some would go further and say they are now “state-molested,” where interventions into the curriculum of the university are politically motivated, as much as economically motivated.   What's the solution?  How can we galvanize a movement to correct and reverse a thirty-year trend of defunding public education and disempowering the middle class and excluding the lower classes--in the U.S. and also worldwide?

At the same time, the status quo of the university we have inherited from the Industrial Age will be questioned, challenged, and put into the context of myriad exciting educational experiments occurring worldwide. The course will end with special emphasis on the importance of a new and invigorated liberal arts to the future of education in an increasingly global, interactive, complex, and technocratic world, where key human values (security, privacy, the right to free speech, the right to assembly, intellectual property, access, diversity, and many more) are being challenged by the monopolization of communication outlets.  We will look at the key role of critical thinking to all education, the function of humanistic traditions in understanding the role of higher education in society and why that role is constantly changing--and, at present, needs a major paradigm shift.   Diversity of all forms will be a key concern of the course.

Significantly, Duke students in this course will have the opportunity to engage in dialogues, research projects, and collaborative, activist projects on behalf of higher education (in any form) with students who will be taking co-located courses at several universities across the country.  For more information, see:   

Finally, students in ISIS 640 will have the opportunity to enroll in Cathy Davidson’s six-week Coursera course (beginning January 2014) on the same topic, “The History and Future of Higher Education."  Here is an evolving draft storyboarding that Coursera class:      In some ways, the interaction between the face-to-face students in ISIS 640 and the Coursera class is the most original, exciting, and peer-to-peer part of the class.   The ISIS 640 students, for example, will be able to engage with the thousands of international students anticipated to be taking this course in Forums and other possible research projects.  Since the homework for Coursera will include such ethnographic and oral history elements as "interview your mother or your grandfather [or son or granddaughter, depending on the age of the Coursera participant] about their educational experiences" or "videotape random friends, neighbors, and colleagues on the question 'Who was your favorite teacher--and why?  What made them memorable and important in your life?'"    The wealth of international responses, intergenerational ones, and the diversity (there are no prerequisites to Coursera courses) should yield astonishing answers and some very moving ones.

A number of reading and writing assignments, research opportunities, and even internships and teaching assistantships will take advantage of this synchronous offering as well as the co-located classes.  For example, during the weeks where there is overlap between the ISIS 640 class and the Coursera course, I plan to schedule one office hour during our class time so that students in ISIS 640 can participate in this interactive exchange.   Since "learning by doing" is the credo of open source learning--as well as the old medical school adage of "See one. Do one. Teach One," this collective office hour will provide some of the most engaging, informed, exciting dialogue in the class, as well as many topics for our in-class discussion, research, and beyond.

Optimally, the result of this activity will be an international campaign on behalf of higher education in general as well as new methods, ideas, practices, tools, and aspirations for open, project-based, collaborative, and hybrid forms of higher education, teaching, learning,  research, and scholarly publishing. 


For further information about this coordinated effort, see   and for a storyboard of the Coursera course:



In addition to the texts mentioned above, a key text in this class will be the collaboratively and student-written  Field Notes to 21st Century Literacies:  A  Guide to New Theories, Methods, and Practices for Open Peer Teaching and Learning    This book includes a practical toolkit for what online tools can be employed by anyone who is interested in peer-to-peer learning.  This book will be published in Summer 2013 on hastac.o.rg, github, as a Google Doc open for comments, on Rap Genius for annotation, and as a self-published book downloadable from Amazon.     We will also be using the assignments, lesson modules, and research plans presented as final peer-created projects by the undergraduates in the class  Cathy Davidson cotaught with behavioral economist Dan Ariely in Spring 2013, "Surprise Endings:  Social Science and Literature."   Those projects will be more readily available by the time the course opens but, for now, can be visited here:



1 comment

I strongly recommend Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus' Higher Education? Their most justified rant about the financial corruption of re-positioning students as "consumers" of higher education, and restructuring colleges and universities to cater to that kind of consumption is elegant and comprehensive, well documented and well positioned. It might be noted that Andrew Hacker's father founded Columbia University's School of General Studies in the 1930's (the last time of great restructuring) as a means of making high prestige higher ed available to masses. At the time there was even a correspondence college. MOOCs aren't really new, since even Dr. Eliot's Five Foot Shelf reflected some of that early progressivism.

I also recommend Jeff Selingo's College (Un)Bound goes beyond the corruption of the current system, to move toward some solutions - largely but not exclusively dependent on tech. Again, the financial corruption of higher education is a basic and consistent theme. Ironically, this echoes - almost verbatim - Mark Leibovich's analysis of the crisis in democracy in Washington, and how corruption is so endemic it's unconscious (see his recent This Town, or his discussion about the book with Bill Moyers).

In a very different vein, but along the same arteries, look at Julian Alssid's model for how this transformation might be best accomplished, through his College for America, based at Southern New Hampshire University. Julian's direction is to explore what it takes to be successful, and then help students find those skills among their college courses, work experiences, internships, volunteer or military experiences. That might be categorized as "student centered learning," but it's actually much more concrete and reflects the most resonant traditions of progressive education today. He's got much less rhetoric littering the dialog, and his experience at the Workforce Strategies Institute - in braiding union, corporate, and academic skills sets - shows quite well at this, the fourth largest online university in the world.

For that matter, you should also be looking at the old SCANS Report (the Secretary of Labor's model of what skills are "necessary" to success) which came out in 1992 and reflected many of those same discussions. Or at it's more updated model, led by the same academic, Dr. Arnold Packer now at Johns Hopkins, which he called the Verified Resume, with substantial help from...MacArthur (to circle back).

Finally, I am really concerned that you still cite the "two culture" dialog. There are more than two, and, in that, there is a whole other scenario that goes way beyond that dialog. The existence of THIS medium [the net] underscores how open systems embrace often very conflicting options with eager and equal passion. For that matter, this critique of Snow,, demonstrates both the respect they earned then, and their historic - and un-current - role in structuring future education. I most strongly recommend (even more than the pedagogy) looking at James C. Scott's analysis, Seeing Like a State, for how the corruption of DC and in higher ed is invisible from re within, but intractible outside. It is not a matter of testing or no testing, "common core" or grassroots variety. Nor is it a matter of ideology to look at what students do, and build from that. It's a matter of anthropology and profession, and that profession is - not coincidentally - teaching.

In 1863 Jules Verne wrote Paris in the 20th Century, about his vision of Paris in 1960. His publisher rejected it as too dystopian, since it foresaw universities, corporations, foundations, science and technology overwhelming the humanities, the arts, and philosophy with facts and knowledge vs. ideas and beauty. The book languished in a vault until 1993 when one of Verne's heirs found it and published it, only to find that dystopian vision all too well fulfilled. Let us blink before we reinforce that failure. Scott outlines plenty of tools. Let's use 'em.