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How Can We Redesign Our Major? Key Questions For Getting Started

How Can We Redesign Our Major? Key Questions For Getting Started

The essay below asks a series of questions designed to help any department or program think through the process of collectively rethinking and redesigning its major, general education offerings, electives, and graduate program. 

It poses questions to that end, mainly to ask whether a department or program is delivering a version of the education its professors received from their professors with the goal of training future professors. Or, if a department or program is collectively assessing what it offers to students--not just future professors--that is deeply urgent and meaningful and offers them content, tools, and methods meaningful for whatever career and, indeed, for life circumstances that require humanistic thinking?  

When I am invited into departments of my home discipline of English, I’m often asked: “What should we do? How should we reshape the undergraduate English major so that it really does serve our students?” My standard answer response is: "What do you want to do?  Are you actually doing what you say you are doing?"


This is a condensed and adapted (pre copy editing) early draft of my essay, "The New Education and the Old," published in PMLA this week in the May 2018 issue (Volume 133, No 3), pp. 707-714.  It is part of a PMLA Forum, "On Cathy N. Davidson's The New Education." 

The  full, final version of the issue is accessible online through the electronic resources of any library that subscribes to PMLA.   I thank PMLA for this Forum, for the work on the final essay published in this volume, and for permission to publish this early, condensed version.  For citation purposes and for the full Forum, please make sure to see the actual PMLA issue.

My essay is part of a Forum in which seven scholars have responded to my book:  Frederick Luis Aldama, Gene Andrew Jarrett, John Marx, Mark Garrett Cooper, Christopher Newfield, Marjorie Perloff, and Karen Thornber.  I am deeply grateful to these scholars and to PMLA editor Wai Chee Dimock  for the the time and the care they have taken to engage seriously with The New Education:  How To Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World in Flux (Basic Books, 2017). 

My own essay, condensed from an earlier draft below, is called "The New Education and the Old."  It does not  address the responses in the PMLA volume except to acknowledge their importance and seriousness.  They stand on their own.  They are useful to anyone rethinking their own curriculum. 

Instead, I move to a question that I do not fully pursue in The New Education:  how to get started on truly rethinking the purpose of what one teaches and how to collectively design the department or major that you promise--in your mission statements and in arguments to state legislators or administrators or parents or student. 

Again, the essential questions are:  "What do you want to do?  Are you actually doing what you say you are doing?"


Condensed and adapted from "The New Education and the Old"

Cathy N. Davidson

. . . As the concluding voice in this PMLA conversation on The New Education, I will focus in this essay on three things:

  1. I will outline what I see to be the pressures and challenges facing higher education and the humanities today.
  2. I will survey the historical circumstances that led to the structural redesign of the Puritan college into the modern research university, including the English and Modern Language departments we have inherited.
  3. I will ask a series of questions designed to be of use to any English department rethinking its major and offer an inspiring model of one humanities department that has undergone a surprising and remarkably successful transformation.


The Challenges We Face Today

Since The New Education was published, I have heard daily from students, parents, professors, administrators, college presidents, boards of trustees, and state and national policy makers who are interested in redesigning higher education. I’ve also been on a book tour that has taken me to every possible kind of institution. During one notably busy stretch this winter, I traveled to Borough of Manhattan Community College, Middlebury College, Georgia Tech University, Agnes Scott College, Columbia University, and the University of California at Santa Cruz and conducted an online workshop at Arkansas State University (both at Jonesboro and at its Mexico City campus). I have been continually impressed at how many exciting new ideas are coming from everywhere, including from institutions suffering the greatest duress or most severe financial exigencies. Our wealthiest institutions are not always the ones leading creative innovation. Sometimes they are, sometimes they are not. More to the point, at some institutions of higher education, the definition of “innovation” does not include “equity” but, instead, exacerbates inequality. That is an abrogation of the true responsibility of nonprofit, tax exempt higher education. If higher education does not serve the public good, higher education does not deserve public benefit.

The greatest harm to the public is the ideologically-motivated, forty-year pattern of defunding of public higher education. We have experienced a twenty percent per student funding cut over the last decades, resulting in soaring tuitions and a national crisis of student food and housing insecurity. Exploding class sizes shortchange our students and exploit the faculty, including by having over 50% of our college courses now being taught by underpaid, part-time, adjunct, contingent instructors. This is a travesty for a country that claims status as a democracy with aspirations to a strong middle class. We are robbing the future.

            At every institution I’ve visited, I’ve heard outrage at pundits and politicians who reduce higher education to job preparation or “workforce readiness,” a reductive term often wielded with a paucity of data and a plethora of ideology. Reducing higher education to “skills” that purportedly prepare students for a job has been used to justify further cutbacks. It has also led to a pernicious ranking of degree programs based on the salary of graduates as the sole measure of “success.” “Workforce readiness” sounds like a high-minded goal but has been wielded as the justification for favoring subjects where students learn “skills” (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics or STEM) and cutting back subjects that are mere “frills,” notably, the humanities, arts, social sciences, and such crucial interdisciplinary fields as gender and ethnic studies.

            This idea of “frills” is just plain wrong. It hurts students. STEM skills in and of themselves are the most easily automated of all skills. Furthermore, employer surveys and analyses of human resources data show that the skills that lead to success in the workplace are far broader than simple STEM skills, even in the technology sector.  Two massive company-wide data analyses conducted by Google confirm this. Google’s Project Oxygen looks at the company’s most successful managers while Project Aristotle analyzes human resource data on team success. Both studies conclude that deep, thoughtful, critical, creative, crosscultural learning and the full array of collaboration, communication, and comprehension skills are key to advancement, even at this famous “data-driven” tech firm. “Soft skills” rank as the top seven of the eight qualities of those who advance even at Google.

Similarly, a 2018 study from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences has also poked a hole in the cliché that humanists have no job prospects. It turns out that new college graduates in the humanities and social sciences are employed at virtually the same rate as those in the sciences and technology. Ten and twenty years out they evince roughly the same degree of career satisfaction. Where there is a variable, it is in the income level. Those in sciences and tech fields earn, on average, more than those in humanistic fields.  Yet as one aerospace engineering major asked me at Georgia Tech this winter: “How do I know what income is ‘enough’? What if my goal isn’t to live in a mansion in a wealthy suburb but to do something meaningful or enjoyable with my life?” Many other students in the room nodded when he asked this question, what a student I interview in The New Education calls “How To Be An Adult 101.”  I argue that the goal of higher education must be the higher one of “world readiness,” ensuring that graduates are equipped with skills, knowledge, and wisdom gleaned from thinkers, writers, and artists who have dedicated their lives to understanding the complexities of the human experience and what it means to lead a “good life.”

Such a life choice is not possible, however, for students burdened with loans. We do a disservice to our students and society by the soaring cost of higher education, but we cannot scapegoat higher education when some of the real problems students today face in the labor market are actually a social problem, not a problem of inadequate training. Consider gender. Some 60% of college students today are women, a disproportionate share of whom go into the four so-called “feminized professions”—teaching, health care, social work, and librarianship. These are drastically underpaid professions even in the case of K-12 teachers where there are chronic shortages now in all fifty states. The best college preparation in the world will not solve the social problem of undervaluing women and their labor. Another social problem is the “adjunctification” of all labor. The 2016 study by Lawrence F. Katz and Alan B. Krueger demonstrates that a shocking 94% of new job growth in the past decade has been in “alternative” or “contingent” labor—part time, paid by the job, with no benefits or job security and at reduced wages. A great education does not change this social problem of a labor market that exploits workers, including new college graduates.

Increasingly, we are seeing better data that corrects a decade of what amounts to a PR campaign against higher education, especially public higher education. For example, we now have more research on higher education and social mobility. New studies, such as the Equality of Opportunity Project studies conducted by Stanford Professor Raj Chetty, dig deeper and measure the relative difference in income of the same student coming into college and going out of college. If we rank an institution by the earned income of its graduates, our most elite and expensive universities are our “best” ones. If we judge by social mobility, they are not. If higher education’s purpose is to improve and contribute to society, we need to consider this range of social factors. What we value determines how and who and what we “count.” 


Higher Education’s Inherited Structures and Infrastructures

In The New Education, I focus on the infrastructure we have inherited from the late 19th century when educational reformers recognized that the Puritan college they had inherited was designed to train ministers, a profession to which only ten to fifteen percent of graduates aspired. America was exploding onto the global corporate-industrial stage but had no system of tertiary education to define, educate, specialize, and credential a new professional-managerial class. I look in particular at the legacy of Charles Eliot whose “The New Education” (1869) was essentially a manifesto for the changes that he enacted during his forty years as President of Harvard University. He and his colleagues (mostly from Harvard and other elite institutions) led sweeping reforms throughout the United States as founders, leaders, or advisers to both new and established public and private institutions, liberal arts colleges, brand new research universities, women’s colleges, Land Grant colleges, Historically Black Colleges and Universities, the new junior (now, community) colleges, and even, through the Committee of Ten (chaired by Eliot), on secondary education as well. 

Among the features of higher education that were rudimentary or nonexistent before about 1869 and become widely instituted by 1925 are: majors, minors, electives, divisions, certification, graduate school, collegiate professional schools, degree requirements, credit hours, grades, statistics, college entrance exams, multiple choice tests, the SATs, tenure, sabbaticals, faculty pensions, school rankings, donor-named chairs, and corporate sponsorship of research. None of those need explanation since they are embedded to the colleges and universities we know today. The same leaders also created an array of disciplinary, professional, ranking, and accreditation associations that formalized peer review for individuals and certified what counted as the core professional values for disciplines and institutions. Among these are the Modern Language Association (1883), the American Historical Association (1884), the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (1885), the College Entrance Examination Board (1899), the American Philosophical Association (1900), the Association of American Universities (1900), the American Association of University Professors (1915), and many more. 

None of those need explanation because this is the educational world we inhabit today. The norms and standards that dominate our professional lives were designed for a specific moment in the history U.S. industrial capitalism. It is no coincidence that Frederick Winslow Taylor, the philosopher of output and productivity measures that he called “scientific labor management,” became the first business professor at one of the nation’s first collegiate business schools, the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth. In collaboration with educational reformers, he adapted productivity methods he developed at pig iron factories for higher education. Nor is it accidental that the modern research university was financed by the era’s most powerful industrial philanthropists (known, derisively, as the “Robber Barons”).

For those of us dedicated to educational reform, it is useful to see how fully the system of higher education we have inherited is rooted in the 19th century Humboldtian university (which Eliot studied carefully) as transported to American soil at a specific time in the history of labor, technology, society, and industry. Our students face new labor, social, and technological challenges but are being educated in a system designed in the era of the Model T and the telephone. If Eliot and his colleagues could redesign education for their time, so can we for ours.

One reason why I focus on pedagogy in The New Education is that it can be daunting to think about changing an entire institutional structure but one can make changes in one’s own classroom tomorrow, even in the most rigid of systems. One’s own classroom is an ideal place to start at envisioning how student-centered learning (original “research” in all its forms) and learning not for the test or the graduation but for everything that occurs outside of school, too, is foundational for all other educational reform.  I advocate student-centered, active learning with its roots in the Progressive (and resistant) pedagogies of John Dewey and Maria Montessori as well as in more recent work by bell hooks, Paulo Freire, Audre Lorde, and a cadre of contemporary progressive educators.


What About the English Department?

When I am invited into departments of my home discipline of English, I’m often asked: “What should we do? How should we reshape the undergraduate English major so that it really does serve our students?”

My standard answer is: “What do you want to do?”

There is no one-size-fits-all answer. Each department must break that question into its parts, separate intertwined components and competing agendas, and face honestly a basic question: Are you are actually doing what you say you are doing?  Does the English major you offer correspond to the high-minded objectives that you profess in your mission statement and on your website? If not, what is a better way to achieve that alignment?

There are also practical questions: Are you happy with the current state of your department? Are you losing majors—and do you want more majors?

There are other questions to ask too. What would you and your colleagues and students like from an ideal English department? Why do you consider your discipline to be important to a students’ future life? What is your vision for your discipline? Who are “you”—who do you include as stakeholders who make up the collective “you”?  Who should be included? Who is being ignored that might have something valuable to add?  Who makes up the core of your department now? How are courses and professors outside of historical periods regarded (in fields such as composition, creative writing, English as a Second Language, gender studies, ethnic studies, and media studies)? Who votes?

What questions are you not asking? What do your students think about their major? Do they believe their education prepares them for the world beyond graduation (NB: not just jobs but whatever challenges they face later)? Are there “meta” courses which help students understand how to apply what they learn?

Do you train graduate students? How? Do they find the positions in the fields they want to pursue for careers?  Is your graduate program preparing them, realistically, for those careers?

These deep questions require introspection and then decisions. That can be daunting so, throughout The New Education, whenever I pose and analyze a major problem, I offer a model of a professor, program, and institution that has successfully negotiated change.

For any English department seeking to redesign its major, I suggest examining the Yale History Department. I learned about their redesign of the major after The New Education was in press. It is a surprising place to find such extensive change, given that Yale produces more tenure-track history professors than any other department in the country. They had very little pressure or incentive to enact sweeping changes. Yet they did. And the conceptual change at the basis of their change can easily be adapted to any humanities department at any kind of institution, public or private, large or small, and by no means simply an elite Ivy.

The most significant structural change the Yale History Department made was to divide its major into two tracks, Specialist and Global. The Specialist track is essentially the traditional Eliot-era model of the pre-professional History major, with an emphasis on developing a specialization (period and nation) within a subfield.  By contrast, the Global track invites students to learn about different areas of the world in different time periods, includes thematic and problem-based courses, and seems ideal for anyone who wants to know how to bring a deep, crosscultural, global, historical perspective to bear on any complex problem. It is relevant, in other words, no matter what career path one follows beyond graduation. Students take a general course each year with their specific “cohort” that, among other things, emphasizes the reasons why history matters.

Both the Specialist and General majors are valued. And that is a point that any English Department, at any kind of institution, can take in. To acknowledge the importance of education for the generalist—not as a major designed implicitly for graduate-school-bound proto-professors--marks a shift from the implicit assumptions of Eliot’s research university. This change goes straight to the heart of what every department should be asking in order to redesign itself apart from its inherited structures and norms—and by no means only in the humanities: I know many computer science programs that need to ask these questions too.

The departmental structure we have inherited is designed for the unstated goal of professorial replication, even though few of our undergraduates, at any institution (even Yale), will be going on to be tenure track professors in the field in which they majored as undergraduates. The hierarchical, apprenticeship model means students who are most like their advisers are most likely to succeed. One demographic consequence of this model is that, despite several decades of critical race and gender theory, the professorate remains as white and male as it was in 1990, and is no more diverse than most Fortune 400 companies.

What is the practical consequence of Yale offering not just a Specialist track but also a Global track? History is once again the top major at Yale, a position it yielded to Economics around the turn into the twenty-first century. This is a bold model of change—and a successful one. Even better, this restructuring of the discipline is part of a movement that the American Historical Association calls “Tuning the History Discipline.” At this writing, 123 History Departments have signed on. The AHA website notes: "The American Historical Association is coordinating a nationwide, faculty-led project to articulate the disciplinary core of historical study and to define what a student should understand and be able to do at the completion of a history degree program." Specialization within a period and a country—the traditional lodestone of the discipline--is no longer the “core” requirement of a History major at Yale.

This morning, I looked at the websites of about thirty English, literature, and modern language departments at diverse institutions, whether community colleges, elite liberal arts colleges, large public universities, or top ten research universities. Some have undertaken changes as extensive as Yale’s reshaping of the History major. Many, if not most, still look nearly identical to my own pre-professional, historically-based undergraduate, specialized English major of decades ago. Yet almost all the departmental websites I surveyed—including the ones for departments that have changed barely at all—defend or promote the discipline as teaching all those deep reading and critical thinking and communication skills students need to thrive outside of school.

Do we keep our promise? And what features of the English major come closest to fulfilling it? Are there lessons to be learned from Yale’s History Department?  What is the equivalent of the Global track for an English Department? What is the English equivalent of historians deciding nation and period are not necessary as the “disciplinary core” of a History major? Periodization? Genre? Nation? What happens if we stop sequencing the English major by period? If historically-based survey courses are not the “disciplinary core” of English, then what is? Where do we teach those deep reading and critical thinking and communication skills?

These are not just rhetorical questions but structural ones that are part of our inheritance from the industrial age educational reforms. For example, if our key value is in teaching reading, thinking, and writing, why, in many English departments, do the composition and creative writing courses have such low status? Why are they often taught by junior faculty, postdoctoral fellows, or part-time instructors and sometimes not even allowed to “count” towards the major? Periodization also frequently renders peripheral or as “electives” such topics as multi-ethnic literary studies, postcolonial literature in English, women and gender studies, media studies, and even American literature since these courses do not align neatly with a linear disciplinary progression from Old English to the present. 

There are many successful models out there to inspire us. Had I not used the History Department at Yale as a model here, I could have pointed to the Philosophy Department at LaGuardia Community College, an institution I feature in The New Education. At LaGuardia, philosophy is about critical thinking and global perspective, both taught as survival skills for the “majority minority” students the college serves. Philosophy is seen as key to self-awareness, social justice, democratic participation, and student agency. LaGuardia Community College, incidentally, has more Philosophy majors than any other two- or four-year college (public or private) in the Northeast.

Structural, institutional, curricular change goes to the heart of our ideas about the purpose of higher education. Change an be enervating and demoralizing, especially (needless to say) when imposed from outside and in the form of drastic budget cuts. Change can also be exhilarating and empowering. What I’ve learned in the seven months since the publication of The New Education and from the essays in this PMLA special section is that many of us right now are dedicating our energy and attention, against odds, to reimaging a better future for higher education and for our students.



Author’s Note:

This ideas and thinking in this essay and The New Education were greatly aided by the research assistance of Danica Savonick and Christina Katopodis as well as by the insights from my colleagues Lauren Melendez and  Katina Rogers.


Works Cited

American Academy of Arts and Sciences, “Humanities Indicators: The State of the Humanities

2018: The Workforce and Beyond,” Accessed April 4, 2018.


Chetty, Raj, et al. “Highest Upward Mobility Rate Colleges,” “The Equality of Opportunity”

Project, 2017,  Accessed April 4, 2018.


Davidson, Cathy N. The New Education: How To Revolutionize the University To Prepare

            Students for a World in Flux (New York: Basic Books, 2017).


Davidson, Cathy N. “The Surprising Thing Google Found Out About Its Employees—and What

It Means for Students Today,” The Washington Post, December 20, 2017, ttps://


Davidson, Cathy N. “An ‘Active Learning’ Kit: Rationale, Methods, Models, Research,

            Bibliography,” November 15, 2017,, Accessed April 8, 2018.


Hussari, Mohammed, “History Returns to the Top Major for the Class of 2019,” Yale News,

April 6, 2017.


Katz, Lawrence, and Alan B. Krueger, “The Rise and Nature of Alternative Work Arrangements

            in the United States, 1994-2015,” March 29, 2016.


“Tuning the History Discipline in the United States,” American Historical Association, . Accessed April4, 2018.



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