Blog Post

Designing Higher Education from Scratch - Hand, Head, Heart University

The students in Professor Cathy N. Davidson's face-to-face course at Duke University have created a first draft of some basic, preliminary ideas for their collaborative project on "Designing Higher Education from Scratch." Please find below a "napkin sketch" for your comments and feedback, created by a project team in the Duke "History and Future of Higher Education" course. For more information about this project, please see this post.


Hand, Head, Heart University

Learning yourself to engage the world, engaging the world to learn yourself.

Louis Nizer: “He who works with his hands is a laborer. He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman. He who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist.”





  • Based off of current university structure
  • We should discover a purpose in life
  • We should pursue those purposes to positively engage communities
  • Every individual has a unique way of learning
  • Every culture has unique priorities and ways of thinking about their world
  • We are an increasingly globalized world. While that has its flaws, we strive to use the advantages afforded by critical and meaningful engagement for making positive growth
  • Those who have gained access to education and social mobility should ‘pay it forward’
  • The best ideas can come from the most unlikely sources, we should be in ongoing dialogue with a myriad of peoples



  • To help students identify their interests and skills and apply them in real-world cases.
  • To provide spaces for collaboration with people in communities within and outside of the university space.
  • To provide students with the resources and networks necessary to pursue a project of their own design
  • To provide a system within which students can grow to become seers, doers, teachers, and sharers of their individual passions and intellectual interests.
  • To provide holistic education and a university culture that supports and promotes the full individual’s development.




“Holistic education is a philosophy of education based on the premise that each person finds identity, meaning, and purpose in life through connections to the community, to the natural world, and to humanitarian values such as compassion and peace. Holistic education aims to call forth from people an intrinsic reverence for life and a passionate love of learning. This is the definition given by Ron Miller, founder of the journal Holistic Education Review (now entitled Encounter: Education for Meaning and Social Justice). The term holistic education is often used to refer to the more democratic and humanistic types ofalternative education. Robin Ann Martin (2003) describes this further by stating, ‘At its most general level, what distinguishes holistic education from other forms of education are its goals, its attention to experiential learning, and the significance that it places on relationships and primary human values within the learning environment.’”

“The concept of holism refers to the idea that all the properties of a given system in any field of study cannot be determined or explained by the sum of its component parts. Instead, the system as a whole determines how its parts behave. A holistic way of thinking tries to encompass and integrate multiple layers of meaning and experience rather than defining human possibilities narrowly.”


Holistic education as embodied in Hand, Head, Heart University is premised on the belief that an individual’s development needs to account for all the stimuli that impact the way one learns and the necessary components of human development.

Our conception of holistic education thus considers Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. For example, Maslow’s levels 1, 2, and 3 (Physiological, Safety, and Love/Belonging) can be equated to the needs that all individuals require in order to fully develop and learn. We aim to help students build upon the characteristics found in levels 4 and 5 (Esteem and Self-actualization). At Hand, Head, Heart University we strive to combine theory and method to provide students with competence in social and intellectual literacies that are necessary for individuals to thrive in the twenty-first century. Below, we describe some of the theories and ideas that we incorporate into our university practice. This list is not comprehensive, but it reflects the current state of our university sketch.




For a more comprehensive view of the theories that we using in structuring this university, please see our HHH Theory Google Doc. Here you can add comments and suggestions using the comment function.

Intercultural Competence

We believe that it is fundamental for our students to be equipped with the knowledge, skills, and attitudes necessary for appropriate and effective intercultural communication and relations.

Intercultural competence is a lifelong learning process; there is no pinnacle in which one become competent in intercultural relations. Since it involves life long learning, reflective practice is a necessary component to understand one's own development. -Synthesized and summarized from the Sage Handbook of Intercultural Competence (2008), edited by Dr. Darla Deardorff.

Cognitive and Metacognitive Development

We believe that our students need to have the knowledge and skills to develop their own cognitive thinking abilities and understand that intelligence is not a fixed but a constantly modifiable human trait that can be developed.

“‘The theory of Structural Cognitive Modifiability is described as “the unique propensity of human beings to change or modify the structure of their cognitive functioning to adapt to the changing demands of a life situation.’[3] This capacity for change is related to two types of human-environment interactions that are responsible for the development of differential cognitive functioning and higher mental processes: direct exposure to learning and mediated learning experience.” -- Wikipedia

Developing a Sense of Purpose

We believe our students will be truly contributing members in society if they act with a sense of purpose. Part of our curriculum is devoted to helping them find and “fall in love” with something that will be positive for society that that they want to dedicate themselves to. As William Damon states in The Path to Purpose (2008), "Purpose is a stable and generalized intention to accomplish something that is at the same time meaningful to the self and consequential for the world beyond the self" (33).

Identity-Based Motivation

Identity-based motivation is an extension of the aforementioned clause on developing purpose; our university is intentional about making learning an inherent part of one’s identity. One’s education at HHH is rooted in the belief that we learn not only to engage the world, but to engage our own development.

“Self-concept is one's theory about oneself, the person one was in the past, is now, and can become in the future, including social roles and group memberships. A well-functioning self-concept helps make sense of one's present, preserves positive self-feelings, makes predictions about the future, and guides motivation. The contents of the future-oriented component of self-concept have been termed possible selves. (Markus & Nurius, 1986). Possible selves are the selves one believes one might become in the near and the more distal future and are therefore important in goal setting and motivation (for a review, see Oyserman & James, in press).” ( For this reference see Article)

Physical Education

We believe that students at HHH should also be equipped with the knowledge of one’s physicality and how to lead healthy lives nutritionally and physically.

Aryurveda, which is largely considered to be “the Science of Life” is an education model intended to help students better understand how their diet and eating habits will shape their development and well-being. Ayurveda is a 5,000-year-old system of natural healing that has its origins in the Vedic culture of India. More than a mere system of treating illness, Ayurveda is a science of life (Ayur = life,Veda = science or knowledge). It offers a body of wisdom designed to help people stay vital while realizing their full human potential. Providing guidelines on ideal daily and seasonal routines, diet, behavior and the proper use of our senses, Ayurveda reminds us that health is the balanced and dynamic integration between our environment, body, mind, and spirit.

Psycho-Physical Education

We believe that our students should understand the relationship between our physical well being and the power of the mind. We want our students to know that one’s potential for learning is shaped by our thoughts and perceptions of what’s possible; this way of thinking manifests most visibly in the relationship between body and mind. The following practices are methods that pertain to developing one’s Psycho-Physical Education.

  1. Use of Self (Guiding Questions):
    • How do our thoughts manifest in the ways that we use our bodies?
    • How does the way that we use ourselves impact our learning, openness to new experiences, and ability to be self-aware?
    • How can we use every life moment as an experience to learn from?
    • Method: the Alexander Technique
  2. Affective Education (Guiding questions):
    • How do our conceptions of self and others impact our learning?
    • How do our emotions and our perception of our emotions impact our own development, self-awareness, and learning?



One of the underlying principles of the university is to help students identify and hone their passions and skills in order to engage the world. The university thus requires a physical space where students live for a period of years. During this time and in this space, they will spend the first years learning about ethics, identify formation, and interculturality in order to build skills and competence in the affective domain. These years will enable students to identify and pursue their intellectual interests as individuals who are guided by a deep sense of purpose and passion for their chosen fields.

Engagement with digital community is essential in years 1-2 in prep for years 3-5 (see Online Networks section):

  • Each student’s pursuit of online contacts serves two purposes: first, it exposes students to a maximally diverse network of fellow students, in order to provide varied feedback on the student’s progress through the first two years of the curriculum; second, it assigns to the students the task of finding the contacts they will need in order to complete the self-guided project they will pursue in year five. Not every encounter with others is joyful, positive, and productive, so students will have to determine early on who their mentors, teachers, and contacts will be. Through the online network, we optimize our chances of putting students in touch with people who will support and encourage the development of their projects, having done this before themselves or else having this assignment to pursue in a matter of years.


The second half of the educational process at Hands, Head, Heart will depend on a practicum. Students are required to design a pathway to “graduation” by proposing and implementing a project of their own design that holds with the principles of the university. Projects should demonstrate that:

  1. The student has thought deeply about his/her passions and can articulate a sense of purpose (ie. why a student wants to engage his/her passion).
  2. The student engaged others has identified at least one area of focus or field of study that relates to the student’s sense of purpose.
  3. The student has sought to use his/her passion (ie. topic of focus) to engage a community (loosely defined) on a level that is beneficial to both the student and the community.
  4. The student has networked, using both analog and digital methods to: make his/her project known; receive input and feedback; be held accountable for his/her ideas.
  5. The student has a well-thought out plan for how to proceed with his/her personal education, project, and community engagement post-graduation.

Evaluation of final project will make use of online digital community (see Online Networks):

  • The community of alumni/teachers linked to the university through an online network act as a control for the quality of the student projects, providing assessment in the form of qualitative critique and feedback. At each stage of the project’s development, alumni will weigh in on the progress of the project, suggesting amplifications, adjustments of scale, limitations that the project is bound to face, etc. By drawing upon the experience of former students who have become agents of change in the world, the likelihood of successful completion of a high impact project is secured. Alumni/teachers will also decide when a student’s involvement with a project, which may well proceed beyond his/her tenure as a student, has come to completion. At this point, students become alumni/teachers, and may leave for work of another kind or may continue pursuing the project they have initiated.


Years 1-2: On-campus Self and Peer Engagement

During the first two years of study, students will live together in residential communities that act as self and peer learning communities. Each community will hold weekly meetings where students will report on their self-exploration and will encourage each other to explore individual passions. A trained counselor will lead these weekly meetings and will also serve on a team of academic advisers that will be available for each student during the student’s tenure.

Core curriculum in years 1-2 will focus on the student’s individual development on multiple levels (emotional, intellectual, and professional). The curriculum reflects these goals by integrating residential and academic life as follows:

Year 1: Residential self assessments (and classes)

  • Residential life and weekly meetings (dreaming/centering practices)
  • Focus on building of online networks (alumni network)
  • Core Classes in: Ethics, Emotional Development, Identity Formation, Languages, and Intercultural Competence
  • 2-3 Electives per semester: Student’s Identified Field of Study


Year 2: Residential self assessments with more of a career focus (and classes)

  • Residential life and weekly meetings (dreaming/centering practices)
  • Focus on building of online networks (alumni network)
  • Core Classes in: Ethics, Emotional Development, Identity Formation, Languages, and Intercultural Competence
  • 2-3 Electives per semester: Student’s Identified Field of Study


Years 3-5: On-campus Self and Peer Engagement

During the next 2-3 years of study, students will focus on designing a project that will lead to graduation. They are to engage the ideas and communities they’ve built in years 1-2 to propose and implement a plan for community engagement.

  • Year 3: Classes and real-world practicum--participation in development module
  • Year 4: Classes and real-world practicum--participation in development module
  • Year 5: Real-world practicum-- teaching/mentor position


University Class Structure

*The university is also intentional about providing space for discussion sections for possible large lectures.

  • Alumni/teachers will be invited back to offer lectures, seminars, series, colloquia, and other such presentations in order to introduce students to previous successes and failures in their pursuits.
  • Class evaluation during years 1-2: attendance of specific talks will not be required, but broad and enthusiastic participation will be expected. Students will report weekly on the online network about their progress, and alumni/teachers will review and comment upon student activity. Lack of engagement will be called out and questioned, rather than rewarded marks for completion and grades for quality of engagement.


University Communal Spaces: Learning and Living Together

*The university provides communal space for students to gather with each other informally

  • The university will consider cultural differences by design. For example, there will be a large communal kitchen and dining area for those students who wish to come together for their meals as a defining and significant part of the day
  • There will be a theater in which to establish a film salon, recognizing that film from all over the world is a powerfully enriching medium in which to explore both other cultures as well as universal truths about the individual
  • We shall create spaces for people to practice their religion or to reflect introspectively.


Potential First-Year of Orientation for HHH Students:

Students come to college with a renewed sense of exploration and curiosity about themselves and about the lives that they will lead. Unfortunately, many define themselves retrospectively based on the sum of past achievements and static identity labels. They do not proactively seek to critically assess the motors that drive their actions. Profound questions, such as “Who am I? What do I care about? Why do I care about what I am doing? What skills do I have and what excites me?” are rarely addressed in a deliberate or explicit way in college. As such, many students finish without having ever critically assessed their own capabilities or motivations, therefore, without ever having achieved the Critical Consciousness necessary for true personal growth. This is a major issue for exceptional students like Duke students because this reflection could lead them to become scholars, experts, artists, entrepreneurs, and innovators in an infinite amount of other fields.

Hand, Head, Heart University is an open reflective space where students explore questions about their academic interests and strengths before settling on a set career path. Although there are ample resources from career centers to global education counselors geared towards helping students decide what path they want, there are not resources that help students know whythey want what they want. It is difficult to utilize appropriate resources without first having a firm sense of what one’s own aptitudes and goals are and why they are important. Through self-reflection, however, students can begin to realize their full potential to become the people they are meant to be.

The program aims to help people initiate Critical Consciousness – a mindset characterized by being in a state in which one:

  1. Seeks deep self-understanding

  2. Practices constant self-reflection

  3. Lives life to one's full potential for the benefit of others

Critically Assessing One’s Aptitudes and Interests Part I

Actualizing students’ full potential begins with having them engage in deep critical self-reflection. The notion of deep self-understanding has been confirmed throughout the history of ethical inquiry – Socrates emphasized the importance of the ancient Delphic inscription "Know Thyself" to which Plato referred to in his dialogue Protagoras.

Before beginning the process of self-reflection, students need to focus on who they are now. To do this, they have to create the mental space to be able to identify their personhood. Once students know themselves, the next step in the process is having them ask the questions "What can people learn from my story?" and "How can I best utilize myself to the fullest service of society?" Once they understand these questions, they can finally ask, "How can I effectively communicate these ideas?" Ideally, students would present their answers to the question in the format of a TED-talk exposition that both conveys their own experience and inspires others to become self-reflective.

Once students acquire a deep self-understanding and they are able to articulate it, the next step is to understand how they are perceived. Paolo Freire, Martín-Baró, and Montero call this awareness “Conscientisation.” Montero (2009) describes “Conscientisation” as “a mobilization of consciousness aiming to produce historic knowledge about oneself and about the groups to which one belongs, thereby producing a different understanding, and giving sense to one’s temporal and spatial place in the society, and in one’s specific lifeworld.”

Critically Assessing One’s Aptitudes and Interests Part II

The final step in working towards one’s full potential is self-actualization. Executing what students have learned and articulated about themselves is the most important part of the process and it is the most challenging. It requires authenticity: the ability to harness resilience and focus while embracing vulnerability and failure. Furthermore, it requires a trusted community and perpetual mentorship.

The final step consists of meeting weekly with a group of people who are also committed to authentic living. The meetings are centered on sharing personal stories about the benefits and challenges that come with the authentic lifestyle. The meetings also feature guest speakers and workshops to enhance resilience and other critical life skills. All members of HHH and related communities are invited to attend.


An essential component of our university model is its online social network, which has four functions:

  1. Connecting HHH students to a digital community that spans beyond the physical space of the university campus.In years 1-2, students will be required to submit online progress reports. Online progress reports will be exercised through a virtual, Socratic cross-examination.

  2. Keeping alumni/teachers connected on a daily basis to the goings-on of the university. Abandoning traditional models of graduation allows our university to maintain a long-term connection with its former students. “Graduation” from HHH University leads to a second phase of participation in the institution, in which the alumni network is called upon to assess the progress of current students and to mentor their efforts.

  3. Recruiting new students from the global population. HHH University maximizes its prospects for success by recruiting students from as many places as possible. This further supports the goal of enhancing cross-cultural competence by creating a maximally inclusive learning environment.

  4. Dislocating the university from its original campus to an ever-increasing multiplicity of campuses, to be established according to the needs and resources of each local campus.

Hand, Head, Heart University not only increases awareness of cultural difference around the globe, thus provoking students to deepen their self-awareness and achieve greater cross cultural-competence through encountering others and negotiating social exchange with them, it also actively strives to produce difference in the world, channeling already existing difference towards the discovery of space for greater coexistence of difference. In other words, where the traditional university has been conceived ultimately as a “uni-versity”—from the Latin for “turning towards the One”—HHH University, paradoxically, works towards the opposite end, dividing the one into as many factors as possible.

In the long term, the network will replace the initial campus from which it began, so that there is no one campus to which all the others are subordinate; instead, much as the monasteries that checker the landscape of old Europe, the code will be the school, and the campuses will be so many points of focalization for the code.


The establishment of this social network, at the level of financing the operation, will be as follows. Tuition supports the initial cost of construction for the physical space and the social network. Students then use their training, upon exiting the first stage of their education, to relocate and establish a new campus in another location, thus providing new sources of tuition-based revenue. Over time, it should be possible to decrease tuition across the campuses, since there will be no costs of affiliation and furthermore no need to generate profits, only to cover the costs of supporting the university’s reproduction.

The actual work of programming this network will be hired out, or else we will seek a technical co-founder. While our school has its roots in philanthropy, so will our funding. We will seek funding from known philanthropists and organizations who have an interest in our model.


Our ideas for a university, as described above, will be presented in the form of a website. On the website we will feature our university principles, infrastructure, classes and plans. In order to reach many people, we will publicize the site and ask for feedback at various stages on the various platforms associated with #FutureEd. Additionally, we will build out a real-life practicum of university “recruiting” through the Human 101 model, which will be featured and linked on on website. Human 101 will provide a platform where people can upload videos and respond to key questions that will be essential for students to answer for acceptance into HHH university. In this way, we will use Humans 101 to advertise HHH; “recruit” potential students and/or followers; and stay current with ideas about how the university space should change.

Below is an outline of next-steps for our Human 101 project:

Step 1: Practice doing interviews with strangers and other people

Step 2: Compile and edit videos… upload to YouTube? Have Duke Social Media provide additional editing?

Step 3: Begin uploading videos on to website / tumblr

Step 4: Develop a simple interpersonal and technical guideline that allows anyone to participate and upload their created videos

Step 5: Share the method and knowledge to others at the Duke community

Step 6: Evaluate ideas efficiency and see possible avenues for new configuration/reiterations/partnerships/institutional Duke Co-Lab support etc.

Step 7: Share the technique to Stanford, Stanford high school, UCSB, Durham Community

Step 8: Think about beginning to manage the website and optimizing crowdsourced data to organize input so Begin Lycée International (France), Mahatma Gandhi International School Ahmedabad



well laid out phiosophy. What other institutions have brought in these ideas such as The University of Philosophical Research which has an Eastern approach to this oeuvre.

Maslow and colleagues had strong influence in the 60's and 70's and his list has been rewritten by some


looking forward to seeing how this evolves




This really sounds like a great idea. Speaking from personal experience, in high school I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life or in my future career. Although I often took education and careerprogrammed tests to help guide me using my likes and dislikes as a tool in finding my career and or major. But the recommended carriers were a joke : acupuncture and a bank teller? Neither I ever thought or wanted to pursue, I subsided the programs as meaningless and pointless.
But to have an education motto and goal to help me realize and gain confidence in my future plans sounds ideal to me as a student. I think too often students gain an indifferent attitude to education as a whole, becausein personal experience the system failed them. I actually love to learn and I love to read, but that doesn't really help guide me in what I want in a career. To have teachers dedicate time to students to ensure confidence and realization as to what they want in life is what future education should be all about.