All Georgetown students have benefited from rare good fortune that enables them to attend an elite institution, educational reform advocate, professor and author Cathy Davidson argued at a Riggs Library discussion Wednesday.

“Whether you were lucky enough to be born with affluent parents or parents that believed in education and fought for you, or a teacher who inspired you, every one of us had something in their life that was luckier than the majority of Americans,” Davidson said.

Davidson spoke about her new book, “The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World In Flux,” released Sept. 5.

Davidson said students at schools like Duke and Georgetown all share a privilege that is not enjoyed by the vast majority of college students.

RYAN BAE FOR THE HOYA
Educational reform advocate Cathy Davidson argued for a new model of teaching that recognizes privilege in elite institutions and teaches students to recognize disparities around them.

As an English professor and vice provost of interdisciplinary studies at Duke for over 20 years combined, Davidson began taking up interest in public education. It was then that Davidson realized she had to make a career change. At first, Davidson said people often bristled when she spoke about problems in public education.

“I would get this look like, how dare you distinguished professor at Duke University talk about public education,” Davidson said. “I don’t think it’s possible to know what everyday life is like at a really stressed university until you’ve actually been in totally involved.”

Davidson moved to the City University of New York in July 2014, where she is now a distinguished professor in the English Ph.D. program at the CUNY Graduate Center.

“We cannot have a modern, responsible society without modern, responsible public education,” Davidson said.

The goal of a modern and responsible education takes many forms, according to Davidson, and requires a radical change in the state of higher education. She spoke highly of introducing new technology, diversifying student bodies and establishing programs of interdisciplinary studies.

She uses techniques called inventory methods to give all students a voice — even in a class of thousands of students. By having students write down a simple idea, for example, and sharing it with another classmate, everyone’s voice is heard in some way.

“Interactivity and becoming a responsible part of the world we are in is also about being able to hear from everybody,” Davidson said. “You want everyone to have a chance to hear and think for themselves and then think for themselves. Many students never speak in a class unless specifically called upon, that, to me, is a horrible failing.”

Davidson said a diverse student body contributes to a richer educational experience.

“The more diverse the people who are contributing, that’s every kind of diversity, the more likely to have a better solution for everybody at the end,” Davidson said.

Davidson also advocated for interdisciplinary studies programs, saying they offer a more comprehensive approach to learning that goes beyond the boundaries of discrete disciplines.

“The questions that these generation’s students are dealing with are so complicated and so vast and so intermingled that those old divisions between the humanities, the social sciences, the sciences, divisions between disciplines, the regulations between what a discipline is really don’t matter,” Davidson said.

Davidson said the traditional understanding of learning needs to be radically altered. Students attend classes in pursuit of a degree without truly engaging in the learning, she said, which she believes should change.

“Learning really should be about what you don’t know and getting to that place of unknowing so you can build on that,” Davidson said. “It takes a lot of confidence to admit, ‘I don’t have a clue, and I still want to learn.’”

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