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Last night I sent my editor the draft manuscript of my non-boring book on the future of higher education.  It should be in bookstores and online this time next year. I should be ECSTATIC, right?  I finished!  I hit “Send”!  Done!  Well . . . not quite.


I rewarded myself by listening to the incomparable Mike Wesch (K-State Prof of Anthropology) and the first in his new podcast series, Life 101.  ( )  Real Stories about Real Students Seeking a Real Education.  Have a listen.  It’s inspiring.


Sigh.  As always, Mike inspired me.  I feel like I need to go back to the drawing board.


But that is Life 101.  That is the message of Mike’s podcast and my book.  College is not about a grade or a diploma.  It is the beginning, the place you start from, the launch pad to what comes next, the best possible prep for whatever that might be.


Like writing a book.  It doesn’t end.  It’s just a beginning too.  (Darn it.)


I began my journey towards this book by interviewing Mike.  At the time, he was teaching “Introduction to Digital Anthropology:  The Anthropology of Aging.”  He had his students take in not just the content but the form, what it means to be an anthropologist.  His students actually moved into a retirement community for the semester, lived and played and worked and mourned with residents.  And then created an online game to help those of us who haven’t had a chance to spend six months in a retirement community to understand the life choices the elderly make.


My journey (on this draft) ended on Wednesday, when I interviewed President Patrick Awuah, who quit his promising career as a software engineer at Microsoft to return and earn an MBA at Berkeley in order to learn how to create a sustainable, non-profit university in his native Ghana, designed to create the next generation of leaders and thinkers and scientists and engineers, using the deepest principles of liberal arts education combined with professional education, experiential experiences, and moral, thoughtful, ethical education.  One example:  in 2008, students debated and then created an Honor Code–not some pro forma thing everyone signs, but a living document, ratified by a two-thirds vote of the students, and one to which the students committed as a cohort, not just in school, but for life.  Every new first year class at Ashesi University in Accra, Ghana,  is challenged to debate the Honor Code, revise it by consensus, and then decide to accept or not.  Two-thirds vote required.  A few years, it was touch and go but, so far, every class has created and voted to uphold a code.


And somewhere in between I interviewed the inimitable Gail Mellow, President of LaGuardia Community College, where the students come from 160 countries and speak over 110 languages and, as she says:  “Yes, we brag about our selectivity, just like Harvard.  We admit the Top One Hundred Percent.”   That’s a mission that changes absolutely everything.  Inclusion.  Not diversity but “Global Awareness” is the  LAGCC’s signature  “competency.”   Guess what college or university has the most philosophy majors in the entire Northeast:  yes, LaGuradia Community College–more than Yale, Brown, Harvard, Amherst, Williams, Wellesley . . .    Because, when 70% of your students live with families that earn less than 25K a year, and when in any class of 25 you may have immigrants from 25 countries from every continent, you better understand “what it means to be human.”  At LaGuardia, philosophy is a survival skill.   It should be everywhere.


This is teaching.  This is learning.  I was privileged to interview 20 profs, administrators, students, visionaries who are transforming higher education.   These educators could not be further from the “edupreneurs” who say college is too expensive, it’s antiquated, it’s not worth supporting any more with our taxes . . . we should unbundle everything from the skills and competency part and just emphasize that.  Right.  For a profit–not for the learners but for the investors.  And the data?  Straight to those who see students as customers to be marketed to and exploited and even to future employers looking for cheap labor to power Apple, writing code as piece work like Uber drivers, no security, no futurity, obsolete practically as soon as they have started.


I learned so much from the profs I interviewed.  They inspired me.  Through draft after draft after draft after draft, at a monumentally difficult time.  I also kept remembering my dear colleague John Piva, the legendary VP of Development at Duke when I was Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies.  We would carefully craft this or that and bring it into some meeting and everyone would tear it apart, rip it up oneside and down the other, and, on the way out, he’d put his arm over my shoulder and say, jubilantly, “Hey, Cat!  We’re closer to a final draft.”


And he was right.  We did great things together that were greater because the first draft had been ripped to shreds but we persevered with optimism and fortitude and openness (and also because I learned so much from him, I had a model, a source of inspiration).


That’s what my book is about:  giving us models that we can build on. “We” here means educators and profs and administrators looking for a more engaged, activist form of learning. “We” here means our students, who have been tested to death and standardized throughout their entire education and, in college, need to learn it is a process. At any age, it is a process.  We’re never finished or done with anything important.  “I do”–in any setting–means “let’s get started.”   We’re always closer to a final draft.


That’s what education is, what life is.  And it is stories from great educators who understood this that got me through this past year, certainly one of the most difficult years of my life.

In between my first interview with Mike Wesch and my final interview with Patrick Awuah I had a catastrophic life event.  I had no pulse when they admitted me to NYU Langone Hospital on June 9, 2015.  It’s taken a year to recover, to learn how to feel again (literally, I could not feel my fingers when I touched one to another), how to breathe, how to walk, how to return to my beloved dance classes.


I can’t yet run.  But, thanks to my inspiring educators like Mike Wesch, Patrick Awuah, and Gail Mellow, I am flying again.


I hit “Send.”


And listening to Mike’s podcast of Life 101 I’m thinking of all the things I should have put in my book, all the nuances I missed, all the things I still have to learn.


Life 101.  I am grateful, on many levels, that this is a course that isn’t over yet.

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Cathy N. Davidson

Cathy N. Davidson

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