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Usually when my blogs are a “response to the New York Times,”  it is to disagree, push back, emend, quibble, or rant.   Today, I am reading Thomas Friedman’s “How To Get a Job at Google, Part II,” with enormous pleasure and satisfaction and a sense of confirmation.   Friedman’s interview with Laszlo Bock, the man in charge of all hiring at Google, confirms what I have learned from many workshops and interviews with both job recruiters and CEOs of Fortune 100 companies:   the most important thing anyone can do in college is think deeply, profoundly, and strategically about why you are there–and what you want to take away from the most diverse, intense, rich learning opportunities you will ever be given the time to embrace.  


I took a long time before I chose the word “opportunities.”   Because it is you–the brilliant, engaged student–who has to get past all the bureaucracies of majors and distribution requirements, all the expediencies of scheduling and hassles of over-enrolled classes, to assess what is available at the contemporary university and take full advantage of it.  It is not an easy or simple-minded task.  it is not about checking off the requirement boxes or just listening to an adviser.   Friedman quotes Boch:   ““The first and most important thing is to be explicit and willful in making the decisions about what you want to get out of this investment in your education.” It’s a huge investment of time, effort and money and people should think “incredibly hard about what they’re getting in return.”

The word I love in that sentence is “willful.”   Whether you are a student at Harvard or Harper Community College (where I was privileged to have one of my first and still significant adjunctive teaching positions many years ago), there are so many opportunities and so many obstacles that navigating them is, in itself, a learning opportunity.   Doing it well results in exactly the kind of introspective, “willful” learner that Google or any employer with her/his salt, will recognize.

This is why I also like the way that conscious and conscientious thinking about the purpose of education was also linked, by Mr. Bock, to writing one’s resume.   These are the same skills:  representing oneself as a willful grasper of opportunities.  For Boch, at a technology company, the emphasis is on structure and logic.  I actually think that is also true for the humanities, qualitative social sciences, and the arts.  We may call it “creativity” rather than “logic,” but the translation from an idea to a canvas is also an exercise in choices, in eliminating some opportunities in favor of others.  That is not a mechanistic or reductionist idea of creativity.   It is the difference between the person who says, “What a life I’ve lead!  You could write a novel about it!” and the person who writes the novel.

Boch continues:  The first thing Google looks for “is general cognitive ability — the ability to learn things and solve problems.”  And that means a “liberal arts” education that allows you to take seemingly divergent conceptual frames and see how they go together.   It means not only learning deeply but being able to see the connections across extremely deep, coherent methods and assumptions.  His example fo cognitive neuroscience and its invisibility a decade ago and now its centrality to so much of what many of us are thinking about in every aspect of our lives is a good one.  I could make the same case for critical theory, gender studies, or post-Bayesian statistics depending on the field a student were interested in pursuing.  It’s not the field. It’s the connections across all the learning opportunities one took advantage of and how that ability to make connections persists and helps us to learn in the future.

A good résumé and a good interview show to a future employer all the ways you, as a learner, have mastered the skill of mastering skills.  Boch says :  “The key, . . . is to frame your strengths as: ‘I accomplished X, relative to Y, by doing Z.’ Most people would write a résumé like this: ‘Wrote editorials for The New York Times.’ Better would be to say: ‘Had 50 op-eds published compared to average of 6 by most op-ed [writers] as a result of providing deep insight into the following area for three years.’ Most people don’t put the right content on their résumés.”

Thank you, Mr. Friedman and Mr. Boch for a very clear, sane, sensible, and direct message.  It makes me especially happy to include it in our #FutureEd project on “The History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education” where our ambition has been to make overt the learning pathways that much of higher education obscures with its thicket of requirements, its archaic assessment practices, and the tendency of far too many disciplines to implicitly shape themselves as replicators of the existing disciplines (often as represented by the specific members of a department plus some stubborn legacies from predecessor departments) rather than as gateways to larger ways of understanding the world.  That is, as currently configured most courses and departmental requirements implicitly are designed to train future teachers of that discipline, not people who can understand the principles, methods, and ideas of the discipline in the most profound ways and then have the ability to apply them to whatever their own chosen professional pathway may be.

Mastery of content is king in far too many courses rather than understanding of the reason that content is significant.  What courses rarely do is step back to help students understandwhy they are learning a certain subject matter in a way that gives them both insights into why someone else (i.e. their prof) would dedicate their lives to researching in that area while also giving them the meta-cognitive ability to take a much less specialized version of that knowledge and apply it elsewhere.

At present, we leave that to our students.  I’m not sure most professors even think about that much themselves. It’s a loss.

In fact, if I have one quibble with Friedman and Bock, it is that they are too kind towards higher education in its general, present form.  They do not push it enough.   Yes, the great student knows how to think deeply about why they are in college and takes advantage of the abundant opportunities available.   But we as educators need to do far, far more to make that practice of introspective, willful, creative, logical learning the goal of higher education.

The goal of higher education should not be for a student to master our syllabus.  We already have our degrees.   The real goal of higher learning should be to inspire students to understand the syllabus of their own learning deeply enough to be able to create one of their own.  I do not mean a self-designed curriculum.  That’s just the starting point for designing the continually revising curriculum that will get you through the rest of your life.


For those of you following and participating in our #FutureEd initiative this semester, you know that our ambition is to move from the specialized learning of the classroom to a vision of learning in society.  We are working to get past the very weary binary of “vocational” versus “liberal arts” learning to see all learning as “vocational” in Amartya Sen’s sense of education as the training ground for the vocation of leading satisfying, socially meaningful, productive lives.   To that end, we’re winding down this semester with the crowdsourced “Designing Higher Education from Scratch” project.   It challenges us to think about what kind of education, for what purpose, for whom, and at what cost and borne by whom–and how those things all go together, and how they relate to the content of individual courses, disciplines, divisions, departments, and goals.

We are giving higher education it’s own resume:  ‘Our University accomplishes X, relative to Y, by doing Z.’

If you are interested, you can still contribute to the original template of questions we’ve been asking about higher education here:

The students (in all majors, from computer science to documentary experimental filmmaking, undergraduate and graduate, from Duke, UNC, and NCSU) are working on three different models that they came up with in teams:

  • Our College;  a two-year college embedded in a four-year university for those who come with no background in formal educational practices and culture and that models fairness for all (no one here is “adjunct”);
  • Terra Universityan apple-orchard/cider-making centered learning-doing environment for smart and seriously disaffected youth who cannot find their way; and
  • Head, Hand, Heart University, an introspective program for students at elite universities who may be so bamboozled by “excellence” and high tuitions that they do not realize their education is, quoting now, “subpar.”

Here’s the kind of template question we’ve been asking each week of the three institutions of higher learning the students are creating:

Here’s an early version of the three “Designing Higher Education from Scratch” projects my own students are doing:

The final projects will all be posted for comments, edits, additions, feedback early in May.  Stay tuned!

In the meantime, deep thanks to Thomas Friedman for an inspiring interview with Laszlo Bock.

Reblogged from my CatintheStack blog on, April 20, 2014:

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Cathy N. Davidson

Cathy N. Davidson

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