Duke Magazine


Cathy N. Davdson

Alvin Toffler has said that in the twenty-first century, literacy isn't just reading, writing, and arithmetic but the ability to "learn, unlearn, and relearn." Given the ever-increasing rapidity and magnitude of change on a global scale, we all need to master the precious and formidable skill of being able to stop in our tracks, discard the road map that has failed us, and try a different route on the unpredictable journey ahead. That takes imagination, creativity, an ability to work with others, and fearlessness in the face of uncertain success.

I don't imagine the challenges of 2034 will be any less daunting than those of 2009. But I would hope that a quarter of a century from now, we will be doing a better job of training our students for unlearning the future.

Not much in our current educational system prepares us for the task. In fact, one could argue that data mastery (in any field), the ability to absorb and evaluate information, and the skill to use existing paradigms to solve problems predict good grades but do not necessarily prepare students to respond effectively to the unexpected twists and turns that, inevitably, lie ahead.

At most universities and colleges across America, the curriculum is divided into disciplines and departments with relatively rigid requirements for graduation within and across those divisions. In that sense, higher education looks pretty much the same in 2009 as it looked twenty-five years ago, in 1984—and not that much different, to be frank, from the way it did in 1884. We basically are continuing with a nineteenth-century model of discipline-based expertise—a machine-age education based on an antiquated model of a hardwired, localized, compartmentalized, and hierarchical brain. Yet we are in the midst of a world-altering digital revolution that, in the words of inventor Douglas Engelbart (he invented your computer mouse), makes it essential that we "shift our paradigms about paradigms."

So, what would education look like if we took seriously the injunction to learn, unlearn, and relearn? Methodologically, unlearning typically happens when one is confronted with the irrefutable uselessness of one's present repertoire of skills to comprehend or cope with an important situation. Traumas such as a serious illness, the death of a loved one, or the loss of one's life savings require us to find resources we didn't know we had. Spending significant time having to negotiate a different culture calls up the same reflection about the inadequacy of one's own skills and the urgent need to develop new ones, which is one reason we encourage students to study abroad. How could we replicate that form of disorientation in the familiar confines of the classroom?

Here's one of my fantasies for radical educational transformation in 2034. Once a semester, students will be required to take one course outside their major or minor that is picked from the equivalent of a digital hat. Since this is a fantasy, I'm not worrying about the practicalities so I'll say every course, no matter how specialized, goes into the digital hat. It might be algebraic geometry, advanced Arabic, econometrics, or eighteenth-century English poetry. By hook or crook, students must learn something they didn't plan on learning, with seemingly no relevance to their chosen career path, and, in many cases, something for which they are utterly, abysmally, and delightfully unprepared. Grades will be collaborative, as will learning; the lowest grade anyone earns will be what everyone receives. All students must show that they contributed substantively to a final project that demonstrates mastery of the material. So it is everyone's job to help everyone else learn the subject and to figure out how everyone can contribute to his or her maximum ability. Maybe the digital-hat student doesn't know the finest twists and turns of abstract algebra, but is a genius at managing collaborative teams or is a brilliant science writer who can explain the significance of the team project to non-mathematicians.

It would certainly shake up our concept of learning if a quarter of our educational lives was spent in the intellectual deep end, with our fellow students there helping us learn to swim. On the professorial level, the digital-hat requirement would force us to rethink what the major might look like with a quarter fewer courses required of each student and to re-imagine the role of the university itself, because of the redistribution of courses and faculty members required by this random assignment of courses. It would also demand a different pedagogy, since a quarter of one's students could be presumed to have little preparation for or even interest in the subject matter.

What would learning look like without the safety net of prerequisites? U.S. Department of Labor statistics indicate the average person changes careers three to seven times. So, this educational shake-up more closely resembles the challenges ahead than does the present system of overly prescriptive majors and minors. Would our experiment in strategic failure be interesting? Indubitably. The method evokes the concept of katsu in Zen Buddhism, the thunderous blast that turns the acolyte's life around. The important part, as in all education, isn't the blast itself, but the reverberations that continue after, inspiring imagination, confidence, and daring for a future of unlearning.

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