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The Aims of Higher EducationReview - The Aims of Higher Education
Problems of Morality and Justice
by Harry Brighouse and Michael McPherson (Editors)
University of Chicago Press, 2015
Review by Ben Mulvey, Ph.D.
Mar 8th 2016 (Volume 20, Issue 10)

It is telling that in the current partisan political climate in the United States, there is at least one issue that seems to have garnered bipartisan support. Our Democratic president, several Republican governors, and candidates from both political parties currently running for high political office, have all suggested that a university education should be more about preparing students for careers than anything else.  Moreover, those careers ought to be in the STEM areas (science, technology, engineering, and math).  This view, of course, is in tension with the traditional view of higher education as a place and time for emotional and moral development as much as it is for intellectual development.  What are we to make of the traditional liberal arts education that universities and colleges have for so long incorporated into their curricula to one degree or another?  Simply put, what is the proper aim of higher education?  This is the question at issue in this book.

The 174-page The Aims of Higher Education: Problems of Morality and Justice consists of seven chapters, each written by a philosopher, as well as an introduction and conclusion written by the editors, one a philosopher, one an economist.  Several of the contributors, including one of the editors, have substantial administrative experience in academia.  In chapter one, "Introduction: Problems of Morality and Justice in Higher Education," the editors, Harry Brighouse and Michael McPherson, point out that the debates in higher education about which this book is concerned "are fundamentally about values," debates to which they "believe that moral and political philosophers can contribute in useful ways" (2). The editors charged the contributors to address one or more of such moral issues that seem to fall into three overlapping categories: what students should learn, who should attend college, and the relationship between universities and the wider world, "in ways that would be interesting and accessible to other philosophers, scholars, policy makers, administrators, students, and members of the general public who are engaged in the debates" (3). 

Chapter two "What Makes a University Education Worthwhile?" by philosopher and president of the University of Pennsylvania, Amy Gutman, argues that the traditional liberal arts education is essential for developing the creative understanding needed for graduates to make effective social contributions.  Gutman doesn't so much confront the apparently inevitable turn toward careerism among institutions of higher learning. Instead she suggests that graduates and society could benefit from the integration into their curricula the study of "the broad area of professional ethics" (15).

In chapter three, "Defending the Humanities in a Liberal Society," Cristopher Bertram argues that students need the humanities because they are a vital source of knowledge that cannot be obtained without the methods that the humanities have developed.  Along the way, Bertram musters an impressive series of considerations showing weaknesses in the careerist point of view (my phrase).  He claims that arguments that the demand that academic areas of study legitimate themselves by showing how they contribute to economic growth are far "too narrow," that they miss the extent to which "we are not just entrepreneurs and workers" but citizens that require certain virtues of mind taught in the humanities, that "the humanities can keep alive a genuine diversity of views on ways to live and conceptions of the good," that the humanities are not contrary to the sciences, but "complementary to them" (28).

Chapters four, "Academic Friendship" by Paul Weithman and five, "Autonomy as Intellectual Virtue" by Kyla Ebels-Duggan both explore, and add interesting nuances to, the claim that higher education should aim at making students autonomous.  Weithman claims that higher education should contribute to students' development of qualities of mind that amount to an overall "intellectual maturity" (66) that a focus on autonomy might miss.  What is intriguing about Weithman's analysis is his use of a concept he calls "academic friendship."  This is a discussion that both students and professors would be well served to consider.  Ebels-Duggan questions what she calls the standard view "that students' primary problem is unreflective or inflexible commitment to some particular conception of the good" (86).  She believes students generally lack a willingness to defend any normative position at all.  Thus, traditional "solutions" to the "problem of autonomy" have been misplaced.  Instructors would do better, she claims, were they to model "good attitudes about both the power and the limits of rational arguments" and that "one of the best things we can do is to display the ideas that we love and try to communicate to students why we love them (87).

Allen Buchanan's chapter six, "Education and Social Moral Epistemology," is quite specific in identifying certain false beliefs that are particularly dangerous and the role that higher education (not focused on career preparation) can play in making it difficult for those sorts of beliefs to find an audience.  Buchanan frames his discussion within the familiar observation that we are living in an increasingly complex world with increasingly, and seemingly endless, commentary on that world such that it becomes a challenge to sort out the true, the false, the helpful, or the unhelpful.  He claims that what he calls "morally crucial factual beliefs" that are false beliefs, "seem to play a central role in initiating, or at least sustaining, wrongful mass violence" (98).  There are four types of these false beliefs: (1) "beliefs about supposed natural or essential differences between different classes of human beings," (2) "beliefs about the history of one's nation or ethnic group," (3) "beliefs about the current vulnerability of one's nation or ethnic group," (4) "beliefs about (a) the etiology of major social ills…and about (b) changes in the human gene pool" which lead "to the false prediction that there would be a catastrophic decline in the quality of human life and a disintegration of civilization" (99).  If one ever wondered how higher education could help make the world a better place, there may be no better place to start than by reading this essay. 

Chapters seven, "Righting Historical Injustice in Higher Education," by Lionel K. McPherson and eight, "Modeling Justice in Higher Education" by Erin I. Kelly focus less on the curricular content of higher education institutions and more on the greater social impact of those institutions.  Both chapters address the issue of distributive justice, specifically where it concerns the diversity of the institutional community (students, faculty, administration).   For McPherson a diverse academic community creates a positive environment that will enhance graduates' potential, while Kelly suggests that all the talk about the proper aim of higher education is useless to the extent that portions of our population are systematically denied meaningful access to such an education as justice would demand.

In the final chapter, "Conclusion: Future Research on Values in Higher Education," Brighouse and McPherson provide a list of issues, not broached in the current volume, wherein "decision making would be improved if informed by careful normative thinking supported by philosophical concepts" (156).  This chapter, indeed the entirety of The Aims of Higher Education, is an example of the sort of thinking that a narrow focus on STEM education does not engender.  The book is a sort of self-evident testimony to the importance of the liberal arts to our world.  I share the editors' hope that "readers of this volume who are engaged substantively with problems in higher education, whether as professors or administrators or in other ways, will find their own thinking and actions helpfully influenced by what they have read" (6).

 

© 2016 Ben Mulvey

 

Ben Mulvey, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the College of Arts and Sciences of Nova Southeastern University.  He received his doctorate in philosophy from Michigan State University specializing in political theory and applied ethics.  He teaches philosophy at NSU and is a member of the board of advisors of the Florida Bioethics Network.


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