Seven Competing Views of Higher Education


What is the purpose of higher education? You can find seven philosophies of education in today’s conversations and arguments. The list isn’t exhaustive and there is, of course, some truth to each.

1.  Aristocratic Platonism argues that leisurely contemplation is for the few and work is for the many.  The few live outside the “cave,” while the many are completely formed by the “city’s” process of socialization.  For the latter, education is vocational and civic-minded.  For the former, education consists of seeking the truthand the truth is discovered primarily by attending to the words of the philosophers in their “great books.”

2. Aristotelianism or Stoicism insists that education should be directed toward the soul of all rational men and woman, but especially leaders.  It aims for the rational and habitual cultivation of moral virtues, the spirited virtues of courage, generosity and magnanimity, but also the more graceful social virtues having to do with manners, morals, and wittiness.  A rational man has an appreciation for cultivated leisure, but he knows that his life is for more than that.  He lives by an honor code shared by rational men and women everywhere  that allows him to know who he is and what he’s supposed to do, even in the most difficult and lonely situations.  So the point of classical education is to produce men like Atticus Finch or Admiral Stockdale or, most of all, the irreproachably generous and magnanimous George Washington.

3.  Middle-Class or Technical Education focuses higher education on preparing free beings for work. The goal is for students to acquire flexible skills and competencies that allow men and women to flourish in the global marketplace. Education for contemplation or “knowing oneself,” in this view, is a self-indulgent luxury.  We should privilege the STEM majors not out of love of theoretical physics and mathematics but for their techno-productivity.  If the traditional subjects–such as literature or philosophy–are to be taught,  it’s only because they offer students indispensable competencies such as critical thinking or effective communication;  their actual content is of little interest or relevance.  Traditional liberal education was once needed to breed gentlemen. As higher education becomes more democratic, we need to ensure that students waste neither time nor money.

4.  Political Correctness asserts that the point of higher education is to eradicate racism, sexism, classism, and heterosexism.  Educators and students should enlighten society and actively criticize the literary and artistic productions of our benighted past.  Even academic freedom should give way to academic justice.

5.  Literary Liberal Education emphasizes the importance for those pursuing literary careers of studying the classical Greek and Roman authors in their original languages.  Advocates of this approach don’t believe that the classical authors are right about everything but they’re strong where techno-democracy is weak.  Our writers should think of themselves as sustaining distinctions that correspond to crucial aspects of the soul or the greatness of human individuality.  Those distinctions otherwise become trivialized in a society where metaphysics, theology, and poetry lose ground, and where all language tends to get flattened out in a techno-direction.

6. Democratic Liberal Education argues that higher education should teach “civic literacy.” The premise of democracy is that each of us is not only a free being who works but a free citizen who has the responsibility of sharing in ruling. To that end, advocate argue, higher education must teach the “self-evident” principles of the Declaration of Independence and how they’ve been explained and applied by our leading statesmen. Because our Declaration is philosophic, even civic education can’t just be about our “cave.”

7.  The Augustinian Biblical-Christian View begins, in the spirit of St. Augustine, with the insight that both work and contemplation are for everyone.  None of us sinners is too good not to work, and all of us were made to know God and the good for ourselves.  Tocqueville reminds us of the Puritans, who made a rather high level of public education available to everyone.  Their intention was partly technical, but it was also driven by the thought that every creature should be able to understand the Bible for himself or herself.  And we should remember the great achievement that was the American system of secondary and higher Catholic education, where ordinary working-class men and women (including, of course, lots of recent immigrants) were given a rather classical, text-based liberal education.

I think all these philosophical narratives should flourish in various places around the country.The goal should be to preserve the diversity that is the saving grace of American higher education.

(Photo: Saint Augustine by Antolnello da Messina. Credit: The St. Augustine Record.)



2 thoughts on “Seven Competing Views of Higher Education

  1. Are all the categories of “Education” determined by the motivations to learn; or, are some determined by the motivations to “Teach?” That is, teaching as the desire to transfer or transmit what has already been learned or transmitting skills or understandings of the processes of learning.

  2. This list assumes that our country is the sum total of all of its people. For many citizens the country is the sum total of the various states. Each state should be responsible for the education (or indoctrination, as the case may be) of its citizens. I wonder what education would be fifty years after we abolished the federal Department of Education. Much, much better, in my opinion.

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