The Aims of Higher Education: Problems of Morality and Justice
The Aims of Higher Education: Problems of Morality and Justice

The Aims of Higher Education: Problems of Morality and Justice

by Harry Brighouse, Michael McPherson

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In this book, philosopher Harry Brighouse and Spencer Foundation president Michael McPherson bring together leading philosophers to think about some of the most fundamental questions that higher education faces. Looking beyond the din of arguments over how universities should be financed, how they should be run, and what their contributions to the economy are, the contributors to this volume set their sights on higher issues: ones of moral and political value. The result is an accessible clarification of the crucial concepts and goals we so often skip over—even as they underlie our educational policies and practices.
The contributors tackle the biggest questions in higher education: What are the proper aims of the university? What role do the liberal arts play in fulfilling those aims? What is the justification for the humanities? How should we conceive of critical reflection, and how should we teach it to our students? How should professors approach their intellectual relationship with students, both in social interaction and through curriculum? What obligations do elite institutions have to correct for their historical role in racial and social inequality? And, perhaps most important of all: How can the university serve as a model of justice? The result is a refreshingly thoughtful approach to higher education and what it can, and should, be doing. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226259512
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 05/07/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 192
File size: 501 KB

About the Author

Harry Brighouse is professor of philosophy at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He is the author of several books, including School Choice and Social Justice and On Education, and is, most recently, coauthor of Family Values: The Ethics of Parent-Child Relationships. Michael McPherson is president of the Spencer Foundation and was previously the president of Macalester College in St. Paul. Prior to that he was professor of economics, chairman of the Economics Department, and dean of faculty at Williams College. He is coauthor or editor of several books, including Economic Analysis, Moral Philosophy, and Public Policy and cofounder of the journal Economics and Philosophy

Read an Excerpt

The Aims of Higher Education

Problems of Morality and Justice

By Harry Brighouse, Michael McPherson

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-25951-2



Problems of Morality and Justice in Higher Education

Harry Brighouse and Michael McPherson

About 60 percent of Americans have higher education, and some 40 percent graduate with some sort of post–high school degree. Graduating from college has a significant effect on one's lifetime earnings, on the kind of work one is able to perform, and on one's health and longevity. It is a prerequisite for many lucrative careers, and graduating from a more selective college often gives someone an advantage over a competitor from a less selective one in professional labor markets. In other words, access to higher education is an important factor in the competition for the benefits our society distributes unequally. But higher education is also a factor in creating those benefits. Education makes people more productive economically and more capable socially, and it enables them to use their leisure time in more fulfilling ways.

College is not just good for the income and life prospects of graduates. They also get to enjoy the experience of being in college itself—a time that is widely regarded as one of self- exploration in which they can learn more about their own talents and inclinations and how these fit into the wider world. Furthermore, students can accumulate knowledge and understanding of the world and develop their talents. In other words, they learn. This is why, in addition to advantaging graduates in labor-market competition, higher education also makes them more productive: it contributes to the creation of the pool of unequally distributed benefits that graduates are better placed to win.

Most students do not attend highly selective colleges: they go to colleges for which the only qualification is a high school diploma or a GED. But highly selective colleges play a crucial role in the formation of elites in our society. They educate the young people who will later form large proportions of lawmakers, businessmen and businesswomen, education and public sector leaders, and judges at the state, national, and even international levels, as well as most other high-status professionals.

So it is natural that highly selective higher education should be the focus of a great deal of public policy and scholarly debate. What role should the liberal arts have in a college education? Should colleges orient themselves to the educational demands of the business sector? What is the role of highly selective colleges in the public sphere? To what extent should they be subsidized, either directly or indirectly, by the public? Should they simply teach students skills and academic knowledge, or should they play a role in shaping character, and if so, to what end? Should highly selective colleges' admissions practices give an edge to racial minorities, legacies, or poor students? How much should the public purse subsidize disadvantaged students attending such institutions?

These debates are fundamentally about values, and we believe that moral and political philosophers can contribute in useful ways. Deciding exactly which policies and practices we should adopt demands careful attention to the empirical evidence supplied by social science. It also requires thinking about what we ought to value—about questions of distributive justice and of what constitutes a valuable education. Philosophers are trained to identify value considerations in great detail—to specify them with just a little more precision than would ever be needed for practical purposes. In our experiences, disagreements about policy and practice often proceed with minimal attention to the values assumed on either side. However, all sides can benefit from more clarity about which moral values are in play.

We can crudely divide the moral issues concerning higher education into three overlapping categories. The first concerns what students should learn. Should college prepare students to be maximally productive, economically speaking? Should it focus on developing citizens with powerful deliberative capacities and the inclination to use them for the public good? Should it challenge the opinions and religious and cultural assumptions students bring with them? Should it shape students' views about what is valuable in life and valuable to learn? Or should it respond to their preferences and allow them to shape their own values? Should it do all or just some of these things? Should different colleges aim at different balances?

The second category concerns who should attend college. Should college be just for the few elite who will occupy privileged positions in our society? Should college be a prerequisite for all professions? Should parental income and wealth influence who goes to which college, and whether somebody goes at all? Should everybody, or nearly everybody, go to college, just as everybody goes to high school? Should colleges attend to diversity considerations in regulating access? Should we have some institutions that are much more selective than others?

The third category concerns the relationship between universities and the wider world. Should universities pursue commercially sponsored research? Who should own the knowledge that the universities produce? Should universities enjoy the benefits of tax-exempt status? Should they be involved in running public services, such as hospitals and schools? When and how should interested parties outside universities have a say in what is taught, and in what ways?

We charged the authors of the chapters in this volume with addressing some of these fundamental questions about the values underlying debates about higher education and asked them to do so 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. We invited contributors who we were confident had an informed interest in the selective and very selective colleges segment of higher education and who had a record of producing distinguished philosophical work. All have been students and teachers, and several either have been or currently are leaders and administrators. We did not assign a question to each contributor, but instead gave them free rein to address the questions that most interested them. Their contributions mostly engage with questions that clearly arise in the segment of higher education they inhabit. We did not ask the authors to attempt to work out the extent or ways in which their conclusions might apply to other segments of higher education—nonselective colleges, community colleges, or for-profit institutions. This is not because we believe those segments are less important, nor because we believe that the conclusions they draw do not apply more widely. It is because we do believe that exploring the commonalities of and differences between the diverse institutions of higher education is a substantial intellectual task that would, in this context, distract from the main purpose. Some of our readers work in the other segments or at least know them well and are better qualified than we or the contributors to judge what bearing these chapters have on those systems and institutions. In fact, we hope that some of our readers will be prompted by this volume to take on that task.

None of the chapters focuses exclusively on questions that fall just within one category, because questions within each category bear on questions in the other categories. For example, how the university should relate to the wider society bears on what students should learn, which in turn bears on who should attend college. The volume opens with a contribution bearing on all three categories of question by Amy Gutmann, an eminent political theorist whose book Democratic Education (1987) shaped much subsequent moral and political theory applying to both K-12 and higher education, and who is now president of the University of Pennsylvania. Gutmann identifies three purposes of undergraduate education: opportunity—ensuring that students from the widest practical array of social backgrounds can enjoy education; creative understanding—ensuring that students become well prepared to think critically and practically about fundamental problems; and contribution—ensuring that the university and the students it produces are oriented to socially valuable production. Using data drawn from a study commissioned by her office, Gutmann presents a powerful argument that America's elite colleges are ready to expand access to a broader segment of society than they currently do, thus diversifying the elite that they play a key role in forming. Among highly qualified high school graduates, a much higher proportion of the most advantaged 20 percent attend elite colleges than of the next 60 percent.

Gutmann offers a defense of a kind of liberal arts education that is familiar in elite American colleges, arguing that it is essential for developing the creative understanding needed in order to contribute effectively to society. Christopher Bertram's chapter takes up a specific element of that liberal arts education, the humanities, and subjects two powerful defenses supporting the humanities in universities—that they are vital for the economy and that they are necessary to democracy—to powerful criticisms. His own argument for supporting the humanities—that they are a vital source of knowledge that cannot be obtained without the hermeneutic methods that the humanities have developed—fits well with Gutmann's defense of teaching the broader liberal arts, and with her conjecture that this teaching might sometimes be particularly important in the context of professional schools.

Kyla Ebels-Duggan's, Paul Weithman's, and Allen Buchanan's chapters in the volume complement one another. All concern the importance of developing certain character traits and skills in students. Ebels-Duggan offers an original characterization of personal autonomy as an educational goal. College teachers, especially in the humanities, like to think that they are developing their students' capacities for critical reflection by helping them to reflect on their received values and traditions and rationally to choose anew. This belief depends on a diagnosis of the problem that students are too wedded, and unreasoningly so, to some set of preexisting value commitments. By contrast, Ebels-Duggan observes that many students in elite institutions are in fact overconfident in their capacity to provide negative criticism. Students think they can show what is wrong with the arguments and claims of the thinkers they encounter. If this is the central problem, Ebels-Duggan argues, we need to teach students to be charitable and humble—charitable in their interpretation of the thinking and arguments of others, and humble in their stance toward their own critical faculties. Developing their autonomy requires us to develop their character. Weithman's chapter similarly attends to the relationship between student and teacher, in the sense of developing an ideal that he calls "academic friendship." As an academic friend, the teacher plays a role in forming the students' characters, especially as it relates to the academic material that they study together. She does indeed seek to develop students' autonomy, as traditionally understood, but she also wants to introduce students to great intellectual achievements and to the complexity of the world in a way that fosters the right kind of response: humility in the face of those achievements and that complexity alongside some pride in having come to understand it better.

Both Ebels-Duggan and Weithman want to supplement autonomy as an educational aim with the development of certain moral virtues. Allen Buchanan's contribution tackles the problem that the world is so complex that none of us can possibly hope to have the knowledge we need to navigate it through our own exercise of reason. Nobody has the time, even if they have the cognitive capacities, to understand and investigate the complex science behind policy recommendations about climate change and the science and evidence concerning evolution and the social science behind claims about the desirability of gun control, school reform, and so on. On top of that fact, we are plagued with problems of what psychologists call "bounded rationality"—biases and norms that systematically derail us when we are making judgments about all sorts of matters, from statistical inferences to quality of musicianship. Education can play a key role in solving the expert/novice problem by helping students to identify which experts to trust. Buchanan identifies a series of particularly dangerous kinds of false beliefs—particularly those associated with cultural, national, and political identity—and suggests ways in which education can mitigate the likelihood of people holding these kinds of false beliefs.

The closing two chapters, by Erin I. Kelly and Lionel K. McPherson, focus on issues of distributive justice. Kelly's chapter homes in on what kind of justice is necessary for the university to deliver on its educational promise. She argues that for full success in producing students who can think critically, reason ethically, and contribute properly to the democratic process, selective colleges must have diverse populations of both students and faculty. When determining admissions, elite colleges should consider potential for both success and contribution. When hiring and promoting faculty, colleges should attend to the "social intelligence" of a candidate's scholarship. Rather than simply allowing disciplines to determine what research counts as excellent or valuable, colleges, because they have an educational mission, should make normative judgments about the significance of scholarship.

Lionel McPherson's chapter details the obligations elite colleges have to contribute to corrective justice. Colleges are institutions with identities that persist over time. Many elite campuses have been complicit in and benefited from racial injustice in the United States—through, for example, the GI Bill, which disproportionately benefited whites who were better able to access the resources of elite institutions and the social mobility they afforded. The injustices from which these institutions benefited have continuing unjust effects, so elite colleges have special obligations. McPherson specifically suggests a model that draws on the educational expertise of elite colleges: they should sponsor charter schools, which would deliberately select students in order to foster talented minority children and in that way provide a pathway to selective education, hence redressing the imbalance of social mobility in which these colleges have been complicit in the past.

The volume as a whole provides new and compelling normative perspectives, and arguments for these perspectives, on a range of issues that affect both policy and practice. We hope and, indeed, expect 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. We believe that the essays in this volume also embody important lessons for others, who themselves contemplate writing about normative problems in education, whether tackling their topics as social scientists, policy analysts, or moral philosophers. Good decision making in educational affairs and the fruitful analysis of social- science evidence are aided by careful reasoning about value issues, and philosophical analysis is enriched when it is connected to social-science evidence and practical questions—points that these chapters amply illustrate.


What Makes a University Education Worthwhile?

Amy Gutmann

"A mind is a precious thing to waste," wrote Bill Gross, cofounder of the Pacific Investment Management Company, "so why are millions of America's students wasting theirs by going to college?" In 2010 the cofounder of PayPal, Peter Thiel, announced that he would pay $100,000 each to twenty young people as an incentive for them to drop out of college and start a tech-based business. In May 2011 he chose twenty-two men and two women to receive this "skip-school scholarship."

What gives the "skip-school scholarship" its shock value is the prevailing view that a university education is a valuable ticket to success. But instead of taking the worth of a university education for granted, many people are now asking the value-added question: do universities provide private and public benefits commensurate with their private and public costs?

The most common way of answering this question is to tally up a university education's added income benefits to its graduates, subtract its added costs, and see whether the benefits exceed the costs. Some economists have done this quite well. The prevailing answer is that a college education has paid off for most graduates to date, and can be expected to do so in the future.


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Table of Contents

Harry Brighouse and Michael McPherson
One/ Introduction: Problems of Morality and Justice in Higher Education
Amy Gutmann
Two/ What Makes a University Education Worthwhile?
Christopher Bertram
Three/ Defending the Humanities in a Liberal Society
Paul Weithman
Four/ Academic Friendship
Kyla Ebels-Duggan
Five/ Autonomy as Intellectual Virtue
Allen Buchanan
Six/ Education and Social Moral Epistemology
Lionel K. McPherson
Seven/ Righting Historical Injustice in Higher Education
Erin I. Kelly
Eight/ Modeling Justice in Higher Education
Harry Brighouse and Michael McPherson
Nine/ Conclusion: Future Research on Values in Higher Education

What People are Saying About This

Morton O. Schapiro

“With all the understandable attention being paid to the economics of higher education, it is wonderful to focus also on the many moral issues in play. Brighouse and McPherson—and their superb team of contributors—challenge us all to step back and consider ethical dimensions underlying how and what we teach, the distribution of educational resources by the government and by colleges, and so much more. What a provocative and engaging volume.”

William G. Bowen

“This collection of essays is valuable in reminding all of us that higher education both raises profound moral and philosophical issues and, at its best, encourages faculty and students to be more conscious of the importance of such issues, better prepared intellectually and personally to confront them, and, yes, wiser. These essays are also a useful antidote to the arrogance too often represented by strident assertions that ‘I am right and you are wrong.’ Issues of consequence rarely lend themselves to one-sentence answers.”

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