Written by Stephen Armstrong.
Higher Education in Canada has been something of a heated issue in recent times as the cost of tuition has risen drastically since the 1990s, and cash strapped provincial governments assure increasingly hesitant to fund institutions which are not producing enough graduates in high demand areas of the economy.
Universities have faced criticism from politicians, graduates, and the public alike for producing graduates who are often unable to find work in their fields of study. The defenders of Higher Education often phrase their counter-arguments in the same language of jobs, employment, and skills, often pointing out that BA grads learn a very broad and very employable set of skills which employers are not recognizing (research, written and oral communication, etc..).
There is also a second kind of defence of Higher Education available which might go something like this: The Arts, Humanities, and Sciences are worthy fields of study in and of themselves and are important for non-economic reasons. The demands of democracy and citizenship require active and knowledgeable citizens who are tuned in to the world around them. It is worthwhile to have students study these subjects because they are worth knowing, even if they do not advance one’s employability or the nation’s competitiveness in the global economy.
We can divide these arguments into two main camps, those who would like to see universities serve essentially an economic purpose, churning out graduates prepared for employment in high demand fields, and those who see universities serving a purpose in society which is decidedly unconcerned with economic matters but is nonetheless still important for the wellbeing of the country.
I recently read Dr. Michael Sandel’s book Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?
In it, he outlined what he would like to see become a new model for public debate and deliberation about complex issues of public policy. Sandel drew on the philosophy of Aristotle and his (Aristotle’s) teleological approach to justice. For Aristotle, in order to determine the Just or proper way to do something, one must determine the essential purpose of the thing or task in question. In order to determine the Just allocation of something like flutes (Aristotle’s example), we must ask ourselves what flutes are for. For Aristotle flutes were meant to be played and played well, so the best flutes should go to the best flute players. Sandel believed that public debate was bereft of teleological thinking and was worse off for it. He believed that we are too quick to shy away from messy or controversial questions of Justice or the Good Life.
I think that a lot of the debate surrounding Higher Education could be much improved if we began to explore the telos, or essential purpose, which we ascribe to universities and Higher Education. Many different people assign many different and seemingly contradictory purposes to universities. Many students, aspiring students, and parents thereof hope that a university education will serve as a means towards an end, that end being upward social mobility. Politicians, civil servants, employers, and economists might view universities and other forms of post-secondary education as a tool or factory, meant to be tinkered with and prodded in order to output desired numbers of skilled workers in highly needed fields.
Universities professors might be given over to any of the previously mentioned views, but I have also seen several professors and other interested parties (graduates, etc..) make the case that a university education is about more than cold, dry, socio-economic advancement. For many in this camp, Higher Education is about stimulating and engaging the latent talents and capacities of students in order that we might become more fully human and reach our highest potentials as citizens and as individuals.
For Emile Durkheim, a great 19th century thinker and so called “Father of Sociology”, education plays an important socializing role for students. Education teaches students to care for the common good and instills in them the values and virtues that society desires its young people to carry.
Consider a quote from Michael Oakeshott’s venerable The Idea of a University,
“A university will have ceased to exist when its learning has degenerated into what is now called research, when its teaching has become mere instruction and occupies the whole of an undergraduate’s time, or when undergraduates come with no understanding of the manners of conversation but desire only a qualification for earning a living or a certificate to let them in on the exploitation of the world.” (As quoted in a very well written letter to the editor by Brian Neilson in the May 2014 edition of The Argosy)
This perspective is a counter-argument to those who would demand universities become more focused on practical or job-related education. It stresses that a Liberal Arts education is valuable in and of itself, perhaps not as a ticket to higher earnings (although it sometimes is) but as an experience worth having for its own sake and as a chance to grow as a person. This viewpoint sets out a noble purpose for universities, their faculty, and those who study at them. However this may come as little comfort to a cash-strapped aspiring social climber with thousands of dollars in debt for their Liberal Arts “experience”.
Consider a more specific example: On January 19th, 2015, the National Post published an article entitled Women Should Speak First in Classrooms, Says SMU Prof. Really, Do the Men Have to Speak at All?. A professor from Saint Mary’s University business school had explained in a panel discussion that in her classes it is mandated the female students speak before male students are permitted to voice their opinions. She explained that the purpose of muting the male students was to allow female business students to advance their skills, which presumably they would not be able to do if students were allowed to speak in any order without consideration of their genders. The ultimate goal of this policy would be presumably to allow more women to achieve higher positions in the business world, a noble purpose as there are still significantly fewer women in high-up executive roles as compared to men. Writer of the National Post article mocked the idea and argued that this policy amounted to babying female students, while also implying that a more (officially) equal playing field would be more fair. There was also a certain skepticism about the practical usefulness of the education the business students would receive, would this professor merely indoctrinate her female students with radical-feminist ideas? (For the love of god, read sarcastically)
In my opinion, beneath the surface of the dispute between the SMU business school professor and the journalist who disagreed with her lay competing visions for what the telos of a university, and the education it provides, is supposed to be. The business school professor’s stance appears to see universities as a means to promote equality for certain disadvantaged groups, in this case women in business. The journalist, by showing her skepticism for a heavily theory laden curriculum and her fear of coddling the female students, demonstrates that she might possibly believe the purpose of a university education is to prepare individuals to be successful employees.
Can these competing notions of the essential purpose of a university both be satisfied? I believe they may be contradictory. If the essential purpose of a SMU business school education is to prepare its students for a successful career in business, then it would seem entirely unfair to be purposely holding the male students back in the class. Shouldn’t the best students be allowed to succeed? Shouldn’t we allow students to take individual initiative and strive to develop their skills in class, regardless of gender? After all, isn’t that what the business school is for? Continuing with this approach, if universities are meant to make students into practice ready employees, why are the courses, even in business school, seemingly taught overwhelmingly by people who have never held important positions outside of a university faculty setting? If university is supposed to train good employees this would certainly appear to be an aberration.
What about the other side of the argument? Can universities serve as a vehicle to promote equality in business and society as a whole? At it’s heart this vision buys into the idea that a university education is a pathway to a better life and greater career prospects. Before we can answer if it is fair to try to promote equality for disadvantaged groups over the majority, which is in and of itself a heated philosophical debate, we must first determine whether the essential purpose of a university is to provide students with a pathway to greater career prospects, or whether universities should play a role in our society which does not serve an overtly economic purpose.
Can these competing visions both be satisfied? Not fully I expect. Universities are set up to function as institutions of higher learning, their institutional design still carries remnants of their Medieval origins. If one wanted to change their focus to a more practical economic purpose, the way universities are run would likely need to be gutted out. If one wanted to focus entirely on the knowledge and virtue cultivating purposes which a university can serve, students, parents, and the rest of us will have to change our expectation of what a university education means for our employment prospects.