It’s important to rethink the purpose of university education – a philosopher of education explains why


Most philosophers of education or philosophically inclined scholars of education in the past century and a half would agree with the claim that, ideally, education should be the practice of freedom. That is, it ought to cultivate the ability to intelligently decide how we want to shape our lives. The aim of education should be to foster human autonomy.

I’m thinking here of a diverse array of scholars. Among them are some of the most influential philosophers of education and educational theorists of the 20th century: the American John Dewey, Brazilian Paulo Freire and Indian Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore.

Yet there’s little evidence that their views have played any significant role in shaping the global contemporary education sector, including the tertiary sector.

If these scholars are correct, universities and educational institutions too often don’t understand what they are doing. It’s a shocking indictment on the higher education sector. After all, educational institutions are in the business (or should be) of fostering understanding.

I am the director of the Allan Gray Centre for Leadership Ethics, located in Rhodes University’s Department of Philosophy in South Africa. I have for many years been trying to make sense of education’s purpose and wondering why there is such a great discrepancy between what scholars of education have been telling us and what happens in the classroom.

What the big thinkers have had to say

The aforementioned authors believe that education should help to shape well-adjusted individuals who can contribute to the common good – as opposed to merely lending a hand to what is already there. Merely lending a hand is expressive of a limited understanding of the norms guiding professional work, and hence distorts autonomy.

Dewey thought that education should promote “intelligent growth”, the sort that defines an autonomous agent. In Dewey’s own words:
Impulses and desires that are not ordered by intelligence are under the control of accidental circumstances. It may be a loss rather than a gain to escape from the control of another person only to find one’s conduct dictated by immediate whim and caprice; that is, at the mercy of impulses into whose formation intelligent judgement has not entered. A person whose conduct is controlled in this way has at most only the illusion of freedom. Actually he is directed by forces over which he has no command.
An educated person can adapt to life’s challenges by critically and sensitively engaging with what is given. The alternative is what Dewey describes as someone “whose conduct is controlled … by forces over which he has no command” and hence lacks freedom. This is a subject who is unable to develop a proper understanding of the forces that undermine freedom.

Sadly, it is this sort of existence that very many contemporary universities promote. Universities aim to produce efficient professionals rather than autonomous agents who are able to adapt to life’s challenges and understand the forces that impinge on their formation.

The reality

Universities follow on from primary and secondary education by training students to be uncritical servants of the status quo, to apply their intelligence in specific spheres of life and not to ask too many questions beyond the narrow scope of their engagements.

It is this approach that the American philosopher and linguist Noam Chomsky describes in an interview when speaking about the contrast between indoctrination and genuine education.

This sort of narrowly circumscribed thinking lacks the expansiveness of the critical mind – a mind able to stand back, consider and influence autonomous action.

Intellectual subordination

In an interview which forms part of the 2012 documentary The Lottery of Birth, Jeff Schmidt, a physicist and the author of Disciplined Minds: A Critical Look at Salaried Professionals and the Soul-battering System That Shapes Their Lives, says:
Professionals are deliberately produced to be intellectually and politically subordinate.
He illustrates this idea with the anecdote of two young nuclear weapons designers working in a nuclear weapons design laboratory. When asked by a journalist what the worst part of their job was, they rejoined that it was dealing with unstable computers lacking sufficient capacity.

They were not, it seems, able to consider the higher purposes they were blindly serving. The scope of their concerns was subordinated to the aims of others in power – their employers.

Education as freedom

There are ways in which this approach to education can be challenged. For instance, at the Allan Gray Centre for Leadership Ethics, we’ve developed a programme called IiNtetho zoBomi (isiXhosa for “conversations about life”).

It aims to complement the current university offering to foster the educational ideals propounded by the scholars I’ve discussed here. Service-learning activities are a core part of the programme. Students are encouraged to take the course only if they are interested in “understanding how your life – including your inner life – is formed by the world you inhabit”.

Is it working? I hope so. But the growth we aim to foster is hard to measure.

What I can confidently say, however, is that the effect of such programmes at any university would be far greater if there was more institutional buy-in than there currently is.

The idea that education is the practice of freedom cannot be separated from the idea that education should aim to equip students to critically and creatively engage with reality to transform it for the better.

Author Bio: Pedro Tabensky is Director, Allan Gray Centre for Leadership Ethics at Rhodes University