The Aims of Higher Education: Problems of Morality and Justice

by Harry on June 2, 2015

Just off the presses: a new book I have edited with Michael McPherson on philosophical problems in higher education, The Aims of Higher Education: Problems of Morality and Justice (amazon)


Here’s the blurb:

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.

The contributors are Amy Gutmann, Kyla Ebels-Duggan, Paul Weithman, Allen Buchanan, Erin Kelly, Lionel McPherson (no relation to my co-editor) and our own Chris Bertram.

I imagine CT readers will be particularly interested in CB’s excellent chapter on philosophical defenses of the humanities, and, I hope, in my and McPherson’s concluding chapter which outlines a series of philosophical problems in higher education that are not discussed in the book, but we think merit further discussion. A version of Amy Gutmann’s excellent chapter is online here.

I should say that we encouraged authors to concentrate on problems arising in selective settings, not because we think they are more important (we don’t) but because we thought that we would get better essays if people reflected on what they knew best. The essays are all written in a style accessible to undergraduates, and in my experience undergraduates find them very engaging, and are troubled by the questions they raise. We are hoping that others will take up some of the problems addressed and some of the suggestions we make in the conclusion and do further work on them.



ingrid robeyns 06.02.15 at 5:55 pm

Looks very interesting! As I wrote here recently, there’s been lots of students and staff protest in several European countries, and we are having few debates lined up precisely on the topic of this book, so this couldn’t be more timely.

Question of clarification: which geographical areas are those “selected areas”? Or is the analysis applicable to higher education (its goals and its institutions) worldwide?


anon 06.02.15 at 8:04 pm

Nothing on safe zones or protecting our precious snowflakes from ideas they might not like? Nothing on political correctness? Nothing on the non-diversity of opinions in the current Academic arena?

Sounds like an appeal to justify students piling up tens of thousands of dollars in debt so they can discuss current events as they dispense French Fries or Lattes to their customers.


Margaret Atherton 06.02.15 at 9:16 pm

How very a propos. Are you going to distribute copies at the UWS Regents meeting at the end of this week?


harry b 06.02.15 at 9:18 pm

Its ‘selective settings’, by which I really mean institutions in the US for which there is competition for places (R1s, SLACs, etc), accounting for well under half of US undergraduates. One of the things we discouraged people from doing is deciding whether their analysis applies to non-selective, or non-US institutions. I’d say some of the analysis definitely does not, but some of it certainly does (eg, I’d say CB’s chapter does), and then there’s a whole lot which I think people in those other kinds of institutions are much better qualified than I, or the authors, to judge.

anon — we asked people to write about problems they felt they as philosophers could contribute to thinking about. We motivate a very long list of additional topics in the conclusion. On your third topic, you might enjoy this paper by Michael Cholbi:


harry b 06.02.15 at 9:18 pm

Ha! I hadn’t thought of that, but now you mention it I’ll send some copies to selected Regents!


Chris Bertram 06.02.15 at 9:20 pm

… And to selected authors?


JakeB 06.03.15 at 4:53 am

… he said plaintively. :)


floopmeister 06.03.15 at 5:53 am

One take on the social responsibility of higher education:


floopmeister 06.03.15 at 5:55 am

Sounds like an appeal to justify students piling up tens of thousands of dollars in debt…

Sounds like someone has an overly US-centric view on the costs of higher education.


harry b 06.03.15 at 12:22 pm

Chris — I’ll check today on when they’re going out (it was just published, and I got mine 2 weeks ago).


anon 06.03.15 at 8:59 pm


It appears that no one has philosophical opinions for or against this work.

I wonder what the books Amazon rank will top out at.


dsquared 06.04.15 at 3:52 am

I’ve forwarded a couple of copies to Tim Blair and Rush Limbaugh and told them that it says that universities are morally obliged to teach promiscuity and anti-Americanism. Hope that doesn’t cause any problems ;-)


joe koss 06.04.15 at 2:13 pm

@Margaret and Harry. I went to a book reading and discussion once by Yann Martel where he said once a month he sent a book to PM Stephen Harper with a short book review, in an attempt to engage him a more well-rounded conversation on political and social topics. He was 3 years on when I heard him I think, and he said he has yet to hear back on any of the monthly submissions, but that judging by his speeches and policy initiatives, Harper had not read any of them!

I always thought that was a good idea, and something someone should try out in Wisconsin. Now is as good a time as ever! Could I suggest sending Rothstein´s Class and Schools next month? And maybe Lareau as a follow-up? Would Hirsch´s Social Limits to Growth be too much? (Harry this list might be heavily influenced by books you have suggested in your long-running [but practically non-existent] Books Every Educator Should Read…)


dob 06.04.15 at 2:18 pm

I’ve forwarded a couple of copies to Tim Blair and Rush Limbaugh and told them that it says that universities are morally obliged to teach promiscuity and anti-Americanism.

I’m sure it won’t escape Blair and Limbaugh’s attention that the title is an anagram of “Oh, Satanic fire guide them, oh”.


harry b 06.04.15 at 8:03 pm

Thanks Daniel — always good to keep Rush etc in the loop!

Joe, I actually sent Unequal Childhoods and Class and Schools to a UK government minister once, who immediately read them and asked to meet me to talk about them!


LFC 06.04.15 at 10:42 pm

anon @11
It appears that no one has philosophical opinions for or against this work.

How in God’s name can one have a “philosophical opinion” for or against a collection of essays on a general theme, the contributors to which address different topics within the broad theme and presumably express at least somewhat different views?


ragweed 06.05.15 at 6:40 am

I would also suspect that most of us have little to say other than “great job Harry, can’t wait to read it” until we have actually read the book . I am sure there are a few that may have already downloaded the kindle version and devoured it in two days, but most of us probably need to put it in the stack. And would rather have informed comments to make, rather than just spouting off their own uninformed opinion about what the book actually says.

Sounds like a great book, Harry. I look forward to reading it and a couple of other books mentioned in this thread.


harry b 06.05.15 at 12:35 pm

ragweed — though, if Daniel has indeed alerted Rush, no doubt he or one of his staff are among those who have devoured it, so will probably have something to say! Or maybe he has something to say even if he hasn’t read it….


Sasha Clarkson 06.05.15 at 2:48 pm

George Monbiot rages against the “soul suckers”, and their influence on universities. The official title of his article is “How a corporate cult captures and destroys our best graduates “

I think he’s trying to cause some offence with his question: “why do so many end up in pointless and destructive jobs? Finance, management consultancy, advertising, public relations, lobbying: these and other useless occupations consume thousands of the brightest students”


harry b 06.05.15 at 3:13 pm

Thanks Sasha, I wouldn’t have seen that otherwise.

This para sticks out to me:

They cited their duty of impartiality, which, they believe, prevents them from seeking to influence students’ choices, and explained that there were plenty of other careers on offer. But they appear to have confused impartiality with passivity. Passivity in the face of unequal forces is anything but impartial. Impartiality demands an active attempt to create balance, to resist power, to tell the dark side of the celestial tale being pummelled into the minds of undergraduates by the richest City cults.

Law School is the culprit in the US, and in some ways the Universities act worse, because they actually include the Law Schools. The problem has receded a bit since the recession hit but it’ll be back.

This issue — the extent to which universities should be impartial about or, alternatively, try to influence, students’ career choices, is one that we highlighted in our concluding chapter, as an issue philosophers could contribute something useful to thinking about, but largely haven’t.


harry b 06.05.15 at 7:16 pm


dob 06.06.15 at 4:45 pm

The phenomenon that Sasha Clarkson mentions strikes me as particularly interesting in light of one of the arguments Chris Bertram makes in this volume. If I remember well, the idea is that we might justify public funding of the humanities by appeal to the fact that they preserve people’s ability to choose from a wider range of conceptions of the good. (We need to appeal to this sort of fact, if we want our justification to be acceptable to others in public reasoning. It can play this role because it has the nice feature of not appealing to any particular conception of the good.) But if lots of graduates are being funneled into a narrow range of careers, does this falsify, or is it evidence against, Bertram’s claim for the humanities?*

On the one hand, I’m inclined to say no, if what’s important about the humanities is that it really does let people choose from a wider range of conceptions of the good, or deliberate better about what they choose. On the other hand, if people are predictably choosing just a small subset of these options, the fact that the humanities provides a bunch of unchosen options seems hard to get terribly excited about.

*Of course, it’s not trivial to read off someone’s conception of the good from their career choice. But it seems like a reasonable proxy.


harry b 06.06.15 at 6:13 pm

Right — well, maybe it is evidence that the humanities fails to make vivid the options (ie are badly taught), or maybe just the culture is so skewed toward the other options that its too much to ask humanities teaching to balance that attraction. Also — in the UK, lots of kids cease to have any real encounter with humanities (or science, or social science, depending on the route they take) very early.

dob — is it really an anagram of that? If so, how long have you been sitting on that bit of information?


dob 06.06.15 at 6:42 pm

Thanks, Harry; the considerations that you mention have convinced me that the question I raised isn’t a serious problem for the argument.

And yes, that really is one of the title’s anagrams, as I discovered in a fit of boredom a couple of days ago! (Too many years of crosswords.)


engels 06.06.15 at 7:10 pm

“we encouraged authors to concentrate on problems arising in selective settings, not because we think they are more important (we don’t) but because we thought that we would get better essays if people reflected on what they knew best”

Wouldn’t this invite the question of why your contributors are drawn from such settings (I’m not familiar with all those names so apologies if that’s not true or I’ve misunderstood).


harry b 06.06.15 at 7:39 pm

engels — they’re all, I think, from selective settings. We wanted high profile, high quality, philosophers to do some work on higher education, in the hopes that it would stimulate others to do more work. Such people are pretty much all teaching in selective settings (because non-selective settings have teaching demands that make it difficult at best to produce research of the quality and quantity that enable you to get and maintain a high profile). “Selective” by the way is not really a technical term, and includes lots of public colleges and universities and far from all private colleges and universities. But wouldn’t, e.g., include community colleges. Even within the selective group there’s a lot of heterogeneity. And I am glad that a good number of the essays (in my opinion, anyway) have significance and address problems that arise across the post-secondary sector. Our concluding chapter is supposed to indicate that we do not see this as the end of a project, but the beginning of one, and one thing I hope people will do is think more and better about cross-sectoral problems, and learn much more about the overall sector so they can do the kind of in-the-details work that is immediately use-able by people making decisions in different parts of the sector.

dob — ok, I didn’t know about the crosswords!

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