The Philosophy of Higher Education

The Philosophy of Higher Education

Any definition of higher education in the United Kingdom must include many other institutions in addition to the universities. However, the first point to be made about the philosophy of higher education is that it is chiefly concerned with universities; indeed many of the most important works on the subject include the word ‘university’ in their title.

Few Books Available on Philosophy of Higher Education

The total number of books on the philosophy of higher education is small: a three-foot bookshelf would accommodate all the key volume without difficulty. Considering the numbers of students who have passed through the British system of higher education in the post-war period, let alone those in any other system, and considering the rapid growth of public expenditure on higher education in those same decades, the lack of philosophical analyses of the subjects is surprising.

It is not just that the general public is uninterested: there is little sign of any academic enthusiasm either, Some of the books which at first sight appear promising are not so much original contribution to the subject as summaries and discussions of what has already been written. Cohen and March summed up the state of the art when they pointed out that ‘Almost any educated person can deliver a lecture entitled, “The goals of the university”. Almost no one will listen to the lecture voluntarily.

The result of this situation is that the major issues which have been raised as the philosophy of higher education has developed can be briefly described by reference to the work of a comparatively small number of writers. That is not to say, however, that the short summaries which follow give a full account of the ideas of the writers concerned.

There are two reasons for this: the first is that a few paragraphs can never adequately reflect the many facts of a work which may have taken decades to complete; but secondly, it is often difficult to decide precisely what the thinkers, themselves actually mean. Entwistle and Percy undertook a review of this field of philosophy some years ago and came to the conclusion that “Throughout the range of comment there is a wealth of superficial statement and concept confusion. The task of extracting sense and structure from this area is formidable.

Finally, before embarking on a survey of higher education theory, readers may find it helpful to note that an account of the actual historical development of universities will be provided in the chapter. It should be noted that the criterion adopted for selecting the philosophers to be discussed in this chapter is that of influence. The philosophers referred to below are those whose ideas I judge to be those most frequently cited in the literature on higher education. Other judges might well make a different selection, and would include perhaps such writers as Sir Walter Moberley, ‘Bruce Truscott’ and Thorstein Veblen.

The Earliest Philosophers

It has been suggested that the beginnings of the philosophy of higher education are to be found in the civilization of India in the fourth century B.C. For present purposes, however, it is more fruitful to consider the ideas of two Chinese philosophers, Confucius and Lao-tsc (Sixth century B.C.), because their ideas embodied two potentially conflicting educational theories which have found supporters ever since. Confucius argued that education is a process for integrating individuals into society and that knowledge should be acquired for the sake of harmony in society. Lao-tsc, on the other hand, emphasized the cultivation of the individual and argued that learning is for the sake of understanding.


These attitudes in some ways constitute the earliest expression of two views which later became categorized by the terms vocational and liberal, and by a host of similar definitions. In the western world, the first comprehensive philosophy of education is to be found in the writings of Plato. Higher education was perceived by Plato as the cultivation of the individual for the sake of the ideal society, the individual was to be helped to achieve inner happiness, which would allow the state to benefit from the harmony of satisfied citizens fulfilling their proper roles. Thus Plato’s though in some ways parallels that of Confucius.”


Aristotle, on the other hand, was very critical of vocational education. He emphasized reason as the guiding principle for human conduct and claimed that the ultimate aim of education, was to prepare the individual for the active enjoyment of leisure. Aristotle was convinced that the activity best suited to leisure was the theory, or the disinterested search for truth.” He thus disapproved of occupational studies as being thoroughly unworthy of a freeman.

Conclusions about the Philosophy of Higher Education

Most readers will by now agree with the writers quoted at the beginning of the chapter, who said that the task of extracting sense and structure from the philosophy of higher education is a formidable one, However, it seems to me that a number of broad conclusions may be drawn from this limited survey.

The first conclusion is that philosophy is not prescriptive: it does not prove, with the aid of logic or science, that universities must inevitably have certain stated goals. Secondly, there is no universally accepted view of the purpose of higher education. Nowadays the functions of teaching and research (functions as distinct from purposes) are common to almost all universities; indeed in many of the leading universities research is paramount, Other functions, such as ‘public service’ (however defined) and *the transmission of higher culture’,” worth drawing attention once again to the two contrasting views of the function of teaching in. higher education which has surfaced and resurfaced over the centuries.

These, for the sake of convenience, I will call the liberal arts philosophy and the vocational philosophy. are more controversial. However, it is the term liberal arts’ (Eleuthera technai) first occurred in Greece in the fourth century B.C. In that context, it meant the skills that a free man ought to have, and traditionally the liberal arts have been considered suitable educational fare for the potential leaders of society.

Liberal arts philosophers hold that education should serve the needs of the individual: they believe that people seek to understand the world they live in simply as a matter of curiosity; the pursuit of truth is the highest virtue and it may be found, usually, through the exercise of reason. Liberal education is said to enhance the capacity to lead a full life.

Vocational Studies

Vocational studies, on the other hand, have often been considered more suitable for followers than for potential leaders. Those who favor vocational studies tend to hold the view that education should serve the heeds of society rather than the needs of the individual.”

Professional expertise should be developed not as a matter of idle curiosity but because of its enormous significance for the community; the nation needs to be trained The truth, to supporters of the vocational principle, is perhaps net an absolute, unchanging verity but something which is always being discovered and tested and applied anew,” the propose of education is essential to improve man’s lot and to travel further along the road called mioud. Both the liberal ad vocational philosophies have appeared under a host other names, a practice that has done little to clarify the ideas involved in them.

Some of the better known alternative names are listed in Whatever the terminology used, it seems clear that these two philosophies represent broad divisions of view which are difficult to reconcile. The liberal philosophy finds its greatest support in theology, in the humanities, and in the liberal arts college, it emphasizes the library and The vocational view finds its advocates, broadly speaking, in the sciences and the professions; its home is the laboratory.

The sensitive antennae of the Carnegie Coramission detected a third philosophy, which has only recently emerged, this is variously described as the political, deconstructionist or transformational view” The essence of this philosophical approach is an envisioned perfect state, whether it be anarchy. monocracy, the “cultural revolution triumphant”, or whatever While there Undoubtedly members of most universities who could be characterized as belonging to this school of thought, there does rot seem to be, as yet. any university in the western world which has adopted this approach officially or wholeheartedly Even in the People’s Republic of China the higher education policy might best describe a tie of vocational-technical training.

Each of the two broad philosophical approaches has been domina at various times and in various places. The liberal arts philosophy gradually rose to dominance, in both Britain and America, in the late nineteenth century, and although it is difficult to judge precisely, the vocational approach seems to be in ascendance in the United Kingdom today. The position is difficult to judge because neither universities for governments seem to be able to take up a clear, unambiguous position.

 The 1972 White Paper on Education, for example, was determined to face both ways at once The administration considers advanced education significant for its commitment to the self-improvement of the individuals who seek after it, simultaneously they esteem its proceeded with extension as an interest in the country’s human ability in a period of fast social change and innovative advancement.

The Government trusts that the individuals who think about entering advanced education and those exhorting them will the more cautiously look at their thought processes and their necessities, and be certain that they structure their judgment on a sensible evaluation of its handiness to their inclinations and vocation aims.

The primary determination which I make from the material in this chanter is that the topic of the reason for a college is basically a matter of judgment, it isn’t something which can be controlled by science same way that an argument about the length of a bit of string can be settled. By the by, as later parts will clarify, precise techniques for the request might have the option to offer some help with deciding objectives of they may explain and educate the discussion.

About the author: Soflay iNC
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