Inside Higher Ed: Making Sense of the Higher Ed Debate

Today, higher education is under scrutiny to explain what it does and why, while reformers from the White House to Wall Street are eager to provide alternatives.

What Johann Neem calls “the Higher Ed Debate” in this very recent article is a verbose way of stating the perhaps unsurprising fact that disagreements continue to exist – and do not disappear easily – between (1) the Obama administration, (2) higher education administrators and policy makers, and (3) faculty members in universities/colleges. Plainly put, such disagreements between the 3 groups arise from different assumptions each group has about the nature and purpose of higher education in America. More than mere disagreements, however, is the deplorable fact that members of each group do (or may) not sufficiently understand the perspectives other than the one their own group holds to, or even not have a good grasp of the perspective their own group adheres to.

Yesterday’s article on “Understanding the different perspectives in the higher ed debate” from Inside Higher Ed (titled Making Sense of the Higher Ed Debate) seized my attention because of the illuminating way Johann Neem framed the Higher Ed Debate, in terms of 3 schools of thought (or “languages” as Neem calls them) that the groups (listed above) are thought to represent respectively: Pragmatism, Utilitarianism, and Virtue Ethics. As a philosophy major at the Master’s level, I think this way of framing the Higher Ed Debate rightfully brings out the importance of learning and practicing philosophy! My philosophical training thus far has taught me to be open-minded, to learn about various perspectives before taking on a specific one, as well as how to provide arguments for or against a specific perspective. Thus, grasping the 3 schools of thought (mentioned previously) and how they relate to each other in the context of higher education will undoubtedly help everyone who is in the debate to fathom this momentous[1] debate in higher education.

However, what stood out to me was the expositions of Pragmatism, Utilitarianism, and Virtue Ethics, which I found to be far too simplified, especially when Neem associates each “language” with only one philosopher: John Dewey for the Pragmatists, Jeremy Bentham for the Utilitarians, and Aristotle for the Virtue Ethicists. Though, it is fairly uncontroversial that these 3 particular philosophers were highly influential to the corresponding school of thought. To clarify, I do not claim to be an expert in any of these 3 schools of thought, but the little exposure I have had to all 3 perspectives (in separate courses, of course) is more than enough to recognize and appreciate the danger of associating each perspective with only one philosopher. At this point, I encourage and invite comments from philosophers, or other philosophically-minded individuals, on Neem’s description of Pragmatism, Utilitarianism, or Virtue Ethics (or all 3). Do you think that these 3 schools of thought accurately capture how people are thinking about the nature and purpose of higher education in America?

[1]I would also welcome comments about the importance (or lack thereof) of this debate.

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