Understanding the different perspectives in the higher ed debate (essay)

Making Sense of the Higher Ed Debate

September 6, 2013

President Barack Obama’s recent proposals to reform higher education have once again made the debate over the future of higher education big news. 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.

The discussion is often vitriolic, in part because of the intense pressure exerted by internal and external stakeholders and because higher education today includes a diverse array of institutions that are not always distinguished from each other. At a deeper level, however, our disagreements stem from the fact that we speak very different languages, each of which reflect, ultimately, different assumptions about the nature and purpose of collegiate education in America.

There are three dominant languages today. Many administrators, policy makers, and those involved in for-profit education tend to invoke a utilitarian understanding of higher education stemming, ultimately, from the British philosopher Jeremy Bentham. The Obama administration has embraced a pragmatic understanding that draws from the ideas of John Dewey and others at the turn of the last century. Faculty, especially in the traditional academic disciplines, echo Aristotle and emphasize the virtues of universities.


The dominant language of higher education among reformers, many administrators, and for-profit advocates is utilitarianism. In An Introduction to the Principles of Moral and Legislation (1789), Bentham defined utility as “that principle which approves or disapproves every action whatsoever, according to the tendency which it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question.” Happiness is defined by pleasure, unhappiness by pain. Every human being, in Bentham’s understanding, seeks to maximize pleasure and avoid pain. Legal and moral “sanctions,” like the threat of punishment, work because violating them can cause pain.

As a concept, utility has no content: it does not seek to define happiness as a particular good. Utilitarianism is a system that, without stating what ought to cause pleasure, tries to generate social happiness.

A utilitarian approach to higher education, therefore, assumes that colleges and universities must be primarily outward-looking, responding to the wishes of higher education’s clients. For-profits, in particular, do not seek to change their students’ preferences but instead treat their students as customers. Give the students the kinds of programs they want to achieve what they want. The customer, after all, is always right.

That mantra, moreover, has become part of the broader set of assumptions in traditional higher education. To many reformers and administrators, universities should offer the kinds of programs students want in the way that they want it to maximize utility. As Jeffrey Selingo writes in his book College (Un)Bound, “colleges are turning into businesses where customers — in this case, students — expect to be satisfied. They have come to regard their professors as service providers.”

Utilitarians believe that they are engaged in a noble service: to help students achieve their own personal pursuit of happiness. At the same time, the utilitarian approach offers no sense of what ought to constitute a higher education -- it makes no claims as to what ought to be a good human life worthy of happiness. It leaves these questions up to the students and the broader marketplace.

Of course, since John Stuart Mill, some utilitarians have believed that there are “higher” and “lower” forms of pleasure. Mill argued in the mid-19th century that we should not consider all preferences equal but, instead, defer to the preferences of people who are best-informed about what promotes long-term happiness.

Yet the utilitarian strain among higher education reformers is not informed by Mill, but by a simpler calculus in which students’ and employers’ preferences must be satisfied rather than changed. As Mark Edmundson has written, the modern university seeks “to serve — and not challenge — the students.”


If most higher education reformers and many administrators are utilitarian in outlook, we have, perhaps for the first time, a true pragmatist in the White House. President Obama, as historian James Kloppenberg argues in his recent book Reading Obama, is committed to a theory of knowledge and politics derived from a revival of ideas which originated among such thinkers as John Dewey.

Pragmatism is not to be confused with practicality. All kinds of people can be practical. Pragmatism, instead, is a particular stance in relation to knowledge and how it works.

To pragmatists, the issue is not what is true, but what works. In his famous essay on the “reflex arc” in psychology (1896), Dewey criticized those who distinguished between stimulus and response, noting that each existed in relation to the other. This early insight shaped Dewey’s discussion of society. Like the reflex arc, our ideas must exist in constant feedback with changing external realities — our beliefs must change with time. If inherited ideas stop working, they must be changed so that the means we use will bring us the ends we desire.

To Dewey and others of his generation, the scientific temper and the democratic temper were the same thing. Democracies should exhibit a spirit of experimentation, with truth always tested by the results it achieves. If the results are inadequate, then the ideas or truth are as well. Truth is not derived a priori but as a result of constantly testing hypotheses and a willingness to revise assumptions. Things will change as society changes. Truth must fit circumstances.

President Obama has emphasized these Deweyian elements throughout his tenure. He consistently denies any loyalty to policies because they are Democratic or Republican, arguing instead that we should “experiment and invest on anything that works." He believes in looking at outcomes alone. In health care, in K-12 education, and in higher education, he wants data-based decision making. He is less committed to the means used to achieve these outcomes. We can expand access to health care through a universal public system or through expanding the role of for-profit insurance providers. To some, there are fundamental differences between these two approaches. To Obama, on the other hand, the real question is whether more people have affordable health care. He does not ask what is inherently good, but rather what works.

The pragmatic approach has a hard time defining means and ends. In the case of higher education, the President has abandoned any commitment to inherited practices — as his Secretary of Education Arne Duncan noted, “we need some disruptive innovation in higher education.” The President himself promised to “shake up” higher education and his recently announced reform plans tout alternative delivery models.

But how is the end of higher education to be defined? Here, pragmatism focuses on what is needed today. It does not look to the past; it is resolutely presentist in its commitments. What is today’s world and how does higher education best serve it?

Yet implicitly, there are assumptions. For Obama, the default answer is that higher education must adjust to changing economic needs: higher education is for jobs. Thus he promotes a “completion agenda” that seeks, by any means available, to produce more degrees at a cheaper cost. Where others might consider deeper questions of virtues and practices, the president wants the outcome that fits the world he sees. The means are less important. Hence, the White House’s College Scorecard which emphasizes employment and value but not values.

Obama defines the outcomes to fit the economic context of today and then sets Americans free to experiment how to achieve them — anything that works. To Obama, there are no goods internal to higher education.

When Obama proclaims that he is the only “adult in the room,” this is what he means: he is the only one mature enough to abandon what he considers inherited dogma in order to face the future. Obama imagines a future that is not tied to the past but overcomes it.

Virtue Ethics

Ironically, given how much college professors are accused of being radicals, and the fact that college professors helped articulate the ideas behind pragmatism, they are in fact the most committed to an ideal that dates to Aristotle and has been revived recently by Alasdair MacIntyre and Michael Sandel: virtue ethics.

From the utilitarian perspective, the university should satisfy the ends desired by students. For the pragmatist, both the means and ends change with time; there is no essence that must remain constant. For the Aristotelian, on the other hand, the ends are fairly constant as are the means, for the means cannot be separated from the ends. The means are the practices that sustain the virtues of a university — those characteristics that are vital for it to achieve its end.

This is not to suggest that universities cannot change, nor that faculty do not wish to innovate. It is to suggest that a university has a telos, or end — to encourage in its students and faculty the ability to acquire and to use knowledge to interpret the world. It is to be, in Francis Oakley’s words, a “community of learning.” The knowledge and dispositions developed by a good education will help students lead a good life, be effective citizens, and gain success in the workplace.

If the true end of the university, according to many professors, is the interpretation and acquisition of knowledge old and new, there are a set of “intellectual virtues” that sustain this end: curiosity, a commitment to truth regardless of its consequences for politics or profit, integrity, the ability and desire to seek knowledge and to use it to be a better person and citizen. A university seeks to help students develop these virtues and, in its faculty, embodies these virtues.

There are certain practices that are vital to sustaining the virtues, including academic freedom in the classroom and in scholarship; tenure and shared governance to insulate the academic life from the pressures of politics and commerce; and exposing students to the liberal arts and sciences through a curriculum that asks students to ponder the world in new ways.

These virtues exist only when and if there are people who practice them and therefore help sustain the good — or end — of the university. As Alsadair MacIntyre writes, some goods are internal to an activity. In chess, for example, a child may play in order to get candy, but that child has not come to appreciate “the goods internal to chess,” such as skill, strategy, and mastery. Such a child would not embody the virtues of a chess player.

The same can be understood via religious devotional practices. At stake is not just whether a church converts people, but whether those conversions are a) the right ones (vs. utilitarianism), and b) for the right reasons (vs. pragmatism). Thus ritual religious practices exist to reinforce the ultimate end of which the rituals form a part. There is no way, from this perspective, for the ultimate ends to be sustained if the rituals that give them daily life and meaning are obliterated.

The university, then, is to faculty a community of inquiry that engages in practices that sustain the intellectual virtues vital for knowledge. The virtues and the practices that sustain them are not arbitrary but essential to achieving the telos of the university. A university that was not committed to intellectual inquiry would cease to promote either the ends or the practices that sustain those ends. In other words, a university that emphasized awarding degrees or generating revenue or whatever students might desire, instead of a faculty and student body engaged in intellectual inquiry would no longer be a university any more than a child who seeks candy and cheats is really playing chess.


So what? One implication is, quite simply, that to abandon the practices and virtues that sustain the end of the university is to lose something valuable, much like abandoning the practice of chess would be to lose chess, even if, to the casual observer, it appeared that the game was still being played.

The virtues that are tied to the ends of the academic profession — to promote knowledge through scholarship and teaching — require that the university sustain certain kinds of practices. Aristotle considered virtues to be dispositions that are related to the achievement of a good — a good life, a good society. A good university, thus, must cultivate certain virtues or dispositions in both faculty and students.

When professors look at for-profit schools, MOOCs, the shift from liberal arts to more vocational degrees, schools like Western Governors University that lack faculty and outsource thinking, the growth of adjunct teaching, and the commercialization of research, they do not see a threat primarily to their livelihood but to institutions that cultivate virtues that are unlikely to be preserved if utilitarians or pragmatists have their way. Academics take their inheritance seriously and hope to hand it on to the next generation of students and scholars.

The practices of academic life are not just historical artifacts from a past time (as pragmatism would have it) nor are they simply ways to give people whatever they want (as utilitarians would have it) but the essential attributes of an academic institution. To lose the practices may mean to lose the good itself. As the political theorist Joseph Raz argues in his Tanner lecture, “some values exist only if there are (or were) social practices sustaining them.” Those values must be worth sustaining, but their sustenance cannot be taken for granted.

The stakes, then, are quite high. They concern whether we want colleges and universities to take their cue from Bentham, from Dewey, or from Aristotle. College professors, especially those in the liberal arts and sciences, need to own up to their own assumptions and practices and even celebrate them.  Professors believe in practices and virtues that are associated with a good education. Professors thus sustain ways of thinking and doing that are threatened in a society dominated by utilitarian and pragmatic modes of thought.    

For all involved in discussions of the future of higher education, however, being aware that we speak different languages may help us engage with each other more thoughtfully. It will no doubt help us understand why we have such a hard time talking to each other.


Johann N. Neem is associate professor of history at Western Washington University.



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