Does higher education make you think?

Dec 15, 2013 by

In focusing on higher education’s systems, says David Watson, are we overlooking whether (and how) it works on its students?

Higher education is a noble and longstanding enterprise. And yet, curiously, it has not been a particularly self-reflective one. Especially in times of economic or political difficulty, the academic community has been more ready to analyse and campaign about what is being done to it than what it does to itself and to its most important members – its students.

All too often we can focus on issues like funding, economic returns on investment, relative institutional prestige and the like, and ignore what tutors and researchers working directly with students frequently hear in interviews: “it changed my life”.

Looking at the long sweep of university history, it is possible to extract several distinct claims about what higher education does to and for students: in existential terms (how students come to be); in epistemological terms (how they think and appraise information); in behavioural terms (how they learn to conduct themselves); and in positional terms (both through competition and collaboration).

Some of these claims are open and provisional; some are closed and create compliance. Their validity and application will vary over time, by institutional setting, by subject and mode of study, according to the expectations of funders and other stakeholders, and critically in terms of the approach taken by the student himself or herself.

But it is important to establish where such claims for higher education come from, how much contemporary resonance any of them still have, and above all whether or not they can combine to create a moral compass – a form of personal responsibility.

They can be structured around five sets of questions, part-ethical (what higher education should be seeking to inspire or inculcate in terms of habits of thinking) and part-epistemological (how it validates certain types of knowledge). Most were there in one way or another at the beginning of the European university enterprise, the model now widely imitated around the world. Since then they have waxed, waned and combined in various ways in response to both external and internal stimuli.

The first set is around conscience especially through religious foundations; the second around character as formed through ‘liberal’ higher education; the third combines calling, competence, and craft as in the zones of professional and vocational higher education; the fourth involves citizenship as in respective obligations to civil society, the state and global responsibilities; and the final set introduces capability, or the role of higher education in inculcating life-skills, including employability.

Most of the claims about the purposes and achievements of higher education relate to the individual: it will change your life, through conversion or confirmation of faith, by improving your character, by giving you marketable abilities, by making you a better member of the community, or simply by being capable of operating more effectively in the contemporary world. All of these qualities scale up, but in differing ways.

There is one over-arching question linked to the claim that “it changed my life.” Is higher education likely to make you better, to improve your capacity to make sound moral as well as technical judgements, in other words to take part in what Amartya Sen calls “public reasoning”?

As you study at this level you try to answer some hard questions, some hypothetical, some not. You learn how to work with other people, dead and alive, directly or indirectly through their work, present or remote. You meet deadlines. You ask yourself why you are doing this, and what difference doing it well will make for yourself and for others. You get a certificate (as a whole, or in stages). You take out a membership.

In this way, higher education’s purposes come together in terms of self-creation and the authentic life, the habit of thinking deeply, and the capacity to connect with others empathically.

At the end of the day everyone makes sense of his or her own higher education, not necessarily immediately, and in some cases not for a considerable time. You don’t have to buy the full proposition if you don’t want to – there is a definite escape clause (away from doctrinal study) that says no one can make you take away what you don’t want to take away from the experience.

You are, however, compelled by an authentic higher education experience to practise answering difficult questions. You are given a safe place in which to do so. Depending on your subject or discipline (or combination of these), you will gain a powerful evaluative toolkit. You will be required to communicate what you have learned. This is hard work but for centuries students have found it to be immensely satisfying and it has, generally, helped to make the world a better place.

Sir David Watson is professor of higher education and principal of Green Templeton College, University of Oxford – his book The Question of Conscience: Higher Education and Personal Responsibility is published by the Institute of Education Press

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via Does higher education make you think? | David Watson | Higher Education Network | Guardian Professional.

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