Five Purposes of Higher Education

What do you think higher education is for?

Back in September, Richard Kahlenberg gave a convocation speech in which he outlined five “Purposes of Higher Education.”  I don’t entirely buy them.  Kahlenberg, in his speech, is critical of the extent to which higher education has accomplished these things; I wonder whether they should be our goals at all.

1.  To ensure that every student, no matter the wealth of her parents, has a chance to enjoy the American Dream.

2. To educate leaders in our democracy.

3. To advance learning and knowledge through faculty research and by giving students the opportunity to broaden their minds even when learning does not seem immediately relevant to their careers.

4. To teach students to interact with people different than themselves.

5. To help students find a passionand even a purpose in life.

“4” and “5” work for me as ideals.  How often are they accomplished?  As Kahlenberg says, not very well.  Every time I walk through my school’s cafeteria, I notice that, even after a year or two or three in college, students are still choosing to interact with people very much like themselves.  And a few hours in a few classrooms will show anyone that many college students feel passionate about very little that school has to offer them.

Where “2” is concerned: educating “leaders” is overrated.  We can’t all be leaders, and the world needs educated, successful followers, too.  Kahlenberg seems to be suggesting that those who go to university should be the leaders; this is an outmoded view.  Nowadays, plenty of people who go to university will be employees in large companies, or civil servants.  There’s no reason that higher education can’t provide for them, too.  Kahlenberg is worried that universities are perpetuating old norms by giving preferential admissions to the wealthy and other “legacy admissions”; I think there is a greater problem with the idea that a university education needs to be focused on leadership.  A university education needs to be focused on learning, in all its forms.

Which brings us to “3,” which seems like two different things to me, and neither mentions “learning how to learn,” the most relevant skill to any career or life.  In fact, “3” doesn’t seem concerned with student learning, per se, but with the “advancement of learning” in an abstract sense.  If higher education is to be “education,” it needs to put the concrete, day-to-day learning of students at its center.  “Giving students the opportunity” to “broaden their minds” suggests that faculty are spouting wisdom that students are welcome to partake of if they wish – this view of “education” sits very poorly with me.

And as for “1”…well, I’m not American, so maybe I don’t know from American Dreams, but the concept has always seemed like a great big fraud to me.

Take a hop over to the article, and then come back here and tell me what you think.

Image by Carlos Alberto Brandão


23 thoughts on “Five Purposes of Higher Education

  1. These are all great points about higher education. It’s so much more than just earning a degree and I truly hope all students take the time to appreciate this as an opportunity to find themselves and their passion!


  2. I am taking a risk because I am in cranky old man mode at this moment, but I am unmoved by anything with “dream” in it. Okay, the concept of the American Dream has been around for generations, but talk of “following your dreams”, “fulfilling your dreams”, “how dare one take away someone’s dreams”, “if you dream hard enough you can achieve anything”….. HUMBUG. The “dream” as a focus has become such a trendy, sentimentalized and cloying cliche. I would prefer to leave this fluffy bunny stuff out of a discussion of higher purposes of education. I am happy with learning (learning how to learn) and also broadening one’s knowledge base and overall cultural literacy. And more, but on a case-by-case basis.


    1. Michael:
      I would suggest that the “American Dream,” beyond the fluffy-bunny nature of “dreams,” is in fact a toxic notion, and that it ignores the reality that hard work and goals will NOT, in and of themselves, bring about success for everyone, given the way our societies and institutions are structured.


      1. I’ll play devil’s advocate and say that it depends on your definition of success. Hard work won’t necessarily make you rich, but it might put you in a position to give your kids a better life than you had. To me, that’s the idea behind the American dream, and I think higher education can provide that.*


        1. Amy: You could be right. I resist the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” attitude the American Dream seems to rest upon, because I think it ignores all the other circumstances that bring hardship, poverty and social immobility into people’s lives. That said, hard work can bring about all kinds of things…


          1. *pondering why it is that the American Dream is at once a good and also a toxic notion*

            I both agree with the American Dream and see it as toxic, and my thought tonight is this: perhaps it is toxic when it becomes a selfish goal that ignores the greater things in life, things such as relationships and heartaches. The problem I have long had with the American Dream is that it seems to suppose that happiness comes through ignoring the needs of the world (including the less-than-desirable jobs) and devoting one’s life to the job one enjoys most. It’s strange for me to write that last sentence since I firmly believe that God created each individual with unique gifts and talents for a unique purpose, but I guess I don’t believe that purpose is one specifically-tailored job that ignores the needs of the people around us. And I do not think that pursuing this type of dream ever brings true happiness.

            Jesus illustrated for us the fact that true greatness comes from servanthood, and the more I ponder His reactions to the world around Him, the more I am convinced that there is a dream that’s bigger and better than what we have come to know as the American Dream. Perhaps the American Dream can be a bit closer to it at certain times (per Amy’s comment about making a better life for those that come after us), but I have found that those who think that the perfect situation will make them happy never really recognize happiness when it has found them.


  3. I have to admit that when I went to university I had a desire to place myself at a level higher than average society. I later found that I was more successful at school when I adopted the mentality that I was becoming more of a part of the world rather than elevating myself above it. Eventually, I had to take a break from scholarly learning so that I could pay the bills and also allow my husband a chance at achieving a moderate salary through earning a degree. I realize that it has now become somewhat of a necessity to pursue secondary education to simply qualify for the average career. Perhaps that is its sole purpose.


    1. Nikki:
      I think you’re right that, in most people’s minds, the purpose of postsecondary studies is to further our careers. And I think that’s a perfectly fine motivation, but I wonder if higher education (and society?) would be better off we we could foster other, more holistic, motivations as well.


  4. I agree with that last point Siobhan, while the concept of knowledge for it’s own sake has its problems we have certainly in the UK seen a radical shift from the ethos of a university as being about learning and broadening the human being. The debate about funding universities has commodified education, value for money is a difficult argument when the fulfillment of a human being is the goal but all too often we justify a degree on the basis of getting a better job. I am with Ken Robinson, find your element and go for it, not only will that make you a happier person but it will make sure that your contribution to society is better too.


  5. I haven’t read the article yet, so I will probably comment again once I do. But, my first thought was…why then, are we spending so much time, effort, energy, money, acreage, (I’m sure there’s more), on sports? Especially, football and basketball. Colleges and universities say they’re in it for those higher, loftier goals of “educating America’s leaders”, but actions speak that they’re in it for the revenue from the big sports. Amen.


  6. Alright, I’ve read his speech, and here are my thoughts:

    #1 “A society in which children from wealthy families are about 10 times as likely to get college degrees as those from poor families is one marked by profound inequality.” If college weren’t so expensive, more could access it. College costs have gotten outrageous, and with the freedom of choices we have in our country, one has to weight whether spending that much money on a degree is going to be more beneficial in the long run than investing that same amount of money in the stock market, a business, traveling the world, etc. Just comparing…just a thought.

    #2 “To educate leaders in our democracy.” Interesting article on MSN about the top twelve youngest billionaires in the U.S. Only 6 have a college education. So education doesn’t necessarily equate with success and wealth. I really need clarification on who he means by the “leaders” in our democracy. Is that doctors? lawyers? politicians? business owners? what about teachers? real estate brokers? is it the Nobel prize winners? or, the very wealthiest? Because if its wealth, some of the richest in our country walked away from their college educations.

    #3 “Many colleges see themselves as vocational schools.” Here is the part of the speech where he has made himself sound like a pompous, egotistical, intellectual snob. In #1 he talks about how colleges haven’t done a good job being accessible to the poorest of families, and yet he’s criticizing those, i.e. community colleges, that have made themselves accessible to the not-so-wealthy, so I’m a little confused. And, what is wrong with attaining skills for a vocation? I have a bachelor’s and a master’s degree, but my cousin who is an electrician journeyman is wealthier than I am. Choices in education are a good thing in our free society.

    #3 again. “…45 percent of students learn little in the first two years of college…” It’s those basic requirements, which in my opinion are a repeat of their four years of high school. Why do our young people need 4 high school years of math, science, language arts, and social studies, only to come to college and be in those subjects for the “basics” another 2 years? Is 6 years of math, science, language arts, and history really necessary? I don’t have the answer, but I really wonder why is there so much time and focus in these areas?

    #4 “…many colleges now have “rich kids of all colors”…” It’s the tuition again. If college weren’t so expensive, it would be accessible by more.

    #5 I agree with this, but if students come to college and don’t find their passion or purpose, its a big price to pay, time and money, for not getting what you thought you might.


    1. interesting point/question on #2! Money always talks, and I think that eventually wealth comes to be the measure of a leader more than his qualities of leadership . . . not that a person must be educated to be a leader, but the most famously successful leader in the world–King Solomon–was first known for his wisdom and his wealth was secondary to that.

      the financial success of people without higher education is the number one reason I hear from my students (high school students) for not continuing with their studies: “they made it without all this stuff, why can’t I?” Which brings us back, Siobhan, to your question “Why do I have to learn this?” *laugh-sigh*


  7. At least Kahlenberg doesn’t choose a single purpose and place it above all others. Really, our post-secondary educational systems (Canadian and US both) have multiple purposes. Some institutuions of higher ed try to cover several, some are pretty much oriented towards only one. Think of the contrast between St. John’s College (Great Books all the way) versus DeVry Institute of Technology (get a good job), versus pretty much any state university (all except #5, though students are free to use it to accomplish that goal).


    1. Jane: Yes, “at least.” I see no real problem with a particular institution prioritizing one main purpose, though, if students have a fair amount of control over choosing where they’d like to study. Maybe this is the larger problem?


  8. in response to #2–educating leaders:
    This was the purpose of education in America since the earliest days. The people believed that their children needed to be educated in order to participate effectively in the democratic processes and to preserve the freedoms they enjoyed. They viewed all their children as future leaders in the sense that each person would have an opportunity to participate in shaping the future and preserving the important things of the country. This view goes along with what you said about needing not only educated leaders but also educated followers. They realized that without educated followers, the educated leaders could use their knowledge to exploit the followers. The concept of checks and balances comes into play here.

    However, education is not enough. Unless the educated ones take the responsibility to use their education to make the tough choices, their education is useless. They may know a lot, but if they choose to ignore the truth of what is going on around them and the need of the times, they are just as susceptible to injustice and corruption as the uneducated. As Edmund Burke is supposed to have said (and if he didn’t, I’m sure he would agree wholeheartedly with this thing he is supposed to have said): all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.

    What saddens me is that many students of today value neither their education nor their opportunity to use that education in all areas of life. Perhaps the death of personal responsibility and the death of perceived educational value have gone hand-in-hand.


    1. I still think its not a matter of just being educated, its also a matter of what your educated in. Our students today are coming out of our schools having years of math education, yet our country is suffering from a economic recession where were seeing huge companies on the brink of bankruptcy, unemployment, and housing foreclosures. A senior student of mine asked in class three years ago, “What’s the big deal with printing more money? If we need it, why not?” I was shocked at this lack of understanding.

      I now teach college level students, and recently did a lecture explaining the housing bubble. The majority came up to me after and thanked me for explaining something to them they had heard in the news but didn’t really understand.

      There is a disconnect between what is taught in our schools, and what we need to know to understand our society, our world, and be contributing members to society. Being educated doesn’t mean just knowing a lot of stuff, it means understanding how to use the information in our lives. We are doing a poor job of this at every level of education, and this is what is turning off students to education.

      Heck, I get bored with teaching some of the things I’m expected to teach!


  9. ATWB:
    “*pondering why it is that the American Dream is at once a good and also a toxic notion*”
    This is an interesting take. It’s a bit different from the problem I had in mind. Here’s how I see it: in a society that believes that hard work and strength of character will lead to social mobility and financial stability, those who don’t achieve sm/fs will be seen, by others and perhaps by themselves, as having failed, being lazy, being morally inadequate, and so forth, when in fact there are many reasons that people stay poor and trapped, including this “American Dream” view of prosperity itself – so it’s a vicious cycle.


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