Asking — and answering — the big questions in higher education

​An award-winning book co-edited by philosophy professor Harry Brighouse brings together scholars to explore major issues in the changing role of universities.

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Photo by Sarah Morton, College of Letters & Science

What should the aims of a university be? What should students be learning? What are a university’s obligations to the public?

These are just a few of the high-level, complex and pressing questions posed in The Aims of Higher Education: Problems of Morality and Justice, a book co-edited by philosophy professor Harry Brighouse and Michael McPherson, president of the Spencer Foundation.

Earlier this month, the book won the Association of American Colleges and Universities’ Frederic W. Ness Book Award, given annually to a work that best contributes to the understanding and improvement of liberal education. The book features essays by seven philosophers exploring topics ranging from the role of the humanities, autonomy as an intellectual virtue and righting historical injustice. And their accessible approach makes the essays useful tools for professors and administrators, says Brighouse, who offered a few additional insights into the book.

Why did you decided to focus on such major questions?
Higher education is full of value questions, and we felt that these questions are too often glossed over and ignored, or answered through slogans or truisms. What philosophers are good at is seeing beyond those kinds of answers, and introducing nuance and complexity. So we picked a group of very top-notch philosophers and asked them to think about the issue that most interested them and write in a way that would inspire others and also, ideally, be accessible to other faculty, leaders, administrators and even students.

How do the liberal arts fit into the aims of higher education? 

I would say that when taught well, and in the right spirit, the liberal arts foster a set of skills that are quite difficult to acquire in other ways. Many of the problems people face in their professional roles — and, for that matter, in their personal lives — are problems for which we do not have some clear set of algorithmic rules that can be applied in a mechanical way. And most of those problems involve other people who are different from, and see things differently from, us. The liberal arts provide students with experience in addressing exactly such problems in conversation with others. 

What does the book argue should be a university’s role with regard to justice?

The contributions to the book suggest two different ways of answering this question. One is that universities should, in their internal structure, model justice. They should, in other words, have diverse populations of both students and faculty, and should be governed in an internally democratic and just way. The other way is that universities and colleges should see themselves as producing leaders at many different levels who will be able to make our society more just through their involvement in their professions and civil society. The university’s job, then, is to produce students who are skilled and committed, who are able to see other people’s points of view and generally place other people’s interests before their own, who lead in a spirit of service rather than out of self-interest.
What surprised you most from working on this book?

I found a lot of what the contributors argued convincing, and I learned a great deal from them. But what actually surprised me most is an observation that Christopher Bertram made, almost in passing, in the course of his discussion of teaching the humanities. He observes that although faculty commonly lament that our students are taking fewer humanities courses, this generation is engulfed in literature, the arts and music. Most strikingly, they are completely immersed in the poetic forms of rap, hip-hop and pop music more generally. (For example, the working vocabulary of Eminem’s music considerably exceeds the combined vocabularies of Bob Dylan and the Beatles.) My generation had to seek out music and poetry, whereas they are surrounded by it. But they are also experiencing a golden age of drama on television — and the great TV dramas are not only more literate and more complex and demanding than in previous generations, but are also permanent artifacts. In my generation TV was ephemeral; now every drama is there to be watched whenever you want to watch it. 
What about the book makes you most proud?
Our aspiration was to get well-known philosophers to do good work on problems in higher education, so that others — especially those early in their careers — would have some ideas to wrestle with and would feel that it was worth turning their attention to those problems. It was, in other words, a seeding project. We hoped that the work would be valuable beyond the philosophical community. I’m extremely proud that the contributors fulfilled that hope so well.