A conversation with Harry Brighouse and Christopher Martin. Part of our ethics of higher education series.
Carrie Welsh 00:04
You’re listening to the higher education series of Ethics & Education.
Christopher Martin 00:09
Access to the higher education system should be an absolute right for every citizen in a liberal democracy.
Carrie Welsh 00:15
In this episode, Harry Brighouse talks with philosopher Christopher Martin about the right to higher education.
Harry Brighouse 00:23
I’m Harry Brighouse. I teach philosophy at the University of Wisconsin, and I’m Director of the Center for Ethics and Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Christopher Martin 00:33
Hi, my name is Christopher Martin, and I’m an associate professor at the University of British Columbia, and the Okanagan School of Education located in Kelowna, BC, Canada. The title of my book is “The Right to Higher Education: A Political Theory.” And there I argue that access to the higher education system should be an absolute right for every citizen in a liberal democracy.
Harry Brighouse 00:55
Hi, Chris, thanks for joining us. We’re going to talk about your new book, The Right to Higher Education. And I’ll get to the question of why you think there is a right higher education and what you think it actually consists in in a little while, but I thought it would be good to start out by asking you, what is the point of higher education? What do you see as its legitimate purpose?
Christopher Martin 01:22
Thanks, Harry. In the context of the argument that I’m making, I conceive of higher education very broadly. So its fundamental aim is to promote the autonomy of citizens to enable them to make and have opportunities to realize self determined goals in life. And in particular, goals where educational goods play an important role in people’s ability to access and realize those goals. And so within that vision of higher education broadly conceived, you could see many different kinds of institutions that could play that supporting have that supporting function.
Harry Brighouse 02:03
Okay, so I mean, in the US, I think there’s a distinction made within higher education between universities, which prepare people for bachelor’s degrees, and community colleges or two year campuses, which prepare people for associate degrees that are much more likely to be you know, I think the term would be vocational in the UK, which, you know, we both know the UK a little bit. That seconds function tends to be called further education or higher education. But you’re you’re using it to mean, both I think is right.
Christopher Martin 02:44
Yeah, that’s right. I mean, part of the argument, I think, is partly a conceptual one to take a look at, what do we mean by higher education? So I mean, one way you could approach this problem is to say, okay, what are the institutions that we already apply the label higher education, and maybe build an argument about aims from that. But I kind of take a different approach, it seems to me that we should think of higher education as a particular kind of institution that’s responsible for the provision of educational goods at any point after a compulsory education is complete. And so again, to speak in the Canadian context as well, yes, that would include things that we refer to as further education broadly. So that would be continuing studies, vocational training colleges for a four year degrees. So it is a, it’s higher education in a much broader sense of the term, then we might be using it in other contexts. So perhaps post compulsory education would be more appropriate in the Canadian context. Other labels might apply in the US context, but I’m trying to make trying to frame out a vision of what higher education ought to be broadly, if people want to call it something different. That’s, that’s totally fine. I think what matters is the substance of the argument for what the right is, and what’s entailed by that from a provision of goods perspective.
Harry Brighouse 04:05
Great. Okay. So I’m just going to ask you, then, why is there a right to higher education?
Christopher Martin 04:11
Thanks. So that takes me to the kind of the the basic steps of the argument that I try and undertake in the book. So what I’m doing is, or at least the way that I frame the problem is one way to you know, when people debate higher education provision, you know, you see here slogans like, higher education is a right not a privilege. And it seems to me that that’s a great slogan that has lots of rhetorical force. But from a philosophical perspective, it’s helpful to ask, okay, what kind of conditions would have to obtain an order for higher education to actually be right? And so that’s kind of the starting point of the book, I take a step back from things we actually know understand about the system as it’s currently played out. And I sort of ask the question, okay, in a literal democratic society, what kind of educational goods are citizens owed? And we seem to have arguments for why citizens should all be owed as a matter of right educational goods at this childhood or compulsory stage of life. And while there’s some variation in how that argument plays out for many, I think for many liberals, an education for personal autonomy is the foundational argument for the right to a basic education. So what I asked in the book is, okay, to what extent would can we take that argument and extend it into the adult stage of life. So beyond the compulsory level, and there I argue that citizens have in principle, a right to educational goods, not just at the at the starting point of their life, not just when they’re forming a capacity to make reflective choices about the good. But also in media res, in the sense of like, partway through their life at other stages of life, maybe towards the end of their life, they are in the active pursuit of the good. And there may be circumstances where they want to revise their self-determined goals, they want to change the direction, they want to learn new things, they want to expand their horizons. And so the right is to educational goods across a complete life, that allow people to realize their self determined goals. So the argument is actually the right to the good, those goods. But the second part of the argument is to say, okay, to what extent should institutions be responsible for the provision of those goods. And there I argue that higher education institutions in that broader sense that we talked about in the beginning of the discussion should be the institutions primarily responsible for the allocation of those educational goods to any citizen across a life. And so the right higher education, in a nutshell, is a right to educational goods that support people’s autonomy over a complete life.
Harry Brighouse 07:08
Okay, so good. So I can see, it’s easy to see how that argument connects well with your sort of very broad understanding of what’s included, of what kind of institutions are in higher education. I just want to ask a sort of a slightly…well, I’ll just ask the question! So, I’m thinking about my uncle. So, this is sort of silly. So my uncle left school at 15, went into the Navy, and then became a chartered accountant, he, he ended up, you know, doing very well for himself. But he never went to any school after the age of 15. Now, the reason he didn’t was because there were there was ample provision for you know, professional education, higher learning, I mean, the kind of learning you have to do in order to become a chartered accountant through his workplace. And that’s actually the way many people became Chartered Accountants in those days. Similarly, journalists. Similarly, engineers, I mean, you know, my my mother’s partner, also left school at 15, and became an engineer who supervised people with PhDs, because he had the training that they didn’t have, but through his through his workplace. So this isn’t an important. I mean, this doesn’t affect the argument, but it’s the sort of curiosity. So if you had sort of built into the economy, built into places of employment, the kind of educational opportunities that you’re talking about, then we wouldn’t, then that might fulfill the right. That sorry, that’s, that’s a question.
Christopher Martin 09:03
No, no, that’s a great question. And I yeah, I really appreciate I think that actually adds a little maybe precision in where I’m trying to go with this. Yes, the logic, the argument would say that to the extent that that those conditions held, then maybe there’d be less pressure on a system, a rights based system to provide certain kinds of opportunities. But I think that’s like an empirically contingent thing, in the sense that, like, in the case that you’re giving, it’s, it’s, there’s a little bit of luck involved, I think not in that particular case, but certain people might be able to have opportunities to fill their self determined goals, because, you know, they know someone down the road who’s looking for someone to fill in in the shop for a while and wants to take you under their wing. Right. And to the extent that we can fulfill a person’s goals in life through that pathway, that’s fantastic. But it seems to me that if you think of it even from like an egalitarian or equality of opportunity perspective, there are going to be individuals in society that may not even know where to look, or there may not be that kind of informal network of training available. And so the institution I think, has to play a responsibility in providing those opportunities to those that don’t have the network in place. The second aspect of that is, while I recognize that a great deal of higher education is linked to human capital, and and social mobility and employability, I’d also want to argue that a person’s ability or ability to make a claim on the right to education shouldn’t be contingent on any kind of labor market activity after the fact. So here we have in mind, people that maybe more in the retirement phase of life that are simply interested in learning about something or they want to pursue something in a non professional capacity, and we want to make space for those citizens as well. And I think in the apprenticeship approach you’re talking about, you could imagine where it might be more challenging for that kind of arrangement to take place. Because there’s an expectation that if you’re coming to the workplace to be mentored, there’s an investment of time and resources, and there should be payoff in terms of service provided on the other side.
Harry Brighouse 11:11
Great. Okay. So that yeah, I totally see that. And that bears on the question of, you know, when we say you’ve got a right to something, we want to say a bit more about what the right what the thing is that you’ve got the right to, and it’s, I mean, yeah, you’ve got a right to participate in to get these educational goods. And I mean, the educational goods in question include the kinds of goods, not just the good of being able to participate effectively in the economy, not just the good of being able to be democratically competent, which, as you say, should have been sorted out earlier, but also the goods associated with being able to determine your own life, being able to sort of lived the life that you judge yourself, sort of independently judged yourself wanting to lead. And so that tells us something about the content of the higher education that’s provided, right? Do you want to say a little bit? I mean, so again, this is sort of my contrast between the English context in the US context. And in the English context, no, no offense meant to anybody, but it seems to me, you know, you turn up at college at 18. And then you very narrowly specialize in one thing, academically, and then, of course, there is all sorts of learning goes on by virtue of being around other people who are doing other kinds of things. Whereas in the US context, you know, at least out on the academic side, you’re expected to learn a range of different things, you know, even if you’re going to be an engineer, you have to read some literature. And even if you’re going to be, I don’t know, literary critic, you have to learn some math. I hope no, you know, hope not many people are going to be literary critics. But if they were, they’d learned some math. Do you want to tell us a little bit about sort of what this looks like?
Christopher Martin 13:15
Yeah. Thanks. I think you’re right in the way that you framed the question. So if if we take seriously the idea that higher education is a right, we’re not just talking about individuals not having to pay upfront costs to access the system or borrow or things like that. There are other conditions that would have to be in place. And I think one of them is, if the purpose is to promote people’s self determined goals, then we have to have a system that accommodates many different types of self determined goals. And that means an institutional arrangements or curriculum that foster different ways of doing these things. So it isn’t necessarily going to be a narrow conception. So maybe a couple of concrete examples will help. So you know, in my understanding, and I talked about this in the book, the the highest sociologist of higher education, Martin Trow talks about the Robbins Trap, the policy or the Robbins Report, and he refers to as the Robbins Trap. His argument is that in the UK, there was an attempt to expand university education. But it was anchored in a particular approach to curriculum that saw it as about initiation into disciplinary forms of knowledge and understanding. And why he calls it a trap is because it first of all, it’s very narrow conception of how people might want to see themselves flourishing through a system of further education that it channels them to seeing themselves as being miniature scientists or disciplinary experts. But in addition to that, it’s quite resource intensive and high commitment of time. So we’re talking about the four the four year degree. What I’m talking about, I would like to think is a system that’s much more pluralistic and which could have a number of different kinds of institutions. I mean, certainly when we’re getting to the point of the kind of an argument, we’re talking about institutional design, we can debate the empirics on this. But you could say the timeframes don’t have to be as rigid as some curriculum curricula programs have to be, they could be very much applied hands on could be theoretical. I mean, to give you just another example, you know, one one touchstone for me when I was writing the book, so I’m from a place called in Newfoundland, St. John’s, to City, St. John’s, and it’s a Canadian province, but it was British protectorate until 1949 when we joined Confederation, and as part of that deal, the college was raised to a university, but I think it is a very different way of thinking about the university, then we kind of see it today. It was called a comprehensive in the sense that there were many different kinds of programs for people to enter into, widely, geographically dispersed as well. So there was an understanding that people can’t just pick up to drive to St. John’s from the southern shore to do courses. So there’ll be satellite campuses throughout the province. It took seriously a commitment to enriching and contributing to Newfoundland culture and society. And yes, civic games as well. But just generally speaking, the opportunity for citizens of that province to realize again, self determined goals, but what you know, not not to do universities have to do at universities have to do but what you’ve seen in the, you know, years since the establishment of that institution, I think, is a kind of very tight focus on research excellence, and the training of students for high academic participation. And I think, from the argument that I’m making, that’s that’s not the that’s not the direction that you really want to be moving into.
Harry Brighouse 17:02
Yeah, that’s really interesting. I mean, this, this definitely is a sort of dive, you know, digression, but it’s always seems to me that undergraduate education and research, I mean, it’s perfectly okay having them in the same institution, but there’s no real reason for them to be in the same institution, it doesn’t seem a sort of natural pairing to me. And it seems a sort of historical accident that they ended up together. And they’re always in tension. I mean, they are always in tension if they’re in the same institution, because if the same people are doing both the undergraduate teaching and the research, that, you know, given how difficult it is to control the behavior of the people doing the research and teaching, because part of what enables you to teach well, and research well as having a lot of control over your own time. Then, the two things are bound to be in conflict. It’s going to be very hard to figure out whether either of them is getting the attention it needs. I want to ask you, so in the, in the US, as I know that, you know, funding for higher education has gotten a lot of attention in the last few years, partly because there’s a very sort of public debate about student debt. But also because in the 2016 primary, and then again, in the 2020 primary, Democratic candidates, were promoting the idea of making college, four year college and two year college, tuition free public college public institutions. And one of the themes in your book is making college debt-free. Can you talk a bit about why College has to be debt-free? I know that it connects to the argument about why there’s a right to it. Yeah, thanks. So again, if the grounds on which I claim that higher education is a right is that it should promote a person’s autonomy, their freedom, to make self determined choices about what they want their life to look like. And one of the problems then with student debt is that if you know I, one way, one important condition, I should say, of personal autonomy, on the account that I’m offering, is that someone has a person has to have a range of worthwhile options from which to choose, right? A person can flourish autonomously. If they only have one choice. This is your self determined goal. Take it or leave it, you have to have a number of options ahead of you. And so on the logic of that, if I anticipate that by entering this institution to realize that some kind of goal I have in life, I have to take on a considerable amount of debt.
Christopher Martin 20:14
I then know that the debt is something that I have to be responsible for paying off. So that debt obligation is going to follow me when I graduate. But then now I have to worry on, okay, well is the path I’m taking us good enough of an economic investment so that I can pay off the debt on the other side. And now when I start factoring in those decisions, I’m suddenly going to start paring down my choices amongst the available options ahead of me in terms of which ones are going to be good, a good enough pay off when I get back into the market. So I argue, or at least on the account that I’m offering, that this actually then a high student debt actually undermines the autonomy promoting purposes of a higher education system, because it forces the indebted person to constrain their choices about the good life that they would want to facilitate through the system. And it does it arbitrarily as well, because of course, that debt constraint is only going to apply to some people, if you happen to come from a family where they’re willing to pay for the upfront costs for you, you don’t have to take that kind of, you’re not required to take that kind of debt repayment consideration into account when you’re reflecting on the things you want to do with your life through access to the system.
Harry Brighouse 21:28
So do you think that means that college, you know, four years of college or three years or five years should be tuition free?
Christopher Martin 21:40
I know Answering “it depends” is not a very good way to start an answer. But I guess what I’d want to know in that question is I mean, let’s say that the tuition fees of a five year college program was like a half a million dollars. Right? I mean, that would seem to come me to the view that, okay, the state should subsidize, sort of subsidize that person’s half million dollar tuition bill. The way that I’d probably want to reframe the question, if that’s okay, is that, first of all, yes, students should not have to take on debt to do a three to five year program. That’s true. But I would also add that that also means that insofar as we have a rights based system of higher education, there should probably be limits on what’s reasonable for institutions to be billing. Well, in this case, it would have to be the government but billing the student to pay as part of that access. So to answer the question in a more concise way, students shouldn’t have to pay.
Harry Brighouse 22:55
Okay, so I think you know what question’s gonna come next. So, I know you’ve addressed this in books I, but I want to ask it. So, in the kind of society we live in, I think, you know, Canada is a more equal society than the US. The UK is pretty similar to the US. There are a number of European countries that are less unequal than the US, but they’re still pretty unequal. In all those kinds of societies, higher education participation tilts to people who grew up in more advantaged circumstances, for obvious reasons to do with schooling also to do with, you know, the needs of their families. It’s also the case that higher education confers a wage premium. And also confers a wage premium. Sorry, also confers all the things that go along with a wage premium. It’s not just that people with degrees earn more, it’s that they earn more, they have more secure jobs, they have more interesting jobs. By and large, they have more control over their sort of daily lived experience. They live longer, they have healthier lives, on average. And so the benefits that so the benefits that people get from higher education are really quite large. They get them in this very unequal system. And on top of it, if the government pays, then they’ve enjoyed more investment from the state. So that seems not, you know, it’s not a it’s not a determined, you know, it’s not a conclusive objection to the government paying for higher education. But it seems to me to put the burden in our circumstances unjustly unequal society, the burden falls on the person who is advocating government funding to justify it.
Christopher Martin 25:10
I don’t deny that if we frame the right to higher education as the state just pays for it, the existing system as is, and that’s it, I totally agree that we would have this problem of a crassly unequal redistribution of benefits, or an unfair distribution of benefits and burdens. And, you know, again, a good concrete example of that is you, you mentioned that the Canada’s a relatively more equal society business certainly mean that that objection wouldn’t apply to, to to this country as well. So again, to give you the example, I’ve mentioned Memorial University, it was tuition free, after Confederation. And then it’s the lowest tuition in Canada, I think, or amongst the lowest tuition in Canada, for quite a long time. The province is in a dire straits financially. And there’s been a massive report arguing for restructuring of the provinces finances. And part of that argument is that the university now needs to have the right to raise tuition fees. And you can imagine that the reaction to that has been, you know, a lot of anger and outrage from certain constituents in the public. And I think that following from your position, I totally get, I totally agree that in that context, tuition fees need to go up because the already advantaged are going to that institution, not those that are maybe in winter years living in outport communities that have to pay taxes, and still don’t get enough health care provision. So I recognize that I’m just trying to frame it like I don’t, I’m not in denial about that problem. But when I make the argument for the right to higher education, what I do in the book is argue that a free higher education and of course free, meaning the individual doesn’t have to pay is just one of two other conditions that have to be in place in order for the distributions of benefits and burdens to be more equal. The first is, again, there has to be more diversity in the system. So one thing that concerns me is the idea of funneling lots of public money into a higher education system that just caters to the interests of a certain group of people with certain interests in view in their life, and not others, right. So maybe, for example, what if the money was just going to people that wanted to become professors at university, that’s the only path the system supports, that would be unjust, that would be an unfair distribution of burdens. So a rights based higher education had to be way more diverse, in terms of what its offerings are, and then the third condition would have to be one around who is allowed to enter the institution. And so seems to me that if we’re going to require the public to if we’re going to shift the burden of funding to the public, then we also have to make it a lot easier for the public to access the institution. And so it doesn’t doesn’t seem fair to have a system that says, Give us the money. And by the way, we’re only going to say that some of you are qualified to show up at the door. Instead, a rights based higher education has to be set up so that it’s plausible, for most any citizen that sees the connection between their pursuit of the good and the educational goods on offer in that diverse system, to be able to enter in the door. And I talked about that in terms of moving away from competitive selection. And looking at readiness to learn as an as a condition for accessing the system. Now, what I think that does, is or what it should do, is it would mean that the this this, this unequal distribution of burdens that you would have in a free higher education system as is, would actually be much more balanced, because now you have citizens with first very different goals in life can access the system and actually get derive some benefits from it. And secondly, you have, you’ll have citizens that might not fit in the traditional model of who would fit into a university education, and they will have equal claim to that system as well. So I think that that’s the pitch I make for accommodating, we’re addressing the concern of equal of unequal benefits.
Harry Brighouse 29:19
Good. And that that composition effect is actually an autonomy enhancing condition. Right. So I mean, it’s not just the autonomy of people who enter an institution, which has a much broader, more diverse population actually has more autonomy than if that same person goes to an institution largely populated by people like themselves, because they’ve got a wider array of, you know, just examples of how to live around them.
Christopher Martin 29:52
Yeah, that’s correct. So I claim that one of the potential advantages of this approach is that you would have educated spaces that don’t just have to simulate what it would be like to have people with different backgrounds making arguments about things or researching things or debating things or what have you, you would actually have people with wildly different perspectives, walks of life in similar educational spaces, and it would be autonomy promoting in that sense as well. Yeah, I appreciate you emphasizing that.
Harry Brighouse 30:22
I hadn’t really thought of this before. But what do you think about making education compulsory past the age of 18? So I mean, you know, you talked about post compulsory and of course, you know, that depends on what’s compulsory. And the compulsory age now in wealthy countries, basically, is 17, or 18. There are a few which have it at 16 that you can leave at 16. But, again, I don’t know, 17 years ago, it would have been 14 or 15. I don’t think you say anything about this in the book. But I’m just sort of curious. Do you think there’s a case for raising it?
Christopher Martin 31:07
Great question. I’d be interested hearing what you think about this as well, because so to the extent that I do address in the book is one of the potential objections to the autonomy, right, based right to higher education is that, well, you know, Chris, this is a paternalistic vision, you’re arguing that people need to be in educational institutions over their entire life to be autonomous. But that’s not the argument I’m making. I’m arguing that the compulsory system has to instill these kind of basic fundamental capacities for reflection and understanding at the compulsory level. And then the post compulsory level is, is really where people can facilitate their pursuit of the good in an autonomous way. Now, that having been said, we can now ask about how how late in a person’s development, compulsory education has to go? And I think there’s no, I think, you know, it could be an empirical question. It could be a sociological question. But regardless of where we draw that line, and if we want to raise it, we can, I think, then we’re talking about an education that is different in its emphasis, than what a pulse compulsory education system is doing. Where the presumption is, the person has already cultivated those, those kinds of internal conditions that those that ability to reflect literacy, other things like that, and then move after that. I don’t think there’s any principal reason why you couldn’t come up with an argument for extending it. But then I guess, then the question becomes, what would be the grounds for for raising it? I think a lot would turn on that. If it was something like, well, people are just not autonomous until they’re a certain age, I kind of want to know what what criteria, what conceptual autonomy we’re using to make that judgment
Harry Brighouse 33:01
Yeah, I mean, I think I think my predisposition is, is actually to lower it, not to increase it. But you know, that’s very contingent; it’s partly to do with respect for the decisions young people make. But it’s also to do with the, you know, I think, I think the last two years of compulsory education for some people are really pretty dreadful. I mean, the last two, maybe three, maybe even four years of pretty dreadful for people, especially people who have not, they know, they’re not going to meet the demands that the system is making on them, because the system is making demands on them that are not really necessarily appropriate to them at that age. And I think this is, you know, you referred to the Robins report. And I thought I thought that was really interesting what you said about that, that, that the the big expansion of higher education in Britain was an expansion without any real change, or any thoughts about how you would change what it was you’re providing. And, and I think that really, that thought still hasn’t frankly, gone into it. There still hasn’t been anywhere near enough thought about that. And, you know, I think I think I worry a lot about ages 14 through 18. And not enough thought going into what we’re actually providing 14 through 18. And what’s actually valuable for for, for everybody at that age. And if you’re going to be providing people with stuff that isn’t valuable for them, I think it’s probably it’s probably better that they only do it if they want to.
Christopher Martin 34:51
Okay, I like what you’re saying here. So I understand maybe one way to frame it is if it is the case, that those last years have have high school, or just overwhelmingly geared to getting into a particular kind of university, then then then we have Yeah, then we should the argument for kind of leaving at a younger age is probably well motivated. I guess maybe another way you could could cut the argument, though, is that well, maybe this is just to reform us. But you could maybe say that, to the extent that we’re going to expect people to stay to a certain age, we have to make sure that the curriculum and the way the system is structured is not directing them. You I mean, there could be benefits to keeping students in just to that age. It’s just we’re missing the opportunity.
Harry Brighouse 35:36
Well, yeah. I think one of the thoughts is that if you stop making it compulsory, then there are suddenly incentives for the institutions to change provision, because they actually have an incentive to get as long as you, you know, as long as they receive money from the government for the students who do attend. They want to get those students to attend and having it be voluntary. It I mean, essentially changes the market situation. I’m not I’m not, you know, I’m, it’s not like I’ve got loads of confidence that this is what would happen. I’m just thinking that that may be that’s one mechanism for a form, which is different from the mechanism for a form that says, we’re going to keep them in, but we’re going to change, somehow make people who’ve been doing it one way for so long do it differently.
Christopher Martin 36:30
Yeah, I’m with you on that. I mean, I think it does raise the question of how much? I mean, if if, for example, we did take an idea like personal autonomy quite seriously as the core aim of a compulsory system. I think it does raise interesting questions about where we think sufficiency is in that process. And I think maybe it’s easy to just assume that okay, the compulsory system is K-12. This is what it is. And then that’s where the bar should be, you know, so yeah, I that’s interesting.
Harry Brighouse 37:02
Good. Is there anything that I have not asked you about that I should have done? Because if there is, then I will ask you about it.
Christopher Martin 37:14
You know what it’s like. It’s the 30 minutes after the phone conversation is over that all the brilliant rejoinders and, and things come to play. It doesn’t have to be part of the recording or not, or you can throw in more things, but I wanted to, if you don’t mind, come back to you on the the civic education piece, if you don’t mind. If I could ask, to you–where do you where do you come out on this, and not necessarily in relation to my argument. It’s just that, and maybe there’s a I don’t know if it’s a skepticism about elite formation, here. But I guess the spirit animating some of my argument in that chapter in particular, is that this idea that we’re going to look to elite-forming institutions to lead our societies in particular ways. I just, I’m not anti-elite or anything, but I just worry that that’s putting way too much…not power, even. I talk about this in the book, I say, you know, one way to disempower people to say that you don’t shoulder the responsibility, and in saying that, you know, it’s maybe it’s too mundane to romantic view. But one of the things I like about the personal autonomy ideal is that it says that insofar as any person has the freedom to pursue the good, they can also pursue good things in their communities. I mean, I talked about social practices. And I think one of the advantages of my account, I think, since far it has any, is that, you know, we have very complex societies where it’s sometimes hard to link up with other groups and form things together. And it seems to me a lot of the good work that happens in a society doesn’t always doesn’t always happen, nor does it lead in these elite spaces. But, but maybe maybe I’m offering too, too romantic and too folksy a civic vision, I don’t know.
Harry Brighouse 39:05
So I think I am kind of anti-elite. But I sort of, I mean, maybe the way to think about it is I’m anti-elite, but also quite convinced that the very unequal way that our society runs is the way it’s going to run for quite a long time. And I think elites have a lot of power. And I also think that though that power is increasingly, you know–the parts of civil society that have checked that power, and the thing that is most vivid to me is trade unions. For 100 years trade unions were, I think, the main check on elite power. They are much weaker now than they were, and much more diffuse. And so I guess I think I want things to be going on with these elites so that they are better equipped to serve others, and may be more inclined to serve others, given that they’re going to be I mean, given they’re going to be the elites. If I had another story where I thought no, they can be in the timeframe we’re thinking about, undermined, and the society can be run in a much more democratic, participatory way and much more unequal way, then, then I would be much less concerned about this. At the same time, I totally understand that the very things that make it the case that we are run by elites are also things that make it the case that civic education is going to have very limited effect on them.
Christopher Martin 41:04
Oh, so maybe then, trying to maybe my position is ultimately more pessimistic? Because I reckon I totally get the argument that you want to make your elites more kind of, again, I used the term ‘other regarding,’ maybe not the right word for it. But elites tend to form their own interests. Right, you know what I mean? And I think that’s an overwhelmingly powerful force, even with the best of intentions, you know, when you step into that world, I don’t presume that I would necessarily be above it either. And I guess my instincts on this is that if you make it easier for citizens or liberal citizens to form together independent of that, then you might actually get that, that that, that kind of check and balance that maybe lock in way of thinking about things is more likely to happen that way, by broadening the the opportunity range within the higher education system, then pinning our hopes and getting lots of different voices into the elite space. But this is maybe armchair sociology on my part.
Harry Brighouse 42:05
Well, I mean, I think it’s probably armchair sociology on our both our parts and that of other people who are not actually armchair sociologists, but actual sociologists. I mean, you know, these are very hard things to figure out, I think. Your vision where selection is on the base of basis of readiness to learn, rather than on, you know, prior achievement et cetera. That’s a very appealing vision to me. And I just thought I’d tell you, in recent months, I’ve noticed a number of commentators on higher education, and particularly on admissions have been trying to get us to refer to institutions like Harvard and Princeton, not as highly selective, but as highly rejected. And I’ve really been enjoying that sort of attempt to change the language.
Christopher Martin 43:03
Yeah, maybe that. I think that part of the book is where my intuitions about this whole thing start to come out to the fore. I mean, the reason the starting point for me is, I find it really difficult to understand that if we really do believe that education has this possibility to bring out good things to lead out the good it then why, you know, I understand that some rationing is required. But there’s nothing in the logic of educational provision, I think that requires any of this kind of, frankly, selection theatrics that you see in a lot of these institutions. And so, you know, what the method I took in the book was to say, Okay, let’s go back to the foundations of what we think liberalism is and engage in what you might I guess, the critical theorists would call this an imminent critique. Let’s take the liberal promise seriously, and hold it to its own account. And what can we justify from an educational point of view from that, and that’s why I was led to this conclusion that it seems to me we we get a story about the importance of providing educational goods at this early stage of life. But then suddenly, when we get to graduation, whenever whenever we want to draw the line on that, suddenly the bottom five falls out of this educational vision and no, I’m being a bit rhetorical here. But I really do think there’s a perplex perplexing kind of transformation in how we think about the ethics of educational provision. The second we step out of the school, and that’s kind of what was driving a lot of my thinking here.
Harry Brighouse 44:33
Great. Yeah, that’s really interesting. I think we’ll wrap up there. Thanks, Chris, for the conversation. That’s really good. I hope people will flock–I don’t know whether one flocks to bookstores anymore, but they’ll flock to the bookstores online at least and buy your book, The Right to Higher Education.
Christopher Martin 44:55
Yes, thanks very much and they’re not allowed to borrow any money to pay for it, they have to get it fully upfront. Right. [laughter] Thanks for your time. I appreciate it.
Harry Brighouse 45:06
Carrie Welsh 45:11
Thanks for listening. This is part of a series on ethics and higher ed. And you can find the other episodes on our podcast this spring.