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What should the aims of higher education be?


[laughter] Well, the aims of education in general should be to enable people to live well.

Carrie Welsh


You’re listening to Ethics and Education. Welcome to a new series on the ethics of higher ed. I’m Carrie Welsh. I’m the audio producer, and I’m also the program director of the Center for Ethics and education at the University of Wisconsin Madison. At the Center, our work is organizing conversations between philosophers and education researchers. And this show is a way for us to share these conversations, conversations that are living, not just conference recordings. These audio are all part of our bigger curriculum project, where we offer free study guides to help you include philosophical thinking in your education, sociology, and philosophy classes. This piece is the first of our series on the ethics of higher ed. This series will cover topics from the right to higher education and the ethics of admissions, to teaching and tuition. To get us started in this introduction to the series, we ponder a normative question:


What should the aims of higher education be?

Carrie Welsh


For this I handed the microphone over to to philosophy majors Ria Dhingra and Anna Nelson.


Okay, it is October 29 2021. This is Ria Dhingra speaking. And with me, I have student, friend, peer, colleague Anna Nelson.

Carrie Welsh


Ria and Anna went to the NAAPE Conference. That’s the North American Association for Philosophy and Education. And they asked philosophers of education, undergrads and grad students this question. Here’s what they said.


I think that the primary aim of higher education should be the flourishing of students as human beings.


I think of it as oriented to: what are the internal requirements for leading a flourishing life?


Human flourishing, and a better life, whatever that means to anybody.


Flourishing for human societies!


The fundamental aim of higher education, the one that that justifies the institution at large is probably the idea of autonomous flourishing. One implication of that however, is we have to reflect that people want to flourish in lots of different ways.


There are a lot of different aspects to human flourishing. There’s moral flourishing, there’s intellectual flourishing. And it’s also important that students flourish, that they have the ability to live, meaningful lives, and that involves having a job that can support them and practical things like that. So those all play into flourishing.


I feel like you’re not supposed to say to enable people to get jobs. But I’m sort of sympathetic to that aim.


preparing students for the workforce and not, again, not so focused on grades and assignments, but more real life applications, like projects and getting them ready for the workforce.


At least for me, when I went, when I started in college, I was a very different person than the one that I’ve ended up. And so if you’d asked me, What’s the best job to take, in my freshman year, I would have said, Oh, a well paying job that my parents will give me, you know, praise for having. In my own case, I started off as an engineer, and I ended up a philosopher. And so for me, higher education is very much about that transformation. It’s very much about that self discovery, and very much about finding your calling.


That’s a loaded question! The aims of higher education should be to teach you how to think and not what to think. And they should teach you how to have a good work ethic and how to be a good person. What I also think is that you shouldn’t be so grade oriented, and they should be much more learning oriented, and not so focused on the exams, and not so focused on what grade you get.


To provide a space in which different possibilities for those aims are provided to students, and that students have an opportunity to witness and participate in contestation around the very aims of higher education. So it should be a commitment to inquiry and pluralism around that very question.


To teach people to think, and to learn to think you have to learn to think in a particular way. So you have to learn to think like a philosopher, like a historian, like a physicist, like an occupational therapist, or what have you. And that also requires learning how people think other ways, right? So like, in order to learn how to think wel like a philosopher, I have to know how to think like a philosopher, but I also have to know how that’s different from thinking like a historian or a physicist or an occupational therapist. That’s what higher education should teach.


Enabling people to have difficult conversations with other people who disagree with them and to not feel freaked out themselves by uncertainty to feel like they are have some skills to sort of sit with the uncertainty and talk it out.


I think higher education should set up its pupils for success in their lives, and give them the tools they need to be functioning adults in society.


Help people pursue a good life,


To help people develop into the person they want to be and achieve their goals–recognize and achieve their goals.


Higher education should produce individuals who are well adjusted in their internal life, well adjusted as citizens of their community, and well adjusted individuals who are able to pursue their bliss for the rest of their adult life.


I think that higher education exists or should exist as a guide for young people to realize what their purpose is, and how they can contribute to the world in a healthy way. I want there, I mean, I think a purpose is different than just being productive,


To give us a sense of meaning and purpose in life. You know, basically, a lot of education addresses this as if we’re somehow potentially somehow immortal. And there really isn’t much of a space to talk about what the meaning of our mortality is, and the way in which it unifies our life and tries to and can set a direction for our life. So I think it’d be great if higher education were that space, you know, where people are making the transition from childhood to adulthood, and they’re trying to figure out what they want to do with their lives. And this is a chance for them to get a sense of Okay, so what is my life as a whole? Given that I can’t do everything, what are the things that mean the most to me are really priorities for me.


Higher education is not one monolithic thing, it’s a lot of things to a lot of different people.


Oh, man, that is not an easy question to answer in 60 seconds! College education is supposed to provide the tools that you need, including the degree in order to get higher paying jobs. And to improve your status in life.


I think the aims of higher education should be to prepare young adults to enter the job market in the field of their choosing, but also at the same time to broaden the intellectual horizons of the people who have come through higher ed.


And I think it should take young people, really any kind of people and foster intellectual curiosity, I think it should turn people into intellectuals and critical thinkers,


Things like intellectual growth, and the ability to think critically through the kinds of life decisions that you’ll have post college.


I think higher education should be aimed at ensuring that people who do well in society are capable of serving the society as well as possible.


Preparing people of all ages, including young people and people who are going back to school, to deal with the extraordinarily complicated problems that we know are coming our way. So issues with the change in the environment, issues with trying to imagine a future for democratic processes and life together. Issues of trying to figure out what our lives mean, in this really complex period, that’s different to any that we’ve known in history and trying to figure out how it’s going to be continuous with all this history that we know about. I think if there’s anything distinctive that colleges and universities can provide that other parts of society can’t, it’s the space and tools and wisdom to try to tackle the really hard, really big, gnarly questions, so that we have at least some experience trying to look at them before, you know we go out into our jobs and into the rest of our lives. And really have to start doing the work for the rest of those lives to deal with those problems.


Thank you! Thank you so much.

Carrie Welsh


What do you think the aims of higher education should be? Write to us and let us know on Twitter or email. Or if you just want to tell us, you can leave us a voicemail using the link in our show notes. We won’t use it on the show without your permission. We’d love to hear from you. Thanks for listening and stay tuned for the rest of this series on higher ed. And a special thanks to Ria and Anna for their help with this episode. Ethics & Education is produced by the Center for Ethics & Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. For more information, visit our website: This work is funded by the Spencer Foundation.