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normblog: Higher education and democracy

normblog: Higher education and democracy.

Thought-provoking post from Norman Geras on the purpose of third-level education (post reproduced in full):

Higher education and democracy

Peter Scott, vice-chancellor of Kingston University, writes of the false alternative, as he sees it, often posed in discussions of the purposes of higher education:

Today there seems to be a black and white choice between “what is higher education for”, bristling with instrumentality, and “higher education for its own sake”, all blue-skies. The truth is neither serves.

Setting out some cognate pairs of options, Scott rejects the either-or they offer, and then explains why. His explanation in short: mass higher education’s ‘essential link with democracy’. The link is better appreciated in the US, Scott says, where going to college is understood as being connected to ‘the founding values of the republic’. For us too, higher education must no longer be about elites; it is about citizens.

That’s all fine and dandy in my book. But Scott’s conclusion rebounds against his premise. If higher education is about democratic citizenship, then I’d want to challenge his dismissal of one of the choices from which he began: namely, higher education for its own sake. I’d challenge his dismissal of this on the grounds that I doubt there is a better way of educating citizens, educating participants in democracy, than making available to them the free and open environment that goes with the traditions of a liberal education. Shaping higher education towards some special programme of learning-for-citizenship doesn’t sound at all appealing. It’s reminiscent of civics lessons at school. It would narrow rather than broaden. Let people teach and study what interests them, but with the discipline that true study demands; try to ensure that it really is study and not merely farting about.

Posted by Norm at 01:47 PM | Permalink

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