UW-Madison Center for the Humanities

Center for the Humanities

Past Faculty Development Seminars

Spring 2010: Higher Education - Aims and Justice


Led by Harry Brighouse (Philosophy)

Higher Education is a perennial topic of controversy in America. Whereas 100 years ago private Universities were essentially finishing schools for a social elite, while public universities were training institutions for professionals, state bureaucrats and farm managers. Few people attended either. College attendance is now a gateway to middle class and professional life of which now about 40% of each cohort has some experience. Most states have one or two public institutions which attempt to compete with the elite private institutions while also serving a heavily subsidized education for non-elite students, while most private institutions try to provide a niche experience for students from elite backgrounds. Unlike other post-secondary institutions, Universities and Colleges do not regard themselves exclusively as training institutions, but promise a liberal education to all students, one which will challenge and transform them not only into effective workers, but into better citizens and better, more successful people. Elite higher education (provided by the flagship public universities, the Ivy League schools and their close competitors) promises a liberal/transformative experience for the student, and also promises substantially better prospects for getting good jobs, higher status and higher income.

The central focus will be on what the proper aims of higher education ought to be. Whereas many of our students, and a significant part of the public, see the aims largely in terms of contributing to individual and societal economic goals, professors and administrators often see the aims in richer terms. But we rarely discuss those aims, and still more rarely do we subject them to critical scrutiny or try to work out to what extent our practices are actually guided by them. This seminar is an opportunity to reflect both on what we think the aims should be, and on whether the practices of the university actually contribute to those goals. What is a liberal education? Is it restricted to introducing students to the life of the mind, or does it also involve shaping their character? If so, is this unacceptably paternalistic? Why, if at all, should a liberal education be a required part of the most reliable path of entry into elites?

I have two underlying agendas that are not necessarily the agendas of the authors we’ll be reading. The first is to figure out an answer to the question of what role the humanities have in a modern university – not just in the teaching mission but also, to a lesser extent, in the research mission. The second is to work out what the contributions of particular disciplines in the humanities are, or should be, to that role.