Is there a need to debate the role of higher education
and the public good?
SOCIETY AND HIGHER EDUCATION
as citizens in the new millennium
In an era of human capital theory, developing students to take
their place in society equipped with the appropriate competencies
including the so-called appropriate `soft skills' of leadership,
team-playing, communication skills, etc. is becoming part of industry's
claims on higher education. Higher education is still to trying
to come to terms with the notion of a greater emphasis being placed
on the application of knowledge. Higher education and industry both
have reservations about each other. Although debates within higher
education as to what counts as knowledge have opened out in recent
years (see for example Gibbons
et al. (1994) and Scott (2000))
the conflicts which arise between the needs of the economy and the
needs of higher education institutions are bound to come to a head
when higher education situates itself within a still limited discourse
of arguments around what counts as knowledge.
Industry and higher education are both part of modern society. Both
should play an important part in the lives of citizens. However,
when one splits the individual into two separate roles of student
and employee, one discounts or ignores that a person's identity
is comprised of a number of roles in society. In the case of education
we have a choice in respect of the:
kinds of morality which underpin versions of (higher) education.
On the one hand a `thick morality' is grounded in notions of the
common good as the ethical basis for policy and practice; while
a `thin morality' is grounded in competitive individualism and
hierarchical divisions. Put another way would be to ask whether
the purpose of higher education holds ethical values to be central,
as much as the development of knowledge and skills?
(Walker and Nixon 2004: 5)
Arguments for a liberal education might suggest that we are talking
about the protection of the study of some dying subjects, with academics
racing to protect their particular patch of the academic world.
The idea of a liberal education is more about:
An education that is `liberal' in that it liberates the mind
from the bondage of habit and custom, producing people who can
function with sensitivity and alertness as citizens of the world.
That is what Seneca means by the cultivation of humanity.
(Nussbaum 1997: 8)
Nussbaum (1997) has identified three capacities for the cultivation
of humanity. First, to be able to examine, question, justify one's
own life and traditions because `democracy needs citizens who can
think for themselves rather than simply deferring to authority'
and `who can reason together about their choices rather than just
trading claims and counterclaims'. Second, to cultivate a sense
that we do not just belong either to our local area or country but
that we are connected to `all other human beings by ties of recognition
and concern'. Third, that we cultivate an ability to place ourselves
in another's life and see things from their perspective (Nussbaum
Cultivating humanity might seem like some utopian concept. If one
were to take a more utilitarian perspective on cultivating humanity
what employer would not like employees to have the ability to look
beyond their own habits and beliefs. A society intent on cultivating
humanity is not without risk for individuals, organizations and
society. There may be `winners and losers'. Is society ready to
cultivate humanity? If the answer is no then maybe we need to ask
or at least be able to ask why not? Davis
(1998) speaks about students being allowed to exercise choice
and to act as free agents. While today we speak of higher education
providing students with greater choice and flexibility, the pity
is that this choice is limited to subject and delivery option choices
and not to giving our student-citizens choices in respect of the
kind of society we work and live in.