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The Aims of Higher Education: Problems of Morality and Justice

reviewed by Lisa Ruth Brunner & Amy Metcalfe - April 21, 2017

coverTitle: The Aims of Higher Education: Problems of Morality and Justice
Author(s): Harry Brighouse & Michael McPherson (Eds.)
Publisher: University of Chicago Press, Chicago
ISBN: 022625948X, Pages: 192, Year: 2015
Search for book at Amazon.com

In The Aims of Higher Education: Problems of Morality and Justice, editors Harry Brighouse and Michael McPherson gather contributions from seven moral and political philosophers around three higher education issues: (a) “what students should learn” (p. 2), (b) “who should attend college” (p. 2), and (c) “the relationship between universities and the wider world” (p. 23). Their intention is to bring nuanced, yet accessible, normative perspectives to an ambitiously broad audience of “other philosophers, scholars, policy makers, administrators, students, and members of the general public who are engaged in the debates” (p. 3). Brighouse and McPherson’s determination in examining the values behind these issues is important, timely, and contributes much needed depth to the field. However, in what is likely the best case scenario for such a difficult project, the collection serves more as the start of an engaging unfinished conversation rather than a comprehensive overview.


Brighouse and McPherson’s collection begins with two different arguments for why higher education in its present form is worthy of rigorous defense. Amy Gutmann, president of the University of Pennsylvania, articulates the benefits for individual students in her chapter titled “What Makes a University Education Worthwhile?” This includes the ability “to pursue productive careers, enjoy the pleasures of lifelong learning, and reap the satisfactions of creatively contributing to society” (p. 23). It also includes benefits for society like the development within students of "the understandings . . . that are needed to address complex challenges in the twenty-first-century” (p. 23). Christopher Bertram takes a more limited and less conventional approach in the next chapter titled “Defending the Humanities in a Liberal Society." He highlights the flaws in defending higher education based on economic growth. By systematically analyzing a range of justifications, he instead shows the virtuous contributions of the humanities to a democratic society and knowledge creation beyond the production of wealth. The author further offers that the humanities are necessary not only because they provide non-monetary benefits, but also because they permit us to utilize valuation processes beyond economic rationality.


The chapters “Academic Friendship” (by Paul Weithman), “Autonomy as Intellectual Virtue” (by Kyla Ebels-Duggan), and “Education and Social Moral Epistemology” (by Allen Buchanan) focus on the question of what students should learn and how it connects with the relationships between universities and the wider world. Both Weithman and Ebels-Duggan discuss the limits of autonomy as a goal of higher education. In a reflection on his experience teaching philosophy at an explicitly religious institution, Weithman proposes the concept of “academic friendship” (p. 52). This is the kind of concept Aristotle wrote of that, “can develop among fellow travelers” (p. 54) as a rebuttal to the commodification of education. Ebels-Duggan tackles the frequently repeated argument for autonomy justification and calls for a significant revision. She believes that, “students’ most common primary vice is not unreflective traditional commitments” (p. 86), but instead “an overconfident lack of conviction” (p. 86). The author urges educators to focus on developing “a reconceptualization of autonomy as humility and charity” (p. 74) by modeling intellectual virtues and communicating the love of specific ideas to students. In a complementary argument, Buchanan shows that the current higher educational model, including the instruction of critical thinking, is insufficient due to its failure to seriously incorporate research on the limits of cognition and social moral epistemology. He uses repeated instances of “wrongful mass violence” (p. 104) as a powerful point of reference.


The chapters “Righting Historical Injustice in Higher Education” (by Lionel K. McPherson) and “Modeling Justice in Higher Education” (by Erin I. Kelly) focus primarily on who should attend college. McPherson outlines how mainstream higher education institutions “have largely failed to acknowledge, let alone to rectify, their complicity in racial injustice” (p. 113), which calls for a “corrective responsibility toward [B]lack Americans as urgent as ever in recent memory” (p. 113). He concludes with an argument for higher education’s involvement in systemic change at all levels of education by sponsoring academy schools for underprivileged Black students. Kelly also speaks to institutional justice, but on a broader scale. She critiques higher education’s current focus on the interests of the most privileged. To promote inclusivity and “a fair equality of opportunity” (p. 152) for a wider range of diverse participants, the author argues that changes need to occur throughout “the university’s approach to admissions, scholarship, campus climate, and pedagogy” (p. 152).


Overall we anticipate that virtually anyone interested in higher education will find something worthwhile in this volume. We also find that bestowing the 2017 Frederic W. Ness Book Award for the book’s contributions to the understanding and improvement of liberal education by the Association of American Colleges and Universities is well deserved. Our main critique of the collection rests not on its breadth or the quality of its content, but rather on what is missing. The Aims of Higher Education is a misnomer; a more accurate title would instead be The Aims of an Elite American Liberal Arts Education. Most chapters cover not just the United States educational system exclusively, but specifically the undergraduate study of liberal arts at “the selective and very selective colleges segment of higher education” (p. 3). In defending this decision, Brighouse writes on the Crooked Timber blog that he and McPherson “wanted high profile, high quality, philosophers to do some work on higher education, in the hopes that it would stimulate others to do more work. Such people are pretty much all teaching in selective settings” (2015). As it turns out, these authors are primarily concerned with the humanities or liberal arts context within these institutions where they teach. It is through this narrow focus that they are asked to tackle complex challenges that, “raise broader questions of social justice that institutions of higher education have limited means to address” (p. 143) according to Kelly. As a result, this leaves their arguments bound by a deep investment in a very specific and traditional form of education. This choice is unsatisfying for a variety of reasons. Given the transformative impact of massification on higher education systems globally, deciding to narrow down contributions to selective settings feels unnecessarily limiting and almost antithetical to some of the arguments put forth in the book; namely, that the aims of higher education today are clearly in great flux. It also excludes more radical moral critiques of the very existence of elite higher education institutions and the liberal arts model as a desirable or even a justifiable form of education. We can imagine how a contribution from one of the many philosophers who choose to work at non-elite institutions as a matter of moral principle could have significantly added to this collection. As it stands, by virtue of its position, the volume reaffirms a limited and increasingly outdated concept of what counts as the ideal form of higher education.


Brighouse and McPherson conclude The Aims of Higher Education with a suggested list of additional questions to be addressed moving forward. To them, so many other inquiries could be added. In addition to the issues noted above, the implications of differential tuition for international students on our notions of the public good and the ethical imperative to decolonize higher education are just two examples. The book serves as a continuation of thoughtful discussion around morality and justice in higher education with much that is still left to be written. Given the rapidly evolving geopolitical landscape, this scholarship is urgently needed.



Brighouse, H. (2015, June 6). The aims of higher education: Problems of morality and justice [Web log comment]. Crooked Timber blog. Retrieved from http://crookedtimber.org/2015/06/02/the-aims-of-higher-education-problems-of-morality-and-justice/

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: April 21, 2017
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 21934, Date Accessed: 12/7/2021 10:58:01 AM

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About the Author
  • Lisa Ruth Brunner
    University of British Columbia
    E-mail Author
    Lisa Ruth Brunner is a PhD student in the Department of Educational Studies at the University of British Columbia. She is interested in immigration and higher education, internationalization, and ethics. She has recently published in Policy Reviews in Higher Education and the Canadian Bureau for International Education’s blog Without Borders.
  • Amy Metcalfe
    University of British Columbia
    E-mail Author
    AMY SCOTT METCALFE is Associate Professor of Higher Education in the Department of Educational Studies at the University of British Columbia. Her research interests include higher education policy, the academic profession, knowledge production, and critical policy studies. She recently co-edited Educational Policy Analysis for a Complex World: Post-structural Possibilities (2017, Routledge), and has recently published in Research in Education, Critical Studies in Education, and Higher Education.
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