The Goals of Higher Education

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I’m taking Cathy Davidson’s Coursera course on the History and Future of Higher Education, so I thought it would be a good time to reflect on some thoughts about higher education that were prompted in a pedagogy class I took last semester.

In the book Teaching Communication, Jo Sprague discusses four potential goals of education:

  1. Transmit cultural knowledge – pass on the great works of art, literature, and science of which any educated person should be aware.
  2. Transmit intellectual skills – teaching how to learn, the mind is a muscle that must be exercised.
  3. Transmit career skills – the skills and degree lead are directly applicable to obtaining employment.
  4. Reshape the values of society – critique and transform the world, shape a more just society

In thinking about a philosophy of teaching, it’s important to consider what we believe to be the main goal of education. Most likely, all four goals will be a part of that philosophy, but some will rank as more important than others.

Interestingly, in reflection, I believe that as an undergraduate transmission of culture ranked highly on my list. It was important for me to be knowledgeable on the great works of the past. What I’ve noticed is that the more education I’ve had, the more important the development of intellectual skills has become to me. I think this has happened for two main reasons.

First, there’s no way formal education can possibly cover all of the important work that’s been done throughout history. One must continue this education beyond the classroom, and that’s only possible if the intellectual skills to do so are present. Second, I’ve come to realize that even within many of the great works there are flaws or unanswered questions which need to be addressed. Simply being aware of them isn’t enough – one needs to engage and question the great works to truly participate in them, and this takes intellectual skills.

Therefore, in reflecting on my goals as a teacher, I’ve ranked the importance of each of thee viewpoints as follows:

Higher Education


I was initially surprised to see how highly I ranked career skills, but the more I’ve thought about, I have realized it’s because I believe career skills are intimately connected to intellectual skills. The very best career skills are the skills that allows us to think, write, and speak critically, because these will be applicable to all forms of tools and technology. And pragmatically speaking, very few Americans can afford to go to school simply for the sake of learning itself. While that might be a worthwhile byproduct, I think it’s important to recognize that the reason college has become so widespread is because of the potential job opportunities it represents.

How would you rank the importance of each of these goals for higher education?

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