Amy Gutmann tells a troubling story in the essay collection The Aims of Higher Education: Problems of Morality and Justice (University of Chicago Press). In 2010, business mogul Peter Thiel offered to pay 20 young people $100,000 to drop out of college and found tech startups. His point: a university education is no longer worth the cost, either to individuals or to society. Better to have our top prodigies bypass higher education and get right to work on the next technological breakthroughs. They’ll make a fortune while boosting the gross national product, so who needs college?

The eight essays in The Aims of Higher Education provide a rebuttal to Thiel, each in its own way. Right off the bat, editors Harry Brighouse and Michael McPherson affirm that college is about more than improving students’ income and career prospects. It’s a time, the editors say, “widely regarded as one of self-exploration in which they can learn more about their own talents and inclinations and how these fit into the wider world.”

Brighouse and McPherson are interested in the values underlying heated debates about higher education. What should students learn? Who should attend college? How should universities relate to society? They’ve solicited essays by university faculty and administrators who can provide a philosophical perspective on these issues, with an eye to influencing higher-education policy and practice.

Gutmann, president of the University of Pennsylvania, offers the best counterargument to Peter Thiel’s skip-school approach. In her view, economic payback is not the primary goal of a university education in the 21st century. The goal is understanding the world in a way that allows a student to benefit society.

“At its best,” Gutmann writes, “a liberal arts education prepares undergraduates for success in whatever profession they choose to pursue, and it does so by means of teaching them to think creatively and critically about themselves, their society…and the world.”

Such habits of mind are increasingly important in what Thomas Friedman calls “an age of accelerations.” Given the radical changes caused by technology, globalization, global warming, and other disrupters, universities can play a vital role in helping a new generation engage with these critical issues. They can also help an older generation get up to speed through lifelong learning opportunities, which Friedman sees as essential to 21st century survival.

Qualities of mind

Amy Gutmann: ‘At its best, a liberal arts education prepares undergraduates for success in whatever profession they choose to pursue, and it does so by means of teaching them to think creatively and critically about themselves, their society…and the world.’

Kyla Ebels-Duggan, Paul Weithman, and Allen Buchanan explain how universities can accomplish this remarkable feat. Their essays emphasize higher education’s role in developing vital character traits among students, like personal autonomy and humility (especially relating to what they might not know and understand). Weithman, a professor of philosophy at Notre Dame, has a particularly interesting take on the importance of “academic friendship” between professors and students. He believes this special relationship can work wonders for students’ character development.

“I suggest that when students feel they are part of a classroom community led by a professor who evidently cares about sharing broadening educational experiences with them,” Weithman writes, “they respond by developing—at least in nascent form—the qualities of mind that [professors] model for them and want them to acquire.”

I agree with Weithman that “the development of the appropriate kind of friendship between professors and students is one of the joys of teaching.” I also agree that professors must “model the qualities of mind” they want students to acquire, including open-mindedness and intellectual honesty. In my experience, this involves creating an inclusive learning environment in which the professor refrains from imposing a religious, political, or moral point of view on students. This consideration is timely given the recent discussions of free speech and serves as an opportunity for faculty to think about our professional ethics and obligations. Students do their best work when they express themselves freely, without worrying that the person on the podium—the one with all the power—might disagree with them. Professors can best attain Weithman’s ideal of “academic friendship” by encouraging a diversity of opinions and perspectives in their classrooms.

Fair equality of opportunity

The last two essays in The Aims of Higher Education, by Erin I. Kelly and Lionel K. McPherson, touch on issues of access, diversity, and justice. Kelly, a professor of philosophy at Tufts University, argues that “fair equality of opportunity” is essential for universities to function as just institutions in a democratic society. This moral issue becomes ever more urgent—and complicated—as the cost of education increases, income disparity grows, and selection criteria become more stringent.

And McPherson, president of the Spencer Foundation, thinks higher education bears “a distinctive responsibility to deal seriously with black disadvantage in education at all levels.”

The University of Wisconsin-Madison Odyssey Project is a free weekly class for low-income adults seeking a head start on a college degree. (Photo by David Giroux)

At University of Wisconsin-Madison Continuing Studies, we take this responsibility to heart. For 14 years we’ve offered a program called the Odyssey Project, a free weekly class for low-income, mostly minority adults seeking a head start on a college degree. Odyssey Junior is a related free program for the children and grandchildren of Odyssey students that aims to break the cycle of poverty.

Continuing Studies also provides access through Adult Career and Special Student Services (ACSSS), which reaches out to nontraditional students with serious barriers to higher education. ACSSS provides scholarships, awards, and free counseling to adults interested in returning to college for personal enrichment and career advancement. It’s inspiring to see these students finish their degrees in spite of poverty, family responsibilities, and other challenges.

The Aims of Higher Education offers thought-provoking perspectives on highly relevant moral issues. Editors Brighouse and McPherson don’t drive a particular agenda, although they do neatly refute Peter Thiel. Few who finish this book will doubt the importance and value of higher education.