Liberal Education as an End in Itself: Retrieving That Crazy Idea (Installment 2)

In the first part of this article, I highlighted the problem of turning higher education into merely a means to the end of economic success. In this second part, I focus on resources that can help academics send a more balanced message to the public about the value of higher education.

In the 19th century, John Henry Newman famously and valiantly defended the ideal of knowledge for knowledge’s sake, education as its own end. He did so in his book The Idea of a University, a classic that ought to be required reading for those working in higher education today. Newman says of knowledge that it is “valuable for what its very presence in us does for us after the manner of a habit, even though it be turned to no further account, nor subserve any direct end” (Newman, 79). He adds that “there is a knowledge worth possessing for what it is, and not merely for what it does” and that the “object” and “mission” of the university is “intellectual culture” (Newman, 85, 92).

Newman’s defense of the intrinsic value of education has roots in Western culture’s deepest religious and philosophical traditions, and its echoes can be heard in many discussions of the university. Its influence is evident in Robert Maynard Hutchins’ wonderful 1953 essay The University of Utopia (where, by the way, there are no accrediting agencies). In this essay, the former president of the University of Chicago writes that “Art and thought are the highest activities of man. They are the aims of life, and society should be organized to promote them first of all. It is a sign of a backward civilization when in a financial crisis the first thing the community thinks of is to close the art museums and reduce expenditures on education. A civilization without art and thought, or one that does not value them, is a pack rather than a civilization” (Hutchins, 17-18). In order to have a civilization rather than a pack, the US must have strong and independent colleges and universities—places where people, first and foremost, think (Hutchins, 87). Given the calls by conservative politicians to slash public funding for the arts and higher education, Hutchins’ defense of both is perhaps more timely now than in his day.

There are echoes of Newman in contemporary discussions of higher education too, such as in Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus’ expose entitled Higher Education?: How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids—And What We Can Do About It. In answering their question about what they think students should be doing in our colleges and universities, they answer: “We want young people to use their minds as they never have before, thinking hard about realities and issues that strain their mental powers. They should be urged to be imaginative and inquiring, to take risks without having to worry about their transcripts or alienating their teachers . . . colleges should be making their undergraduates more interesting people” (Hacker and Dreifus, 6-7).

Echoes of Newman are present even in books like College (Un)Bound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students—a 2013 work that focuses heavily on the economic obstacles to and dimensions of higher education. In it, Jeffrey J. Selingo perceptively notes that “In framing the debate about college in purely economic terms, we ignore the value of college as a place where students transform themselves—by meeting others with different backgrounds and beliefs, by exploring new subjects, and by making mistakes and learning from them, all with the end result that the student leaves the institution with an education, not just a job” (Selingo, 169).

If you are reading this article, you probably know of what Newman speaks. We all have experienced a transformative moment or a series of transformative moments when our lives were enriched by thinking new ideas, by being moved by a powerful piece of art, by the thrill of intellectual discovery.

I love books, but not because they are physical objects that we can touch and feel (though I have to say that I get a certain pleasure from that experience too). I love books because I love ideas. I love thinking and talking with others about imagined worlds, visions of a more just society, and the fabulous and sometimes tragic human condition. That’s why I became an academic. And when I’m at my best, as a teacher, I see those visions and that wonder in the eyes of my students. Now hardly any of them are going to be academics. Nevertheless, for some amount of time on our campus, they are scholars, thinkers, and visionaries. They have opportunities to learn and to know, and they have transformative experiences because learning and knowing have intrinsic value—not simply value vis-à-vis a job or career. For some amount of time on our campuses, if we treat our students in the way they should be treated, they are not merely future worker bees. Of course, we need worker bees. But only by treating our students as more than just future workers do we really honor their dignity as human beings.

I think students are receptive to this message—more receptive than we might think. Furthermore, I believe that students would be even more receptive to it if their professors consistently made the argument that higher education has intrinsic value. I think we do our students a disservice when we treat them as if they’re only in it (college that is) for the money. I think they have more to them than that. At my previous institution, I once conducted an online survey of philosophy and religious studies alumni. I asked them what motivated them to pursue these majors or minors. Overwhelmingly, the responses had little to do with jobs or career preparation. In religious studies, where we had many students who were planning to go to seminary or into church-related work, alumni cited personal interest and enjoyment by a more than two-to-one ratio ahead of job or career preparation. In philosophy, the ratio of interest and enjoyment reasons to job or career-preparation reasons was more than six-to-one.

Clearly, the parents of our students want them to be gainfully employed. They certainly do not want their kids coming back to live at home after college! Students, too, want employment. Working is good. However, we know that work and consumption make for a meager existence. Our students want more than that, and we want more than that for them. We want workers and citizens who have the intellectual and reflective capacities to truly marvel at the world around them, to see its beauty and its ugliness. We want workers and citizens who really can see the world in more interesting ways, and thus live more meaningful lives. Therefore, we want education as an end in itself. Such workers and citizens undoubtedly will be prepared to make money and, I hope, make the world a more just and loving place. But unless we can convince students that education is an end in itself and have them engage in their studies in that spirit, I fear that we increasingly will only be contributing to the production of worker bees.

The problem is greater than I have so far suggested. It is more than just a public relations problem. The problem is that means/end rationality now dominates academic culture. Take the competition for student dollars. The reasoning goes like this: if we want to increase student enrollment and revenue, then we must have a division one football team, a state-of-the-art recreation center, costly new brochures every year and a multimillion-dollar marketing strategy, and special research packages for star faculty who increase the prestige of the institution but do hardly any teaching. When everything becomes a means to something else, it is sometimes hard to remember what our real priorities are. It is hard to remember that there may be some things that are ends in themselves—and that a liberal education is one of them.

What I’m talking about, of course, is also a problem in our broader society—a society which often lacks the resources for determining and prioritizing ends, a society which largely has its ends determined by a culture industry that has profits, not edification, as its ultimate goal. However, if what I have identified really is a problem, then shouldn’t higher education play some role in solving the problem rather than perpetuating it?

When I talk to prospective students visiting our School of Humanities and Social Sciences, I tell them about how the skills and capacities they will develop in our programs will be useful in their future careers—and, in fact, that employers increasingly are asking for those skills and capacities. I tell them that graduates from our School have gone on to an incredibly rich array of careers. Nevertheless, I also remind them that their four years on our campus might be the only time in their lives when they can study the area of knowledge about which they are most passionate, when they can sit in classrooms with experts in things that they desperately want to study, when they can visit the offices of nationally- and even internationally-recognized faculty and talk about those aspects of the world that spark our nearly uncontrollable desire to learn.

Therefore, I am not making an either/or argument. I am not advocating that we academics need to be proponents of higher education as an end in itself to the exclusion of economic impact. I am urging that we defend higher education using both philosophical and practical arguments. However, as long as we continue to rely on the language of the market to describe what we do, we can fully expect that the public and its elected representatives will measure the value of higher education in narrow, market-driven ways. Therefore, go forth with your economic analyses and share with the public how higher education can be a means to many important ends. But go forth, too, with the Gospel of Newman—with the firm belief that the quality of a liberal education cannot be exhaustively measured by the unholy dollar. Go forth and share the good news that higher education continues to put a sparkle in the eyes of our students. It touches their souls and enriches their lives in ways that no quantitative analysis can reflect nor any future incomes justify. Go forth and proclaim that crazy idea.

By Eric Bain-Selbo
Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences
Indiana University Kokomo



Hutchins, Robert M. The University of Utopia. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1953.

Newman, John Henry. The Idea of a University. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996.

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One Response to Liberal Education as an End in Itself: Retrieving That Crazy Idea (Installment 2)

  1. It is so important that all educators celebrate the intrinsic value of higher education–especially those of us in the humanities.

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