Three Visions for American Higher Education
By Gerson Moreno-Riano, June 24, 2010 in Pedagogy and Teaching, What is Education?

For the past few weeks I have engaged in a lot of soul searching concerning the mission of higher education and of us faculty.  What is the mission of higher education?  What is the purpose of faculty?  Amidst my reflections, I have come across some thought-provoking observations that are important to consider.  Here are just a few:

First, there is Stanley Fish’s claim that the only mission of higher education is that of “passing on knowledge and conferring [analytical] skills.”  As Fish argues in his book Save the World on Your Own Time (Oxford, 2008), “Anyone who asks for more has enlisted in the “we-are-going-to-save-the world” army…faculty cannot…fashion moral character, or inculcate respect for others, or produce citizens of a certain temper [because to do so means that] they abandon the responsibilities that belong to them… in order to take up responsibilities that belong properly to others” (p. 14). 

Second, there is E.D. Hirsch Jr.’s proposition that education is about correcting human nature.  In The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them (Anchor Books, 1996), Hirsch argues that “the aim of education is not to follow human nature but to correct it, to set it on a path of virtue that is often contrary to its natural development.  To give one’s fallen natural instincts free rein would beget a life of greed, selfishness, and crime” (p. 73).

Lastly, there is Allen Bloom’s contention that education is about completing human nature. In The Closing of the American Mind (Simon & Schuster, 1987), Bloom suggests that “the teacher, particularly the teacher dedicated to liberal education, must constantly try to look toward the goal of human completeness and back at the natures of his students here and now, ever seeking to understand the former and to assess the capacities of the latter to approach it” (p. 19).


Three different thinkers present three distinct visions.  Education is to confer knowledge and skills.  Education is to correct the soul.  Education is to complete the soul.  The question that I have been considering is whether or not these distinct visions are mutually exclusive or complimentary to each other or related in some fashion.


There is something clean and neat about Fish’s proposal.  It is simply about inputs and measurable outputs.  Yet, Fish’s notion of education is non-transformative.  It does not address the whole person.  Hirsch’s vision considers education to be much like a medical prescription for the soul.  Universities and faculty are the soul’s medical solutions.  While this appears transformative, it gives universities and faculty a broad grant of moral authority to become the soul police.  Lastly, Bloom’s vision appears holistic and thus transformative.  It is about human flourishing.  Yet, at the same time, Bloom’s proposal is vague and mystical.


As I mentioned earlier, these are observations and reflections about American higher education and our role as faculty.  I have not reached particular conclusions though I confess that reflecting on these visions has alerted me of how much more there is to know and think about higher education.  In this sense, these three visions of American higher education have enriched my thinking and my teaching already.  Will they enrich the soul and learning of my students?  Only time will tell.





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1 Comment
Anonymous on Jun 25, 2010 at 9:59 am

Query--where does Newman fit into your scheme?

You might consider Thomas Hibbs's book, Virtue's Splendor: Wisdom, Prudence, and the Human Good, to be of interest. The back cover blurb gets, quite well I think, at Hibbs's position: "Understood from either a natural or a supernatural perspective, the good life according to Aquinas involves the exercise not just of the moral virtues but also of the intellectual virtues." In other words, intellectual excellence, or wisdom, is part of the good life. And it is that particular aspect of the good life--rather than every part of it--to which the task of education, rightly understood, addresses itself. If the principle task of the university is education, then the good of intellectual excellence is the chief end of the university. This also means that education does not, by design, promote human perfection in every respect. Rather, it promotes it in one particular respect--thereby contributing to human flourishing more generally.

Now, the well trained mind, should of course, learn to think rightly about matters moral as well. And intellectual formation is part of character formation. My only point is that universities--whether Christian or secular--frequently think they are in the character formation business in general rather than focusing on that part of character formation which is intellectual development. In Christian schools (save for a handful), this means academics and scholarly pursuit gets displaced or subordinated to the "spiritual," while in secular schools the character they wish to form in students is already deformed.

Wouldn't it be great to have a school--public or religious--that said something like this: Our chief end is the intellectual formation of the student and well as the continued intellectual development of the faculty. We will not undermine the character or values instilled in the student by their family. Perhaps such a place will even seek to promote character formation of the right sort. But it's chief end--intellectual formation. I'm not suggesting that speculative wisdom is the highest goal of man. But it is the goal that the university exists to serve. It would be nice to have religious and secular schools that dedicated themselves first and foremost to that goal. Some do. But I think they are increasingly rare.

about the author

Gerson Moreno-Riano
Gerson Moreno-Riano

Gerson Moreno-Riano has been appointed as Dean of the School of Undergraduate Studies at Regent University.  He is also an associate professor of government at Regent.  He has been at Regent since 2006.

Moreno-Riano's latest publications include the co-authored The Prospect of Internet Democracy (Ashgate, 2009) and the edited volume The World of Marsilius of Padua (Brepols, 2007).  He is currently at work on two commissioned projects: 1) a companion to Marsilius of Padua and 2) organizational evil in the modern era.