What is the purpose of higher education?


MAYNOOTH UNIVERSITY | 10 September 2020

The ‘purposes’ of Higher Education…?

The American journalist, Sydney J. Harris once stated that ‘The whole purpose of education is to turn mirrors into windows’. If you had asked me a year ago whether I agreed, I would have too easily and too quickly said yes. Education and higher education are and should be about enquiry, knowledge generation and exchange, curiosity, and the empowerment of learners to create positive and more inclusive changes in their societies. As a proponent of critical pedagogy (a teaching approach which attempts to help students question and challenge domination, and the beliefs and practices that dominate), I have and do regard education and higher education as political acts committed to the pursuit of social change and emancipation from oppression.

However, the apparently empowering and inclusive metaphor I cited above (that education turns mirrors into windows) doesn’t necessarily recognise or confront the barriers, inequities, hierarchies, and norms which underpin the realities and lived experiences of educational systems, identities, relationships, institutions, and what constitutes ‘knowledge’. Through my participation in the DISCs project, my ongoing learning about social justice education, and the educational, social, and political dilemmas I’ve witnessed and experienced over this academic year, I’ve been increasingly trying to unpack the constellation of assumptions, norms, and privileges as well as the teleological assumptions that everything including, and perhaps especially, education should and must have a utility and ‘purpose/s’.

Disrupting Higher Education and changing my practice

Bharma et al. (2018) in Decolonising the University question whether the purpose of education should be to ‘perpetuate existing power structures and norms or equip students with the critical tools to question them’. I believe that Higher Education can and should be a force for progressive social change and I believe in my students’ potential for creating positive change in their own lives and other people’s lives. This optimistic belief is all too easy for me to hold. I grew up in a family where education at all levels was respected and it was always assumed that I would go to university. Without deeply interrogating the who, how and why and many privileges of this trajectory, I undertook an academic ‘conveyer belt’ of over ten years of consecutive undergraduate study, postgraduate research, and a doctorate and have been an educator in third-level institutions for over twenty years.

However, I must face how self-serving and comfortable it is for me, in my privileged experiences and position in my role as a permanent, full-time academic, to believe in and to protect the status quo and not to interrogate and confront the many everyday injustices and inequities embedded in the ivory tower and all educational sectors. In my next blog piece, I discuss the #DisruptTexts project and recent movements in international publishing and entertainment industries such as #OwnVoices and #WeNeedDiverseBooks, and how they have been impacting on my curriculum design, approaches to the literary ‘canon’, and pedagogy.

References: Bhambra, G. K., Gebrial, D., Nişancıoğlu, K. (2018) Decolonising the University. London: Pluto Press.