The Purpose of Higher Education


Mehmet_BioPic By Mehmet Kucukozer

The Behavioral Sciences Department (BHS) at Dutchess Community College (DCC), of which I am faculty, runs a seminar series each semester called A Conversation Across the Disciplines. The idea is to invite faculty of the various departments to speak and share perspectives from their respective areas of study on various topics of academic and social significance. We, the organizers, thought it would be timely to have an event on “the purpose of higher education,” as the State University of New York is pushing system-wide curricular reforms to which, as a member college, we are subject. We saw it as an opportunity to address some of the long-term implications of restructuring that emerge from the current drive to edit credits, courses, and course requirements.

As one of the invited faculty at the event providing a sociological perspective, I made the case that key ideas within the sociological tradition have served as vital philosophical and conceptual foundations for education, and that those ideas, perhaps more than ever, need to play a role in structuring the future of education. I draw on the seminal work of the French sociologist Emile Durkheim who defined the critical function of education as developing engaged and active citizens for the formation of democratic societies. I follow up with references to the works of Howard Zinn and Paulo Freire in illustrating how Durkheim’s conception of education can be put into practice in the classroom. My hope is to spur further discussion and reflection.

To be sure, the influence of the sociological tradition in education during the twentieth century is well acknowledged.  It is indeed present in our college’s banner and motto: “Towards a Democracy of Excellence.” This echoes Durkheim’s view that education instills “the respect… for the ideas and sentiments which are at the base of democratic morality”[1]. At its core for Durkheim, education has a moral quality in developing the kinds of people who through obtained beliefs and knowledge can act in ways that benefit the public good[1]. As humans are inherently social beings, morality is measured by peoples’ participation in society. The important questions that emerge for us educators are these: To what extent is a democratic morality currently the foundation for classroom instruction? How is then such a system of education to be structured in the classroom?

Certainly, the twentieth century, being the most destructive period in human history, has brought to the fore significant concerns about the (moral) purpose of knowledge and thus education. Indeed, the great social historian Howard Zinn notes, “In 1937 sociologist Robert S. Lynd wrote a little gem of a book entitled Knowledge for What? In which he attacked the divorce of scholarship from the problems of his day… In the interim the world has experienced Auschwitz and Hiroshima and Birmingham, yet the accusation in that book against the world of scholarship remains exactly as true in every line”[2]. As these words were written close to fifty years ago, one can argue that this divorce is still in effect. Sociologists who explicitly look to apply their research to solving social problems are seen as doing something distinctive, and their work is labeled “public sociology.” In general, such scholars are known as “public intellectuals.”

How does education suffer if democratic morality is no longer the underlying principal? Democratic morality provides a basis for an intellectual orientation that can only fully develop if two key interrelated components are the focus of classroom instruction. These two components are developing a student’s (1) ability for critical analysis, and (2) his/her sense of agency to effect positive social change as citizen. The best illustration of this comes from an observation in which Zinn describes a classroom scene in one of the “Freedom Schools” set up by civil rights activists during the summer of 1964 in Mississippi:

One day, it was an editorial in the morning’s Clarion-Ledger, charging that civil rights workers were teaching people to break the law. “What do you think of the editorial? Is it true? If you could write a letter to the editor about it, what would you say?…Here’s paper and pencil, go ahead. We’ll pick out one or two and really send them to the editor.” This was not education for grades, not writing for teacher’s approval, but for an immediate use; it was a learning surrounded with urgency. And the students responded with seriousness, picking apart the issues: Are we for the law? When is civil disobedience justified? Then the teacher explored with them the differences between statutory law, constitutional law, “natural” law[3].

The style of instruction here is promoting critical thought and agency by sparking what Paulo Freire refers to as a dialogue between theory and practice[4]. Theory is understood as a framework for knowing and explaining the world. In this case, the students are learning and questioning the theory of law: What is its purpose? How is it structured? How does it relate to the concept of rights?

Theory serves as the basis for practice. Without knowing, one cannot act. Practice is action, or the (re)structuring of the social order in action. Education that focuses on the dialoguing of theory and practice forms what Freire calls the “ontological vocation” for students[4]. Through knowledge obtained in the process of learning, the student becomes a “subject” with the capacity to shape his/her world and thus create history. Thus students are imbued with a sense of agency, which constitutes the essence of democratic citizenship. In Zinn’s classroom observation, students are given the tools to act through their learning of law.

Within the sociological tradition, as put forth by Durkheim and echoed by others, the purpose of education is to foster an intellectual orientation for effective participation in society.  “Effective” comes from those who have developed the capacity to exercise a democratic morality, an ability to engage in an ongoing dialogue between theory and practice—more specifically, an ability to critically assess theory in terms of its moral application to social practice. This tradition of education is perhaps becoming more important as we sail into an increasingly uncertain global future.

[1] Cladis, Mark S. “Education, Virtue and Democracy in the Work of Emile Durkheim.” Journal of Moral Education. 1995, Vol. 24 Issue 1, p. 37, 16p.

[2] Zinn, Howard. “Nonviolent Direct Action.” Howard Zinn on History. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2011[1966].

[3] Zinn, Howard. “Freedom Schools.” Howard Zinn on History. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2011[1964].

[4] Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. (Trans.: Myra Bergman Ramos.) New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2012 [1970].

Mehmet is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Dutchess Community College, SUNY, currently teaching Introduction to Sociology, Social Problems, and Sociology of Religion. His areas of interest include historical comparative analysis of resistance movements, social change, and political economy.


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