A Philosophy of Prudence and the Purpose of Higher Education Today

HomeArticlesA Philosophy of Prudence and the Purpose of Higher Education Today

In the past decade there have emerged several books that have spoken about the crisis in American higher education. However, what this crisis is and how do institutions best address it remains uncertain.1 For example, some critics have followed the concerns laid out in the Spellings Commission’s 2006 Report, A Test of Leadership, that find the American workforce is increasingly ill-prepared for a globalized “knowledge economy” because of the marginalization of undergraduate learning in American colleges and universities.2 Books such as Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses and We’re Losing Our Minds: Rethinking American Higher Education confirm these fears that American higher education is not providing the requisite skills for a twentieth-first century workforce: faculty indulge their passion for specialized research, students are preoccupied with their social lives, and administrators and staff support every perceived need and interest of both faculty and students but have no coherent idea about the essential mission of higher education.3 Adopting an economic utilitarian approach to American higher education – the purpose and relevancy of colleges and universities is prepare students to become economically productive actors – these critics see the crisis confronting higher education institutions as their inability to deliver the requisite skills for the United States to remain competitive in a globalized economy.

Another and entirely different set of concerns about American higher education is the erosion of the liberal education curriculum. Books like Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, Why Choose the Liberal Arts, and Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given up on the Meaning of Life defend the need of liberal education in a world that is increasingly being defined by economic utility.4 Although these authors differ in their reasons as to why liberal education is essential to American higher education – preparing students for democratic citizenship, instilling a morality of secular humanism, or giving young people the critical skills needed for an ever-changing workforce – they all agree that liberal education, particularly the humanities, should return to the center of college’s and universities’ curriculum – a similar argument that was made a quarter century ago in Allan Bloom’s Closing the American Mind.5

Besides these two groups, there also have emerged another set of critics that have focused on the organizational and administrative issues of American higher education institutions. Mark Taylor, for instance, sees faculty specialization in arcane scholarship as the source of the marginalization of undergraduate teaching in colleges and universities. His solution is to end tenure, restructure departments for interdisciplinary studies, and embrace technology to connect students worldwide.6 Naomi Schaefer Riley is also of the same mind with Taylor in ending tenure as a way for faculty to return back to teaching as their primary mission.7 Motivated by the recognition of their peers in publications rather than how well they teach their students, faculty give priority to scholarship and pay little attention to teaching. Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifu agree with Riley and Taylor that teaching is marginalized but they believe that the cause of this problem is the lack of student access to higher education and the present inequalities in resources that exist among institutions.8 Their answer is to look at those institutions that exhibit what they deem to be best practices as potential models for other colleges and universities to emulate.

It is clear from these critics that a crisis exists in American higher education, but there is no agreement about the nature of this crisis and how to address it. Perhaps another way to approach this problem is to ask how American colleges and universities are relevant to society, as this appear to be the underlying concern among these authors. What should be the role, mission, or relevance of American higher education institutions for society: should it to make our students economically productive actors, democratic citizens, or morally-informed people? And once this mission is determined, how should it be implemented? Are certain institutions, such as research universities or small liberal art colleges, better prepared for this mission than other types of institutions?

I propose that the primary mission of American higher education should be to cultivate the character and practice of Aristotelian prudence. Among the various functions that higher education institutions can serve, the cultivation of prudence is uniquely suited for American colleges and universities. Prudence provides a bridge not only between theoretical and practical reasoning for students, but it also can combine the traditional activities of the university – teaching, research, and public service – into a coherent mission that makes colleges and universities relevant to society. In a certain sense, prudence has always played a critical role in the mission of American higher education since the inception of the republic. Although never explicitly articulated, prudence is required not only for the development of democratic citizens, which was the primary concern of American colleges and universities in the nineteenth century, but also for these institutions to fulfill their public service role as that became increasingly prominent in the twentieth.

American Higher Education

Before delving into the details about prudence and its role in American higher education, a brief history is required in order to illuminate American higher education’s evolving character and how prudence could play a role. Initially influenced by the European Enlightenment, the American founders desired an educated and self-governing citizenry in order to keep the new republic intact.9 As Hellenbrand wrote, “many of Jefferson’s contemporaries fervently believed that only education and a general reformation of manners could ensure America’s political separation from Britain.”10 Education was to instill the republican values of liberty and self-government. There also was concern that American youth, as the future civic leaders, were being drawn to the great European universities. To remedy this situation, at least ten of the nation’s founders were also founders of academic institutions with the most famous being Thomas Jefferson’s University of Virginia which was established in 1819 and opened in 1825. As a nondenominational place of higher learning, Jefferson “wish to establish in the upper & healthier country, & more central for the state an University on a plan so broad & liberal & modern, as to be worth patronizing with the public support.”11

Although President Washington along with other prominent founders favored the creation of a national university, a system of many state-supported institutions emerged instead.12 Rev. Manasseh Cutler, an author of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, successfully negotiated with Congress for setting aside two square miles for a public university. Ohio University in Athens, founded in 1804, became the first state university west of the Appalachian Mountains. When new states entered the Union, they also received public land for the endowment of a university.13 By the time the Morrill Act of 1862 was enacted, land grant colleges and universities extended to the west coast with twenty states already having state universities.14

Prior to the Civil War, the primary mission of colleges and universities was teaching undergraduates to become good democratic citizens and leaders.15 These institutions offered a liberal arts curriculum because it was believed that a well-rounded preparation for the individual was necessary for them to fulfill this role.16 However, there also emerged institutions that emphasized technical education in agricultural and industrial sciences. The Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890 provided land grants and federal funding that stimulated state legislatures to establish agricultural and mechanical colleges and universities. Influenced by the German research-oriented university, these types of universities started after the Civil War with some of them later becoming leading institutions in American higher education.17

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, American colleges and universities continued their mission of serving the nation of making good democratic citizens and leaders through liberal and technical education. But they also expanded opportunities to previously excluded groups as the concept of democracy itself widen to include equal treatment of students and equal access for all people, including the poor, women, and racial and ethnic minorities.18 Adult education programs were established in such places like Chautauqua University (1883-92) that pioneered summer sessions, correspondence courses, and extension services. These ideas would in turn influence other institutions, culminating into what would be known in 1904 as the “Wisconsin Idea.”19

The democratization of American higher education continued throughout the twentieth century with the community college movement, the G.I. Bill, the California Plan, the Civil Rights Movement, and other federal funding programs. But it was the emergence and dominance of graduate institutions around 1900 that redefined the mission of American higher education as teaching, research, and public service.20 Teaching was a legacy from the American Founding of creating good democratic citizens and leaders, while research was influenced by German-style universities and comported well in the practical culture of the United States in the belief that great research universities would advance basic knowledge and provide technical expertise required by a modern industrial society.21 Public service came from the Progressive political ideology that sought to combine the teaching and research missions of colleges and universities to transmit higher knowledge to the public through external activities like applied research, off-campus courses, and service learning.

The “Wisconsin Idea” was the most famous articulation of this public service mission and became a model for subsequent schools. The “Wisconsin Idea” was the University of Wisconsin’s commitment to serve the entire population of the state. Specifically, university faculty expertise was incorporated into state government planning and the university extension services were made available throughout the state.22 Drawing national attention, the “Wisconsin Idea” influenced many other state universities to elevate public service with teaching and research as part of a university’s core mission.23

Critics of this new mission argued that public service was in practice submission to business or state interests. Faculty also was concern about business leaders involving themselves in higher education and universities patterning themselves after the bureaucratic structures of corporations and the state.24 Since this time, this threat of institutional autonomy whether from government or commercial pressures has remained a constant concern among faculty, whether during the Vietnam War or in the current age of economic globalization.25

Most of this concern has centered on the source of funding. Prior to World War II, funding for expensive and specialized research came from philanthropic foundations or business corporations. During and after World II, the federal government became the dominant patron of major research universities, although private foundations continued to fund academic research in the social sciences. Most recently, starting in the 1970s there has been a shift from basic and military research to civilian and commercial in order to meet the needs of a global economy.26 This latest shift from a theoretical model to an entrepreneurial one under the rubric of public service has raise questions about what actually constitutes public service and what should be its rationale.

Today the United States multifunctional university still clings to its three-fold mission of teaching, research, and public service. When looking back at the history of American higher education, these three activities have fulfilled critical functions in society: teaching democratic citizens and leaders, research for economic progress, and public service for the improvement of society. However, this mission has become increasingly questioned and criticized as to its relevancy. But what each of these three activities had implicitly promoted was an understanding of prudence whether in democratic politics, economic growth, or social stability. The cultivation of prudence therefore should be explicitly articulated as the central purpose of American higher education as opposed to the missions of economic utilitarianism, scientific research, liberal education, or civic formation. But before explaining why the cultivation of prudence is uniquely suited for institutions of American higher education, I want to present an understanding of Aristotelian prudence that differs from contemporary interpretations.

The Recovery of Aristotelian Prudence

The recent interest in Aristotelian prudence is part of an overall attempt to recover the notion of judgment in political philosophy and pedagogy as a response to postmodern critics who have questioned the validity of theoretical reasoning and its fusion with practice.27 Convinced of the existence of such a gap, some scholars have looked to political judgment as a way to replace theoretical and scientific reasoning in order to reinforce rather than undermine the politics.28 In their task, these scholars have returned to Aristotle for guidance in the recovery of political judgment. For them, Aristotelian prudence (phronesis) is the model of political judgment that avoids the elitism of Plato’s philosopher-kings as well as the rigidity of theoretical and scientific reasoning.

One of the problems with theoretical or scientific reasoning is its rigid, abstract, and moral disengaged character that is focused solely on universal solutions to particular problems.29 This form of reasoning immobilizes judgment of any type and creates a politics of expertise and bureaucracy that is democratically unaccountable.30 Furthermore, as a solitary activity rather than one of shared deliberation, theoretical and scientific reasoning is essentially a product of self-interest rather than deliberation about the common good.31 Even if one were able to understand the common good, the person, as a scientific and detached observer, would lack the sympathy to promote and sustain it. The end result is an education that cultivates theoretical and scientific reason at the expense of the virtues of accountability, deliberation, and sympathy for the common good.

Unlike theory or science, phronesis is flexible, practical, and a product of a common understanding about particular, concrete action. However, this recent revival of the study of phronesis either downplays or steers clear of Aristotle’s natural sciences and theoretical reason. For example, Barber and Beiner claim that theoretical wisdom is not required for the cultivation of prudence, while Sullivan subordinate theory to serve practical ends, such as civic education, rather than the contemplation of the truth.32 Other thinkers, such as Steinberger, have argued that phronesis is an alternative form of intellectual virtue, like theoretical reason, but applicable only to particular matters, such as politics.33 In their attempt to supplant scientific reasoning with phronesis, these scholars have detached Aristotle’s understanding of prudence from both his conceptions of science and theory.

I argue that Aristotle’s conceptions of science and theory, particularly his understandings of nature and noetic intelligence, are critical to understanding Aristotle’s phronesis.34 Without these key elements, phronesis becomes either another type of theoretical reasoning preoccupied with particulars or a form of calculation concerned with power struggles. The Aristotelian conceptions of nature and theory therefore are critical components to the construction of phronesis. Without a properly understanding of these concepts first, thinkers make the error of engaging in a form of abstract reasoning themselves in their recover phronesis, a mistake that they accuse their non-Aristotelian colleagues of committing.

The Paradox of Nature

To understand Aristotle’s understanding of phronesis, we must first look at conception of nature with particular attention to the paradox that he pointed out in the Nicomachean Ethics where the “right of nature” (physei dikaion) “everywhere has the same force and does not exist by people’s thinking this or that . . . and yet it is changeable – all of it (kineton mentoi pan).”35 Aristotle’s statements are perplexing: physei dikaion is everywhere the same, with such acts like murder, theft, and adultery as always being bad, but all of it is also changeable (NE 1107a12-14). How can physei dikaion be both universal and contingent at the same time? And how is it related to phronesis?36

On the one hand, Aristotle argued that physei dikaion was universal: it had the same force everywhere in the forbidding of such acts like murder, theft, and adultery. On the other hand, physei dikaion was changeable in the sense that universal principles can have diverse actualizations according to time, object, aim, and method: “the right time, with reference to the right object, toward the right people, with the right aim, and in the right way” (NE 1106b20-23). The criteria of time, object, aim, and method allowed Aristotle to make the distinction between murder and killing. If certain acts fell short or exceed this criteria (the mean), then they were considered bad, for as Aristotle wrote: “There is neither a mean of excess and deficiency, nor excess and deficiency of a mean (NE 1106a25-1107a26).

For instance, murder is distinct from killing. When done at the right time, with respect to the right persons, and with the right aim and method, killing is naturally right. When overshooting or falling short of their mark, this action is murder. The act of murder did not break some abstract rule but it missed the mean in concrete action. Although the criteria of time, object, aim, and method may appear vague, for example, “do not kill at the wrong time, involving the wrong object, with the wrong purpose and method,” for Aristotle it was appropriate to a reality that did not yield a permanent, detailed standard. Moral and ethical acts were not governed “by any art of set of precepts” but rather “according to right reason” because what was right was “not one, nor the same for all” (NE 1103b31-1104a9, 1106a32). Each situation must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis with the underlying universal substance of ethics – the one way of being good – driving all of the means.37

The paradox of physei dikaion, being simultaneously universal and changeable in action, is personified in the excellent person (phronimos) who could choose the mean in practical situations (NE 1107a1). This phronimos was probably also the serious person (spouadios) who saw “the truth in each class of things, being as it were the norm and measure of them,” and the “man called without qualification good” who possessed not just phronesis but all the virtues, for “with the presence of the one quality, phronesis, will be given all the excellences” (NE 1113a30-35, 1144b30-1145a1). The phronimos or spouadios therefore was guided primarily by phronesis but also included other intellectual virtues, such as noetic intelligence, in his decisions.

The Paradox of Prudence

Like physei dikaion, phronesis also appears to be contradictory. Aristotle defined it as the “ability to deliberate well about what sorts of things conduce to the good life in general” but could produce “no demonstration” of its first principles, even though its particular actions were true in practice” (NE 1140a24-1140b30; 1142a11-30; 1146b35-1146a7). In other words, phronesis could not become a science (episteme), which was concerned with first principles that of necessity were always the same. Because its attention was on the particulars and the contingents of the world, phronesis could not start from universal premises or produce universal conclusions. But if there were so, how could phronesis deliberate about the good in general, especially as it could not demonstrate such a deliberation? How could phronesis have a theoretical capacity when its objects were particular?

This paradox about phronesis can be clarified by looking at Aristotle’s concept of nous (intellect) as something both divine and human and the source of theoretical reasoning, like noetic intelligence. Nous was “something divine” and superior to “our composite nature,” but it was also “more than anything else is man.” By following nous, humans could make themselves immortal and “strain every nerve to live in accordance with the best thing in us” (NE 1177b27-1178a8). Aristotle discovered that human beings possessed something within themselves that was different from them and yet paradoxically that was the best thing of them. This thing could be discovered by the cognitive faculty that Aristotle termed nous.

Humans possessed a divinity that was superior to but connected to them. Aristotle wrote that there were “things much more divine in nature even than man,” which included not only the heavenly bodies but also the creator god as a physical force (NE 1141b1-2; Metaphysics, 98b-984a). In the Metaphysics Aristotle stated that “first philosophy” studies ontology, eternal causes, and the “first mover” god who was “in a better state” than humans (Metaphysics, 1003a-1005a, 1026a, 1072b). Although this “first mover” was not a creator god, it was the one who set things in motion as a final cause. It accomplished this not by the act of creation but as the object of desire and thought that attracts all desiring and thinking things. Thus, when Aristotle spoke of nous present in nature as the cause and order of the world, he conceived of the world as being preserved by the rational and love-inspiring attraction of the prime mover (Metaphysics, 1072a20-1072b4; 984b15-20).

Nature (physis) therefore was reality moving towards the prime mover. Defining nature as a member of “the class of causes that acts for the sake of something,” Aristotle declared that “the form” of any reality and the “mover” of any nature “often coincide, for the what and that-for-the-sake-of -which are one, while the primary source of motion is the same in species as these” (Physics, 198a20-198b10). Physis was reality in its immediate form that moves towards its own final cause while simultaneously exist in a state of tension towards the prime mover as the ultimate final cause. The different “natures” that exist are only diversely experienced aspects of the prime mover’s rational and love-attracting permeation of the cosmos.

The evidence of the claim that physis was both natural and divine was the “experience of nous” itself. In Eudemian Ethics, Aristotle asserted that “the object of our search is this – what is the commencement of movement in the soul? The answer is evident: as in the universe, so in the soul, it is God. For in a sense the divine element in us moves everything” (1248a25-27).” Aristotle’s primer mover was a transcendent entity that still existed in the cosmos and generated a two-in-one motion that gave physis, including humans, a dual and yet single final cause (telos). This double-single movement of the soul towards the prime mover was what Aristotle called physis: it was both everywhere valid and changeable at the same time.

For humans, the path to unity with the prime mover was through nous: humans were to follow a single ethical direction with various adjustments made to remain on this path. Virtue was not the obedience of abstract rules but following phronesis as led by the primer mover’s pull. Phronesis consequently was the motion between the prime mover and humans that occurred within the nous of the phronimos. It was the motion of the divine-human nous of the phronimos to choose action in daily life (NE 1151a15-20). The phronimos looked to universals insofar as he was attuned to the prime mover, but these universals varied because the correctives were dictated by fluid needs. It was the phronimos’ judgment and action that became the standard of virtue because his attraction to the nous enabled him to find the right intermediates that testified to his goodness.

The Proof of Prudence

The universal-variable principles of phronesis were simultaneously one, eternal equilibrium between humans and the prime mover and the many pragmatic paths to it. Because of the changeability of these ruling, first principles (archai) precluded syllogistic proofs and dialectical inferences (NE 1140a30-40b2, 1151a15-20). The archai simply had to be recognized in a world of fluid situations: their universality in relation to the prime mover was known as soon as they were perceived, so they could immediately serve as the grounds of means-ends calculation that was prudential rather than scientific or rule-bound. Given its variable character, Aristotle denied phronesis the status of science (episteme) by categorizing it as a deliberate intellectual virtue. Although the variable character of phronesis prevented logical and consistent proof, its universal objective remained unchanged. This allowed the phronimos to make his decisions based neither on moral relativism nor deontological thinking but on something in between: physei dikaion.

But if physei dikaion cannot be studied at the level of episteme, how can it be demonstrated or taught? The impossibility of studying it at the level of episteme certainly restricts the types of demonstration of its existence. Such an account of physei dikaion cannot be verified by the positivism that theoretical or scientific reasoning demands. Deductive and logical reasoning are also avenues that are blocked, since physei dikaion has no axioms from which one can reason to conclusions or first principles. It is only the reliance upon habituation in the moral virtues and the experiences of the mature person that the proofs of physei dikaion and phronesis become possible.

This demonstration requires not only introspection of one’s own experiences but also an appeal to others’. Agreement among virtuous people can constitute the grounds for confidence about the existence of physei dikaion and phronesis. Of course, this presupposes a degree of common sense among people. For example, most people would state that they know that genocide was wrong rather than opine about it. These people have experience something inside themselves that would not tolerate such crimes, although they do not possess the scientific certainty about its wrongness. Such a case could show the existence of some universal principles.38

This intuitive recognition of first principles is not circular reasoning, that is, people believe their views that genocide is wrong because they believe it is true. This criticism confuses first principles when people try to give validation what they immediately apprehend. Of course, people can work themselves in a state of doubt about the wrongness of genocide, but Aristotle would tell them that they are being foolish because these kinds of facts are starting points: it is fallacious to try to deduce everything from something higher as if it were an infinite regress (NE 1095b6).

This inability of people to distinguish and defend first principles is to acknowledge they are incomplete beings when compared to the paradigmatic phronimos, the one who is fully conscious of the presence of nous within him and therefore who has a noetic understanding of the principles of actions. But the people’s incompleteness raises a broader question of whether a measure of phronesis is possible without a phronimos? For example, how could Aristotle have speculated that the many as a whole, with their inclination towards mediocrity, be better than the few individually (Politics 1283b30-35)? Or that perverse regimes still operated on some principles of partial wisdom (Politics 1253a37-39)?

The answer for Aristotle was in the actions of the political communities. People may think like animals when they make conscious choices, but they cannot consistently live like animals without destroying themselves first. They consequently educate their young to pre-rational training in the virtues necessary for social stability and continuity. Aristotle observed that such habituation “teaches right opinion about the first principle” (NE 1151a15-20). The pre-rational discipline that states were forced to impose on their children opened their souls to the attraction of phronesis, such that they can acquire a quasi-noetic attunement to the means between excess and defect. So even when society lacked a phronimos, a pre-rational version of the virtue can still persist; otherwise, the society would annihilate itself. This incomplete phronesis was referred to as “common sense,” which was a lesser degree of practical wisdom but can still sustain imperfect and even perverse regimes.39

Phronesis therefore requires both Aristotle’s understanding of nature (physei dikaion) and theoretical reason (nous). Both physei dikaion and nous enable phronesis to be flexible in its pursuit of moral virtue without collapsing into cynical calculation or abstract thinking. Because physis is both natural and divine, its two-in-one motion character allows reality to seek its own particular, contingent telos as well as the universal and eternal one of the prime mover. In humans, this divine component is nous, a type of theoretical reason that can direct phronesis towards its ultimate ends while it is focuses on intermediaries. Without these key elements, Aristotle’s phronesis becomes unmoored and run into the difficulties that contemporary scholars have discovered.

The Problem of Current Paradigms

With this understanding of Aristotelian phronesis as a type of reasoning that is both theoretical and practical, how does it fit into the mission of American higher education? Why should the cultivation of phronesis be the essential core of colleges and universities when compared to other missions like economic utilitarianism or civic education? How does phronesis provide coherence to the traditional three-fold mission of teaching, research, and public service? And, finally, how would one implement a mission of phronesis in colleges and universities today?

I do not pretend to be able to provide adequate answers to all these questions here. However, I do want to propose a paradigm that might enable us to think past the variety of crises of American higher education that critics so loudly proclaim today. But before I discuss about the incorporation of phronesis into American higher education, I want to point out some of the problems that I see in the current missions of American higher education when compared to the paradigm of phronesis. Specifically, missions like economic utilitarianism, liberal education, or civic formation can be done better at institutions that are not educational ones. Although American higher education can accomplish these tasks, the results are ultimately inferior in their delivery when compared to these other social institutions.

One of primary mission of American higher education, and concerns because it is not delivering results, is economic utilitarianism: the purpose of colleges and universities is to make economically productive actors. This mission is particularly attractive to the state and the public which see economic growth and increased productivity as justifiable goals to support public colleges and universities. However, as books like Academically Adrift and We’re Losing Our Minds have demonstrated, American higher education institutions fare poorly in preparing students for the workforce. Students are not learning the requisite skills to become economically productive. The conclusion is that students, their parents, the state, and the public have wasted resources on institutions that do not deliver results.

But I would argue that even if colleges and universities were able to prepare students with the requisite skills to become economically productive, these institutions would still be inferior in their delivery of these services when compared to non-educational institutions. Although empirical studies are required to verify this hypothesis, I would venture that students who specialize in particular disciplines could be better serve if they were to do an apprenticeship with their employer rather than spend time at a college or university. This hypothesis applies specifically to students who study pre-professional degrees, including those in education and business. The fact that these non-educational institutions usually incorporate some type of new employee training that can range from a few weeks to many months testifies that higher education do not prepare students for immediate, economically productive employment. These students could be taught more efficiently and effectively – and increase their likelihood of becoming employed and economically productive – if they spent their time learning their craft with their potential employers rather than spending it in college or university.

Related to economic utilitarianism is the mission of scientific research for universities. Although these institutions can be sites where research occurs, it is not the only institution that can engage in this activity: businesses and government agencies also can conduct scientific research. Furthermore, the rules and regulations imposed on universities for research are not as cumbersome as those in these non-educational institutions because the purpose is explicit to serve either commercial or public interests. Again, empirical evidence is required, but I suspect when compared to public research universities, these non-educational institutions can deliver similar scientific results without the weighty rules and regulations and conflict-of-interest statements that characterized research universities.

These problems that plague public research universities can partially attributed to the Bayh-Dole Act, which reversed the presumption of title, that is, universities can elect to pursue ownership of their research in preference to the government. As in the early twentieth century, concerns that public research universities are serving business rather than the public interests have recently resurfaced.40 These concerns would be alleviated if American higher education either remove scientific research from its mission or repel the Bayh-Dole Act. Although politically popular and publicly digestible, the mission of scientific research brings a new set of problems, such as conflict-of-interest and corruption of university policies and practices, which would not an issue if research were conducted elsewhere.

Critics of economic utilitarianism and scientific research often push forward the ideas of liberal education or civic formation as the genuine mission of American higher education.41 Although I am personally sympathetic to the idea and ideals of liberal education, I believe a defense of it, at least for public colleges and universities, would be difficult, especially in these times of economic retrenchment when the argument of economic utilitarianism becomes more attractive. But more problematic about the mission of liberal education is the question whether it ever truly existed or is merely part of myth and selective memory. Perhaps for a few, American higher education was a place where students spent time pursuing questions for their own sake with their professor’s detailed attention, but for the many, college and university is the experience of searching for employable skills in an overcrowded, underfunded institution. For the typical student, a liberal education curriculum is merely a series of hoops to jump through in order to gain a certificate that attest to his or her skill set.

So if liberal education does exist in American higher education, it would appear that it can only transpire when both students and professors are truly committed to studying things for their own sake; and this setting is either in tutorials or in a small group. This type of education would not be a problem for private colleges and universities, which can be selective in their admissions and tuition policies, but for public institution, a defense of liberal education would impossible, especially in democratic regimes. In an attempt to overcome this problem, public institutions rationalize their liberal arts curriculum as teaching students transferable skills such as “critical thinking” or “quantitative reasoning.” However, the assessment of these skills requires quantitative measures that are antithetical to the original purpose of liberal education.42 Public institutions would find themselves at the mercy of various quantitative metrics that lack any mooring other than themselves.

Finally, there is the mission of civic formation: to make students responsible and active democratic citizens and leaders. The recent growth in the scholarship and actual programs in civic formation, for example, leadership, statesman, or service learning, in American higher education reveals the attractiveness of this mission.43 Often included with civic formation are the objectives of teaching students the importance of diversity, multiculturalism, and cosmopolitanism.44 Although these goals are relevant and publicly defensible, as well as continue the original mission of American higher education to form good democratic citizens and leaders, the implementation of such a vision has encountered some obstacles.

First, there is the question about the content of such a curriculum. Critics of diversity, multiculturalism, and cosmopolitanism claim that instead of strengthening democratic citizenship, some civic formation curriculum actually undermines it by teaching cultural relativism or blatant anti-Americanism.45 Second, and more importantly, the implementation of these programs either tends to too theoretical or under-theoretical. Civic formation programs are either disproportionally academic, thereby committing the error of not exposing students to the practical mechanics of leadership, service, or statesmanship; or under-theorized where practice is emphasized at the expense of how it is related to theoretical thinking and knowledge.46 Students are taught either theory without practice or practice without theory.

Of course, there exist some programs that are able to blend theory and practice in their civic formation programs. But even in these situations, these programs are often not considered to be at the core essential of a college’s or university’s mission. What Aristotle’s concept of phronesis provides it not only a bridge between theory and practice in the civic formation of students, but it also coordinates the three main activities of American higher education – teaching, research, and public service – into a coherent whole. How this could be accomplished will be briefly discussed below.

The Paradigm of Prudence

As a deliberative intellectual virtue that is both practical and theoretical, phronesis is uniquely suited for American higher education. Colleges and universities can cultivate a character in students that requires both theoretical and practical reasoning better than other non-educational institutions. Whereas corporate and government agencies ultimately subordinate theoretical reasoning to practical ends, higher education institutions can orient students’ practical reasoning to theoretical ends without losing sight of the world of particulars and contingents, something which liberal education neglects. In other words, the missions of economic utilitarianism and scientific research reduce theoretical reasoning to a practical one while liberal education tends to overlook practical thinking entirely. By navigating between these two extremes, phronesis is able to preserve both type of reasoning in order to promote a flourishing of the whole human being.

In a certain sense, phronesis is more compatible with the mission of civic formation than economic utilitarianism, scientific research, or liberal education. However, as stated above, the mission of civic formation suffers from the obstacles of curriculum content, over or under theorization, and marginalization from higher education institutions’ core mission. With Aristotelian phronesis, some of these concerns are allayed. The objectives of such a program would promote both theoretical and practical reason: the former would be learned in the classroom; the latter in practical activity as supervised by faculty. What holds these two types of reasoning together is the ethical formation of the human person which would be at the core of the university’s mission. This in turn would require American higher education to take seriously the question what type of human person they would want to cultivate.

Given the diversity of institutions in American higher education, there is no need for a single normative standard imposed on all colleges and universities. For instance, religious institutions may want to incorporate theological beliefs into their ethical understanding of the human person, whereas public institutions may want to focus on responsible and engaged democratic citizens and leaders.47 There would be flexibility in the curriculum content, but colleges and universities would have to agree to a core set of courses required for all students in order to promote their ethical understanding of what sort of human being they want. Although a discussion of the actual content of a curriculum that would promote phronesis is beyond the scope of this particular paper, I would imagine that it would contain some courses that one may find in a liberal arts curriculum, as these courses tend to deal with questions of ethics. But unlike the liberal arts, this curriculum would also include practical activities in the aim of forming the whole person.

This practical character of the curriculum would be a distinctive feature of the paradigm of phronesis: students would have to engage in practical reasoning on a case-by-case basis. One of the criticisms of certain leadership or statesmanship programs is its over-theoretical nature, where students learn concepts that are abstracted from their particular context. The detachment of these concepts, like “two-way communication,” from their specific context becomes meaningless to students, as they may apply this concept to the wrong person or at the wrong time. It is only in the specific situation, as Aristotle had observed, where students can exercise their phronesis. The conceptualization of leadership or statesmanship without reference to actual practice only gives students confidence without understanding.

If certain programs are over-theoretical, then there are others, such as service-learning, which tend to be under-theoretical and consequently equally negligent of phronesis. Although it cannot be episteme, phronesis is connected with theoretical thinking and therefore is capable of conceptualization only after one has grasped the specific situation in terms of its particularities and contingencies. This connection of phronesis with noetic intelligence prevents service-learning activities like internships or study abroad programs from becoming a series of actions that lack any theoretical or ethical direction.

Phronesis does not only balance theoretical and practical thinking for its students, but it also can provide coherence to the mission of American higher education. By asking how to cultivate phronesis not only in teaching but also in research and public service, colleges and universities can connect these disparate activities under a coherent concept. For example, a state institution’s core ethical mission could be to make responsible and engaged democratic citizens and leaders. But how is this accomplished is a question of phronesis: what is the proper balance between theoretical and practical courses for students? What sort of research should be conducted; and when and how should certain findings be revealed even if they are contrary to public opinion but for the common good? What ways other than teaching and research can faculty prudentially contribute to supporting a democratic society?48

Another advantage of making phronesis the prevailing paradigm for higher education institutions is transcending the purported gaps between theory and practice, facts and values, and the sciences and the humanities. As I have shown previously, Aristotle’s phronesis makes these distinctions irrelevant. Phronesis requires theoretical as well as practical reasoning: it obliges students to know facts of specific situations and to be able to make value judgments about them; and it needs science, particularly an understanding of nature, to make ethical judgment possible.49 Thus, the fragmentation and specialization of academic programs can be returned to a coherent whole under a paradigm of phronesis.

This paradigm of phronesis therefore calls for a normative understanding of human flourishing specific to a higher education institution that includes both theoretical and practical reasoning and, as a result, directs that institutions’ teaching, research, and public service towards this end. American higher education institutions are uniquely suited for such a task because only they are able to cultivate this character that requires both theoretical and practical reasoning aimed at a specific ethical formation. Other institutions in society either lack this combination of theoretical and practical reason or are deficit in an ethical conception of human flourishing. It is only colleges and universities that have the unique resources of students, faculty, and staff that are able to engage in this type of activity.50

Granted that phronesis may lack a certain branding appeal when compared to other higher education mission statements, but this matter can be easily resolved if there are prudential people in places of authority. Without such a paradigm, colleges and universities often fall prey to a management paradigm with missions that are abstract and have little effect on the lives of students, faculty, and the public.51 The paradigm of phronesis forces administrators, staff, faculty, students, and the public to think what should be the core mission of higher education by asking the question of human flourishing. It forces these groups to ask how American higher education can be relevant. Without asking these questions, and trying to answer them, the future of American higher education will continue to be criticized and called into crisis but without any genuine understanding as to reasons why.

 

References

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Barber, Benjamin. The Conquest of Politics: Liberal Philosophy in Democratic Times. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988.

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Barry Checkoway, “Renewing the Civic Mission of the American Research University.” The Journal of Higher Education 72, no. 2 (2001): 125-47.

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Notes

1. I want to thank The Political Science Reviewer for granting me and Lexington Books the right to republish this article in this volume.

2. Margaret Spellings, A Test of Leadership: Charting the Future of U.S. Higher Education (Washington D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, September 2006). Available at http://www2.ed.gov/about/bdscomm/list/hiedfuture/reports/pre-pub-report.pdf

3. Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa. Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011); Richard P. Keeling and Richard H. H. Hersh’s We’re Losing Our Minds: Rethinking American Higher Education (Houndmill, Great Britain: Palgrave Macmillian, 2011).

4. Anthony Kronman, Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given up on the Meaning of Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008); Mark William Roche, Why Choose the Liberal Arts (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame, 2010); Martha Nussbaum, Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012).

5. Allan Bloom, Closing the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987). Although Bloom defended liberal education, his reasons were different than Kronman’s, Roche’s, and Nussbaum’s. For Bloom, liberal education was reserved for the intellectually-gifted few rather than to serve the many in democratic society.

6. Mark Taylor, Crisis on Campus: A Bold Plan for Reforming Our Colleges and Universities (New York: Knopf, 2010).

7. Naomi Schaefer Riley, The Faculty Lounges, and Other Reasons, Why You Won’t Get the College Education You Paid for (Lanham, MD: Ivan R. Dee, 2011).

8. Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifu, Higher Education? How Colleges are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids – And What We Can Do About (New York: Times Book, 2010).

9. Lorraine Pangle and Thomas Pangle, The Learning of Liberty: The Educational Ideas of the American Founders (Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press 1993), 4-5.

10. Harold Hellenbrand, The Unfinished Revolution: Education and Politics in the Thought of Thomas Jefferson (Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press, 1990), 11.

11. Thomas Jefferson, “Jefferson Plans the University of Virginia, 1800,” in American Higher Education: A Documentary History, ed. Richard Hofstadter et al, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961), 175.

12. E. L. Johnson, “The ‘Other Jeffersons’ and the State University Idea,” Journal of Higher Education 58 (1987): 129, 147; E.H. Roseboom and F.P. Wisenburger, A History of Ohio (Columbia: Ohio Historical Society, 1996), 47, 53.

13. John S. Brubacher and Willis Rudy, Higher Education in Transition (New York: Harper and Row, 1976), 154.

14. Johnson, “The ‘Other Jeffersons’,” 127.

15. The mission of American religious institutions of higher education was slightly different in producing good clergy to serve their faith communities.

16. Bill Readings, The University in Ruins (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996), 4.

17. Brubacher and Rudy, Higher Education in Transition, 61-64, 288.

18. Laurence Veysey, The Emergence of the American University (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965), 62-66.

19. J.C. Scott, “The Chautauqua Movement: Revolution in Popular Higher Education.” Journal of Higher Education 70 (1999): 389-412.

20. Veysey, The Emergence of the American University, 444.

21. Brubacher and Rudy, Higher Education in Transition, 177

22. Brubacher and Rudy, Higher Education in Transition, 164-65; Veysey, The Emergence of the American University, 108.

23. Brubacher and Rudy, Higher Education in Transition, 166-168; Christopher Lucas, American Higher Education (New York: St. Martin’s, 1994), 174-75, 292.

24. Clyde. W. Barrow, Universities and the Capitalist State: Corporate Liberalism and the Reconstruction of American Higher Education, 1894-1928 (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990), 7,10; H. Perkin, “Defining the True Function of the University: A Question of Freedom Versus Control,” Change 16 (1984): 20-29.

25. Hugh Hawkins, The Emerging University and Industrial America (Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath, 1970), xi; Paul Axelrod, Values in Conflict: The University, the Marketplace, and the Trials of Liberal Education (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2002), 3-7; Henry A. Giroux, “Introduction: Critical Education or Training: Beyond the Commoification of Higher Education,” in Beyond the Corporate University, ed. Henry A. Giroux et al, (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001), 1-11; Eric Gould, The University in a Corporate Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003).

26. Shelia Slaughter, “National Higher Education Policies in a Global Economy,” in Universities and Globalization: Critical perspectives, ed. Janice Curie et al, (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1998), 62.

27. Some non-Aristotelian examples of scholars who want to return to judgment for the philosophical and pedagogical purposes are Ronald Beiner and Jennifer Nedelski. Judgment, Imagination, and Politics: Themes from Kant and Arendt (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littefield, 2001); Philip E. Tetlock, Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know It?(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005); Leslie Paul Thiele, The Heart of Judgment: Practical Wisdom, Neuroscience, and Narrative (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006); Alessandro Ferrara, The Force of the Example: Exploration in the Paradigm of Judgment (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008).

28. Benjamin Barber, Strong Democracy: Participatory Politics for a New Age (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984); The Conquest of Politics: Liberal Philosophy in Democratic Times (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988); Ronald Beiner, Political Judgment (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983); Stephen G. Salkever, Finding the Mean: Theory and Practice in Aristotelian Philosophy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990); Peter J. Steinberger, The Concept of Political Judgment (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993); William Sullivan, Reconstructing Public Philosophy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986). These scholars reject Martha Nussbaum’s contention that Aristotle is too elitist as a guide for democratic politics. Martha Nussbaum, Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994).

29. Barber, The Conquest of Politics, 151, 205; Beiner, Political Judgment, 75-79, 85, 106; Michael Walzer, “Democracy and Philosophy,” Political Theory 9 (August): 393.

30. Mary Ann Glendon, Rights Talk (New York: Free Press, 1981); Walzer, “Democracy and Philosophy.”

31. Beiner, Political Judgment, 16.

32. Barber, The Conquest of Politics, 209; Sullivan, Reconstructing Public Philosophy, 170-3; Steinberger, The Concept of the Political, 126-27.

33. Steinberger, The Concept of the Political, 117, 279.

34. I follow Arendt and Masters who embrace Aristotle’s natural science before recovering phronesis. Larry Arendt, “The New Darwinian Naturalism in Political Science,” American Political Science Review 89 (June): 389-400; Roger D. Masters, The Nature of Politics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989).

35. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1134b18-20, 30. All subsequent citations for Aristotle will be in-text. Translations are mine own.

36. One possible solution is that Aristotle was suggesting a form of deontological ethics with a universal substance and shifting accidents, making physei dikaion absolute in an essential sense and kineton pan absolute only in a formal sense. However, as will be shown, this interpretation is not as persuasive as the one with Aristotle recognizing that physei dikaion is substantively paradoxical.

37. The evaluation of moral and ethical situations on a case-by-case basis does not necessarily equate into moral relativism. Aristotle’s statement that physei dikaion was valid everywhere and that certain actions, such as murder, theft, and adultery, were universally evil was a clear rejection of relativism.

38. However, if there were a case that was more ambiguous – whether the United States’ atomic bombing of Japan in World War II was justified – then the argument from common sense is finished, as we have reached at the debate about the variability of principle but not the principle itself.

39. Eric Voegelin, Anamnesis (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1978), 212.

40. Derek Bok, Universities in the Marketplace: The Commercialization of Higher Education (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004); Jennifer Washburn, University, Inc.: The Corporate Corruption of Higher Education (New York: Basic Books, 2005); Louis Menand, The Marketplace of Ideas: Reforms and Resistance in the American University (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010); Gaye Tuchman, Wannabe U: Inside the Corporate University (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011).

41. Refer to the third footnote.

42. One of the biggest proponents of assessing the outcomes of transferable skills is the Collegiate Learning Assessment that employs quantitative metrics to evaluate student outcomes. Available at http://www.collegiatelearningassessment.org/.

43. Richard M. Battistoni, “Service Learning and Civic Education,” in Education for Civic Engagement in Democracy, ed. S. Mann et al, (Bloomington: ERIC,2000); Susan Komives, Exploring Leadership: For College Students Who Want to Make a Difference (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006); Marcy Shankman, Emotionally Intelligent Leadership: A Guide to College Students (San Francisco: Joseey-Bass, 2008); Diana Hess and Patricia G. Avery, “Discussion of Controversial Issues as a Form and Goal of Democratic Education,” in The SAGE Handbook of Education for Citizenship and Democracy, ed. J. Arthur, I. Davies et al, (Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, 2008), 506-18. For more about the relationship between liberal education and civic formation, refer to Richard E. Flathman, “Liberal versus Civic: Republican, Democratic, and Other Vocational Educations: Liberalism and Institutionalized Education,” Political Theory 24.1 (1996): 4-32; for more about the relationship between research university and civic formation, refer to Barry Checkoway, “Renewing the Civic Mission of the American Research University,” The Journal of Higher Education 72.2 (2001): 125-47.

44. Bill Hunter, George P. White, and Galen C. Godbey, “What does it mean to be globally competent?,” Journal of Studies in International Education 10 (Fall 2006): 267-85; Association of American Colleges and Universities, College Learning for the New Global Century (Washington D.C.: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2007); James A. Banks, “Diversity and Citizenship Education in Global Times,” in The SAGE Handbook of Education for Citizenship and Democracy, ed. J. Arthur et al, (Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, 2008), 57-70; Paulette P. Dilworth, “Multicultural Citizenship Education,” in The SAGE Handbook of Education for Citizenship and Democracy, ed. J. Arthur et al, (Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, 2008), 424-37; Audrey Osler, “Human Rights Education: The Foundation of Education for Democratic Citizenship in our Global Age,” in The SAGE Handbook of Education for Citizenship and Democracy, ed. J. Arthur et al, (Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, 2008), 455-67; Seyla Benhabib, “Cosmopolitanism and Democracy: Affinities and Tensions,” The Hedgehog Review 11:3 (Fall 2009): 30-62; Klas Roth, “Peace Education as Cosmopolitan and Deliberative Democratic Pedagogy,” in Global Values Education, ed. J. Zajda et al, (Heidelberg: Springer, 2009), 49-64.

45. Allan Bloom, Closing the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987); Roger Kimball, Tenured Radicals: How Politics Corrupted Our Higher Education (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1990); The Long March: How the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s Changed America (San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2000); Peter Wood, Diversity: Invention of a Concept (San Francisco: Encounters Books, 2004); Diane Ravitch, The Language Police (New York: Vintage, 2004); Lee Trepanier and Khalil Habib, Cosmopolitanism in the Age of Globalization: Citizens Without States (Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Press, 2011); Gerson Moreno-Riano, Lee Trepanier, Phillip Hamilton, “Statesmanship and Democracy in a Global and Comparative Context” and “Teaching the American Political Tradition in a Global Context,” in The Liberal Arts in America, ed. Lee Trepanier (Cedar City, UT: Southern Utah University and Grace A. Tanner Center, 2012), 95-137. The New Criterion has consistently pointed out the problems they see in diversity, multiculturalism, and cosmopolitanism in American higher education and society. Available at http://www.newcriterion.com/.

46. An example of this problem can be found in Harry C. Boyle, “Civic Education as Public Leadership Development,” where the problem of civic formation is recognized but the solution is more reading and little practice. Similar problems can be found in the works cited in footnotes forty-two and three.

47. I would prohibit colleges and universities that would have mission statements that advocated any activity that violated the “common sense” of society. For example, a college that sought to indoctrinate students into religious violence aimed at the U.S. government should not be permitted, as such mission would be contrary to the Aristotelian understanding of common sense. In fact, such a college would not be fostering phronesis but it’s antithetical and thus would be contrary to proper human flourishing.

48. Phronesis also would be able to address some of the criticisms that have focused on colleges’ and universities’ organizational and administrative structures (see footnotes five to seven). These problems appear to me secondary in nature to the primary obstacle that higher education institutions lack an ethical understanding of what type of student they want to foster. Once this matter is resolved, then questions of access, tenure, and specialization in scholarship become increasingly irrelevant.

49. Although Aristotle’s conception of science and of nature differs from contemporary understanding, there is no reason why contemporary accounts of science still cannot be incorporated into ethical judgments like phronesis. In fact, as contemporary science advances in its findings, society finds itself confronting more rather than fewer ethical questions, suggesting an even greater need for phronesis today than in Aristotle’s time.

50. Specifically, students would be required to learn both theoretical and practical thinking, while faculty’s activities would not necessarily be pre-determined in a way that business employees or government officials are. This would allow faculty the freedom to develop ways to best engage students in teaching, their colleagues in research, and the public in service.

51. G. Peeke, Mission and Change: Institutional Mission and its Application to the Management of Further and Higher Education (Buckingham, UK: SRHE & Open University Press, 1994), 8-12, 32.

 

This was originally published with the same title in The Relevance of Higher Education: Exploring a Contested Notion (Lexington Books, 2013).

Lee Trepanier

Written by

Lee Trepanier is a Professor of Political Science and University Pre-Law Advisor at Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan. He is author and editor of several books and also is the editor of VoegelinView (2016-present) and editor of Lexington Books series Politics, Literature, and Film (2013-present).