Peter Lucas Hulen

Philosophy of Higher Ed

BrainCognitive development may continue throughout the life cycle, not just in childhood and adolescence. Adults need stimuli conducive to development for that process to continue. There are highly developed people who get that way without benefit of higher education; on the other hand, it is far from assured. Societies and cultures are full of factors that suppress adult cognitive development.

We endeavor for youth to develop the cross-categorical cognition necessary to predict sequences of events resulting from a choice or action. This kind of thinking allows people to be responsible adults and faithful to the community beliefs. Some adults develop further; most do not.

While cross-categorical cognition may be adequate for communities that are insular and homogenous, it necessary but far from sufficient with the range of social structures, cultural contexts and material resources now activated by the smallest local choice or action. Everything we do from our relatively wealthy, industrialized position in the world resonates multi-nationally, multi-culturally and macro-ecologically. People need to develop systemic modes of cognition to live good lives. As a college professor I consider myself in the adult cognitive development business. I believe education systems need to ensure that people are trained to think in complex and systemic ways, not merely prepared as occupational cogs in the economic machinery of the ownership class.

If higher education is about cognitive development, then the specific content of study matters less. The processes of gaining comprehensive grasp of a discipline, of viewing reality from different historical, social, cultural, linguistic and subject positions—struggling with difference and reconciling seemingly contradictory facts into larger systems that integrate them—are conducive to developing modes of thinking necessary to live humanely and sustainably in such a diverse but interconnected world. That is why I value and participate in a liberal studies approach to higher education. I believe providing as many different avenues as possible for cognitive development is the best way to encourage it.

Individuals and groups unsettled by information or modes of thinking conducive to continued human development, or by any call to transcend comfortable modes of thought or material existence, tend to resist a liberal model of education. In the USA there is a popular myth of higher education promoted by reactionary political and religious groups. It is based on understanding of higher education as filling minds with information, rather than teaching people to think more effectively, and as reflecting the wisdom of society rather than challenging it. It draws a caricature of academics as inhabiting a well funded and privileged but largely hypothetical world disconnected from day-to-day reality.

This is part of a mythic portrayal of higher education as a place where radical academics bent on influencing a new generation of impressionable minds fill them with unreliable or untested concepts in an attempt to remake the world according to their own self-aggrandizing but impractical schemes. Many share this wildly inaccurate myth. It is comforting to those who have class or cultural issues with higher education. For those who benefit from entrenched or underdeveloped thinking it discredits a social entity that challenges entrenched thinking and encourages human development. And it discredits the expertise of those who, on the basis of specialized knowledge, would question inaccurate or misleading speech and ill-advised action by the powerful. It is no secret and should be no surprise that most professors are politically liberal and a few have been politically radical. But "left-wing takeover," "aggressive radicalism" and "lack of political diversity" on campuses are myths based on misperception.

At its best, higher education teaches people to think critically, and in order to do that, students must wrestle with ideas that are challenging—to them and to the society and culture at large. Other important purposes of the academy include creating new knowledge and challenging socially or culturally entrenched thinking, all in the interest of human development. Colleges and universities do not exist to represent the thinking of their cultures and societies, but to challenge it. If the thinking of instructors and the content of lessons only reflected institutions' larger communities, they would be functioning as continuing secondary schools, not institutions of higher learning.

The notion that progressive thinking on the part of a majority of professors stifles dissent in the broader sense is preposterous. Thoughtfully questioning entrenched thinking—and sometimes dissenting to it—is part of what the academy is for, not defending it for the comfort of the general populace.

There are three presuppositions underlying reactionary responses to the education system. The first is that professors necessarily indoctrinate students with their own political opinions. The second is that conservative opposition constitutes dissent in the broader sense. The third is that what professors believe, teach or exemplify must be representative of the societies and cultures in which their institutions operate. Given the nature and function of higher education none of these can be true.

I believe strongly that a liberal education represents the best possible mode of training for the human mind. Our collective wellbeing depends on the ability of people in leadership to be able to think in complex enough ways to solve difficult problems in ways that serve utilitarian ends. More than ever, the shape of individual and collective destiny depends in part on the systematic approach to individual cognitive development that higher education has to offer.