The myth of the autonomous teenager

White, J. 1997. Philosophy and the aims of higher education. Studies in Higher Education, 22 (1), pp7-17.

I got a bit low constructing a response to this paper, because it was published in the same year I went to university and it got me thinking about my own undergraduate experience. I don’t want to depress anyone unnecessarily (especially not on Blue Monday), so I promise not to dwell on that bit.

John White gave a paper last week at the IoE on the place of love in education, and I figured that now that we’re mates and everything (I’m going to use his first name from now on to prove it) I should read this one, and then I can talk with him about it over a beer. It’s highly relevant to my thesis as it questions the role of philosophy in determining the aims of higher education.

I used to have clear ideas about what higher education *should* be; I felt that the entire education system – including higher education – should provide a steer towards sustainability; subverting the neoliberal, consumerist agenda rather than supporting it (I’m a personal fan of Barnett’s utopian ecological university). Now, of course, I realise that this a personal preference based on my own moral philosophy; the values and idea of the good life I have attached myself to. It transpires that I would have more of a philosophical leg to stand on if I advocated that universities should be focused on serving God. Hence my thesis…

I’m going to put the critique of Barnett’s argument for emancipatory aims of higher education to one side for now, as John’s own arguments seem sound but I really want to take a look at what Barnett said first hand (and also Paul Standish’s review of The Idea of the University). I was under the impression that Barnett fully acknowledged higher education’s surfeit of aims. In his 1988 paper Does Higher Education have Aims he even argues that ‘talk of aims in relation to higher education is in several senses inappropriate and misleading’ (p239).

What I want to respond to today is John’s argument against philosophising on the aims of higher education, on the grounds that, while children do and must have aims imposed on them, HE students are ‘autonomous persons’ who decide for themselves what their goals are. Many years before before students actually became protected by consumer law and universities were formally classified as ‘traders/sellers/suppliers’, he writes of ‘consumer sovereignty’ – of aims that reflect the different goals students have in mind. Interestingly, having said here that ‘all but the oldest children are typically too ignorant and… immature to know what is best for them, educationally speaking’ (p12), the paper John gave at the IoE this week supported an extension of learner autonomy to compulsory schooling, with a taster curriculum that allows pupils to develop their own interests. I’d like to ask him more about this with reference to his views about aims in higher education. It feels to me that a general move towards developing and supporting learner autonomy brings together some big ideas – including emancipation.

I am deeply uneasy about these assertions of the autonomy of (primarily) 18-year-olds. I can think of many ways – implicit and explicit – in which the state, the business community and academics can and do impose aims on students (fee loans, internships, graduate attributes, assessment criteria). Families can be a huge influence on the goals of these so-called ‘autonomous persons’, particularly if they are offering cash or freebies. I went for a swim halfway through reading John’s paper, and overheard two mothers in the shower strategising about their children’s university education. One was putting £25 a month aside (I did the maths… disappointing). The other was wondering whether her son would be up for moving to live with his grandfather in Norway at 14 in order to do the IBacc and get a (free) place at a Norwegian university.

As promised, I won’t depress you with my own story, other than to say that parental influence deeply influenced my university choices and my actions and experience as a student (on the bright side, it was probably my deep need for parental approval that kept me going). This won’t have been everyone’s experience, and that was 20 years ago. It would be nice to think that as students *are* being saddled with huge amounts of personal debt when they apply to university, they are at least making that decision autonomously. But I doubt it. If I’m right, does that mean we can reopen the philosophical debate on the aims of higher education? Actually, thinking about it, I rather feel that we should stop encouraging teenagers to go to university. 

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