Counterargument and Rebuttal
In a diverse and complex modern world, few institutions are as foundational and contro- versial as higher education. Analysis of the major questions associated with the role college edu- cation plays in society can be refined into three central themes - whether college education is a privilege or right, whether college education is a predominantly public or private good, and who or what benefits the most from the traditional college education. Although the vast and often ide- alized topic of university education may tempt one to aggrandize its role to the dignity of a pub- lic right, closer examination demonstrates that traditional college education is most accurately considered as a predominantly private privilege that benefits individuals, specifically, to the greatest degree. The observations that most individuals today and throughout history have led successful and happy lives without the benefits of traditional college education, that the private benefits of higher education are more empirically demonstrable and essential than the public benefits, and that the individual recipients of college education decide how much society benefits from their total education synergistically indicate the preeminence of higher education as an in-dividual good.
Higher education as an institution is vital to modern society, but exudes this vitality while bearing complex economic, social, and cultural facets that coalesce to make the institution as complex as it is essential. Thus, understanding the best possible philosophical foundation of higher education and viewing it in the most accurate perspective possible has far-reaching impli- cations for society that demand discourse. This argument specifically regards a traditional liberal arts education and excludes alternative forms of higher education such as technical or trade schooling. In defining what is intended by the term “right,” the definition of philosopher Tibor Machan will be utilized in which natural rights are described as, “the [objective] principles of community life that are, in virtue of the nature of human beings, properly adhered to by everyone in the community,” (Machan, 1982, p. 63). In contrast, the term “privilege” will be defined as a special advantage available only to a particular person or group of people (Cheng, 2013). Finally, the terms “positive” and “normative” are used throughout the essay to denote the distinction be- tween what is respectively “observed” and what “ought to be” in regards to higher education.
Firstly, a college education is positively and normatively a privilege rather than a right because individuals are able to live happy and successful lives without a traditional college de- gree. The observation that traditional college education is currently a privilege is based on the fact that college education generally requires private investment and, even when granted freely, is not provided to the public unconditionally (Johnstone, 2004). The more contentious claim, however, that traditional college ought to remain a privilege, is contingent less on why college
education fits the property identity of a privilege, and is more dependent on why a college educa- tion is definitively not a right. Looking at examples of natural rights, Machan identifies essential optimizers such as natural rights to life, liberty (insofar as it does not harm others), and property as rights that are objectively necessary for the attainment of optimal living conditions of a com- munal society (Machan, 1982). Although one may argue that a traditional college education can potentially optimize one’s life in a manner reminiscent of a right, this observation alone is not sufficient to satisfy the definitive criteria of a right. Firstly, a traditional college education is not basically essential to a functioning society in the way that rights such as life, liberty, and property are due to its large number of extraneous and non-fundamental conditions. Examples of these conditions and features often associated with college education include a thriving and often ex- pensive social atmosphere, exploratory courses that raise breadth and human capital, and large- scale facilities and accompanying custodial services. The fact that life, liberty, and property have been essential for as long as humans have been in existence while the extra features that college offers have not, implies that our other natural rights are fundamental in a manner that traditional college education is not. Furthermore, unlike natural rights such as life, liberty, and property, tra- ditional college education necessarily requires, by its material and economic nature, a devotion of the resources of others that the basic recognition of other natural rights does not require. For example, societal monetary and labor commitment is not inherently required to ensure that an independent person is able to have life, basic liberty, and the ability to own property to some de- gree. Although whether or not people always have access to these rights may be disputed, it is logically essential that people have them in order to fulfill any conceivable form of potential at all as human beings and survive. This essential characteristic, I argue, is one of the most impor- tant features distinguishing them as basic human rights. In contrast, a traditional college educa- tion requires societal and monetary commitments in order to exist at all, and in great quantity. A final problem with declaring traditional education a right, as opposed to a privilege, is the fact that a traditional college education, unlike the examples of natural rights provided, does not ap- pear to have a clear upward or downward limit. The point at which higher education stops may be considered a slippery slope in this regard, as it may extend indefinitely. How much education is considered absolutely necessary for a person is highly subjective with a great number of potential criteria for determining what is enough. Other natural rights, in contrast, have more clearly defined minimums and maximums. In general, it is relatively easy to observe when someone is or is not living, thus exercising or not exercising the right, and many philosophers define the maximum extent of liberty to be the point at which your liberty infringes on another individuals’ rights (Machan, 1982). Although this distinctions are not perfectly clear-cut, I merely seek to argue that where they begin and end is much more naturally obvious than where the supposed right to a traditional college education begins or ends. This collection of fundamental identity differentiations between natural rights and traditional college education establishes traditional college education as a non-right to relegate it to the status of a privilege.
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- Indiana University – College of Arts and Sciences - Education Department
- Higher Education Philosophy of Education Economics of Education Education Technical Education Liberal Arts Privilege Rights Public Goods Private Goods Benefit of Education