Beyond Reason and Tolerance: The Purpose and Practice of Higher Education, by Robert J. Thompson, Jr.

In a utilitarian age, service learning helps cultivate rounded individuals, says Steven Schwartz

May 15, 2014

We live in an age in which everything is measured in pounds and pence, including higher education. Want to make a good living? Have you considered an undergraduate course in golf course management? How about surfing science? Interested in a trendy profession? No problem – universities chase every fad. (Thanks to the popularity of the television series CSI, there will soon be more forensic scientists than there are criminals for them to catch.)

There is nothing wrong with universities preparing graduates for careers: a fulfilling occupation is part of a good life. But jobs are not just about money; work also has moral value. In the words of John Ruskin: “The highest reward for a man’s toil is not what he gets for it, but what he becomes by it.”

The same is true of higher education. From its earliest origins, higher education has not been just about acquiring work skills – its real purpose was to build “character” so graduates could take up their role in their society and contribute to the good of everyone.

Beyond Reason and Tolerance is Robert Thompson’s attempt to revive the classical aims of higher education. Do not be misled by the title. Thompson, an academic psychologist and former vice-provost at Duke University in North Carolina, does not reject reason or tolerance. He wants graduates to be knowledgeable and able to reason, but this is not enough. He wants universities to go “beyond” teaching discipline-based subjects and help students to become empathic, to develop a “personal epistemology”, to formulate a set of defensible values and to leave university with a “coherent sense” of identity. In his words, he wants to educate “the whole person”.

In his inaugural address as rector of the University of St Andrews in 1867, John Stuart Mill said the object of universities was “not to make skilful lawyers, or physicians, or engineers, but capable and cultivated human beings”. I am sure Thompson would agree.

Thompson bases his recommendations on theories of adolescent and young adult development. To educate “the whole person”, he prescribes, among other things, study abroad and service learning. In a utilitarian age, this may seem surprising. After all, studying in France will not make it easier for students to learn the laws of physics; tutoring disadvantaged children will not make university students better at balancing accounts; and working in a shelter will be of little assistance in learning the law of torts.

On the other hand, these experiences give students the opportunity to develop self-confidence by testing themselves in difficult circumstances. They give them the chance to work in teams, and perhaps to become team leaders. In this way, they learn about trust, honesty and fair play. They also learn how to communicate with people from different backgrounds, how to organise their time and how to work towards goals. Most important of all, service learning and community work help students to develop a concern for others, the essential foundation of all ethics.

As you can probably tell, I strongly agree with the message of Thompson’s book. Alas, its impact may be reduced because of weak editing. Not only are the same phrases repeated many times, but whole slabs of text are repeated verbatim. Stock expressions – “knowledge-based economy” (can you imagine an economy based on ignorance?), the “globally interconnected world” (sometimes rendered as the “pluralistic, globally interconnected world”), “21st Century needs” – are strung together in various orders to form sentences. The result is a dense undergrowth of prose in which the reader struggles to escape from the thicket of clichés.

In a reminder of Captain Kirk of the Starship Enterprise, who liked “to boldly go”, Thompson seeks “to constructively engage”. The phrase appears multiple times on the same page, sometimes in successive sentences. It is used eight times in the preface alone, and countless times in the text. This style of writing is neither constructive nor engaging.

Publishing budgets are tight, so perhaps even the venerable Oxford University Press has given up editing. It’s too bad. The author’s ideas deserve better.

Beyond Reason and Tolerance: The Purpose and Practice of Higher Education

By Robert J. Thompson, Jr.
Oxford University Press, 224pp, £38.99
ISBN 9780199969784
Published February 2014

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