A higher ideal for higher education

Patrick Blessinger

St John’s University, New York City, USA

Higher education is in the midst of a revolution. The number of students participating in higher education worldwide is expected to grow from 28 million in 1970 to 262 million by 2025. This growth rate represents an immense increase in the global demand for higher education. This demand has been fueled by far-reaching political, economic, social, and technological changes, including legal reforms, economic competition, social movements, and technological innovations.

The increasing demand for higher education suggests that as nations become more globalised and democratised, more people participate in higher education of all types to equip themselves with the knowledge and skills needed to better function and compete in an increasingly globalised and complex world. Governments and higher education institutions have responded to these changes by implementing new models to provision and delivery education, creating new academic programs and student services, developing internationalisation strategies and global research partnerships, and forging new inter-institutional teaching and learning collaborations.

As a result, higher education has moved, over the last century, from an elitist to a mass to a universal model of access and the playing field for many colleges and universities is now a global one. In an increasingly hyperconnected global knowledge society, it is important for those working in higher education to not only understand the antecedents and consequences of these changes but also to use that knowledge to steer the ongoing development of higher education in the right direction. This implies that higher education leaders, professors, students, and other stakeholders should embrace a humanistic vision of higher education.

Humanism can be many things to many people – it can be defined as a philosophy, a paradigm, a value system, a model, a conceptual framework, a pedagogical approach, and a learning theory. Furthermore, humanism is an umbrella term encompassing several different types of humanism (for instance, cultural, secular, religious, literary, naturalistic), each with its own worldview. Humanism has a long history stretching over many years, from the Ancient Period (circa 3600 BCE to 500 CE) with the Greek and Roman philosophers, to the Medieval Period (circa 500 CE to 1450 CE) with the Scholastic and Renaissance movements, to the Modern Era (circa 1450 CE to present) with the Reformation, the Scientific Revolution, and the Enlightenment, among other developments. As such, humanism tended to reflect the particular characteristics of the era.

Notwithstanding the varied and intersecting meanings of humanism, its central focus has been on human nature – that is, what does it mean to be human – and the world that humans occupy. Initially, humanism was a mode of inquiry that focused on increasing one’s self-awareness but as societies became more democratic and interconnected it gradually evolved into a broader understanding of human rights, global humanity, and one’s role in humanity.

As a consequence, the modern notion of humanism centers on those core qualities in all humans: agency, dignity, and development. Humanism today is primarily concerned with addressing contemporary human needs, concerns, and problems. Therefore, one of the great challenges for humanity is to continually strengthen the democratic social contract by making societies more inclusive, equitable, and just.

The more we learn about the world and the more interconnected the world becomes, the smaller it becomes, and as the world becomes smaller, societies becomes more interdependent. In this brave new world, humanity is confronted with extraordinary challenges such as nuclear proliferation, destructive climate change, and economic and humanitarian catastrophes that must be addressed collectively.

These challenges imply the necessity of a human rights-based approach to human affairs that is focused on improving political and social relations, global sustainable development, and lifelong learning for all. Higher education plays a vital role in shaping this brave new world. Therefore, creating a renewed vision of humanistic higher education has never been more important. Three major paradigm shifts have occurred as a result of recent changes taking place in higher education.

The first paradigm shift is the necessity of lifelong learning. With the rapid pace of change in knowledge production and dissemination, the shelf-life of knowledge and skills continues to decrease. Thus lifelong learning, including lifewide learning, has become so important in the lives of people that it is now recognised and treated as a basic human right. The diversification of institutional types and the vast range of program offerings in higher education makes it best positioned to address the lifelong learning needs of people.

The democratization of knowledge is another key paradigm shift. In the modern era, widening access to knowledge started with the printing revolution in Europe in the 15th century and continues to be fuelled by the growing demand for knowledge and skills. Access to knowledge includes traditional credit-based college and university programs as well as open education resources. A comprehensive diversity of educational resources allows people to access much of the world’s knowledge with just a smartphone or computer.

The development of the global knowledge society is the third shift. The degree of political, economic, social, and technological development of a nation depends largely on the quality of lifelong education available. Supranational organizations like the United Nations and World Trade Organisation were created to implement universal declarations and protocols needed for common areas of concern including world affairs, global communication, and international trade. These have further fuelled the rise of the global knowledge society. In the higher education space, global organizations like UNESCO, the International Association of Universities, and the Higher Education Teaching and Learning Association provide a mechanism to help educators move higher education in the right direction.

As with any system that experiences rapid change, the changes associated with these paradigm shifts have compelled higher education leaders, professors, students, and others to rethink higher education in ways that go beyond purely utilitarian views of education.

In a rapidly evolving world, higher education must continually renew itself to address the changing contemporary needs of democratic societies.

And given the importance of higher education to the on-going development and strength of democratic societies, higher education must renew itself with a renewed vision of humanistic higher education.

Humanistic higher education takes the idea of the Humboldtian model of education, that is, the integration of teaching, learning, and research, and integrates it with service to humanity. So, humanistic higher education is an approach or mode of inquiry for all academic disciplines. Science, engineering, and medicine, for instance, are as much concerned with applying knowledge to address human needs, concerns, and problems as other disciplines. Contemporary humanistic higher education is increasingly interdisciplinary and focused on the development of human capacity at all levels (individual, local, national, and international) and in all areas (politically, economically, socially, technologically, and ecologically) – an aim that higher education is well suited for.

Based on a long tradition of human inquiry and manifested in such documents as the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, humanistic higher education is based on core principles of our shared humanity: equity, inclusion, justice, responsibility, and sustainable development. Humanistic higher education respects the diversity of multiple knowledge systems and strives to go beyond nice sounding platitudes by putting knowledge into practical action for the benefit of humanity and for the common good. As such, higher education that is based on humanistic principles strives for inclusive policy-making and meaningful lifelong learning opportunities for all.

With the gradual universalization of education at all levels, education has done more to lift people out of poverty in the past century than at any other point in human history. Education at all levels has done more to strengthen democracy than perhaps any other factor. Education is the engine the drives every form of development which is why it must be supported and expanded. Future higher education will require a more fluid approach to learning that includes integrating formal, nonformal, and informal modes of learning and integrating different modes of disciplinary inquiry for a more holistic approach to solving complex global problems. 

Learning is both a process and an outcome and it involves continually progressing to higher levels of critical and creative thinking which requires a collaborative environment of academic freedom. To this end, human creativity and critical thinking has become the most versatile renewable resource but it must be developed over the course of a lifetime. Education policy must therefore be visionary in its approach and inclusive in its implementation.

Dr. Patrick Blessinger is an adjunct associate professor of education at St. John’s University, a math and science teacher with the New York State Education Department, and chief research scientist of the International Higher Education Teaching and Learning Association (in consultative status with the United Nations). Email: [email protected]

This article originally appeared in HERDSA Connect

Suggested Citation:

Blessinger, P. (2018). A higher ideal for higher education, HERDSA CONNECT, Volume 40, Number 3, Spring 2018. http://www.herdsa.org.au/sites/default/files/HERDSA%20CONNECT%20-%20SPRING%202018.pdf


Blessinger, P. (2018). A higher ideal for higher education, Higher Education Tomorrow, Volume 5, Article 9, https://www.patrickblessinger.com/a-higher-ideal-for-higher-education

Copyright © [2018] Patrick Blessinger


Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and as such do not necessarily represent the position(s) of other professionals or any institution.