The Primary Purposes of Higher Education Today

In the midst of the unprecedented globalization today of both informational and communicational technologies, and the deepening realization of the basic differences in the hierarchies of value between European beliefs on the primacy of human rights over nature and Asian beliefs on the primacy of nature over human rights, how can the basic values of “respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms” be taught?

     For educators must either teach respect for human rights above all as the primary purpose of higher education, or respect for nature above all must be taught as its primary purpose. Both cannot be primary in the same senses. That is, neither human rights nor nature can by itself be “original, caused by, based on, or dependent on anything else.”¹ Consider briefly each of these two points.

     Talk of human rights today, just like talk of other basic values, is quite various. Such a variety of ordinary and professional discourse continues to be richly suggestive. But, understandably, such various talk of human rights suffers from many confusions. This is often the case even when many informed and reflective persons talk of human rights. But if the primary purpose of higher education today is to be understood as communicating the value of human rights above all other values including nature as primary, then these confusions need to be confronted critically.

     One major cause of such confusions is the persistent difficulty of defining human rights juridically. The difficulty lies in defining human rights in just such ways that the concept of human rights can serve effectively in international discussions among nations with quite different cultural presuppositions. This remains quite difficult. Witness the frequent conflicts in the UN’s General Assembly and its Security Council between those nations who favor above all the rights of collective economic and social development and those who favor instead the rights of the environment and future generations over even sustainable development.

     Besides the difficulty of achieving international consensus on any actionable definition of human rights, a second major difficulty with taking the communication of the primacy of human rights as the purpose of higher education today is the still expanding number of just what are to be properly termed human rights.

     To get an initial idea of this second difficulty recall some only of what are called human rights today. Here is one contemporary distinguished English philosopher’s abbreviated alphabetical list only. Note that the list includes no more than positive rights and none of the many negative ones such as the human right not to be tortured.

     The list includes the human right to asylum, to autonomy, to bodily integrity, to compensation for miscarriage of justice, to death, to democratic participation, to determine the number of one’s children, to development, to education, to equal pay for equal work, to health, to a healthy environment, to inherit, to liberty, to life, to peace, to periodic holidays with pay, to privacy, to property, to protection against attacks on one’s honor and reputation, to rescue, to security of one’s person, to self-defense, to self-determination, to welfare, to well-being, to work².

     But surely these are just too many “rights.” How to make the teaching of such matters the primary purpose of higher education today when we don’t agree on just which ones are properly speaking human rights at all?

     Consider now just as briefly several major difficulties with taking the primary purpose of higher education to consist in communicating the value of nature as primary above all other values including human rights.

     Talk of the value of nature is almost as various today as talk about human rights. And, similarly, the variety of such talk is both a richness yet also a major difficulty. Also similarly, establishing consensus on an effective juridical conception of nature in such international collective governing bodies as the UN is a source of still further major difficulties.

     Some difficulties, however, with taking the communication of the primacy of nature over all other human values as the main purpose of higher education are not shared with the difficulties affecting the idea of the primacy of human rights. Here is an instructive representative philosophical instance of one of these distinctive difficulties taken from the work of a recently deceased distinguished contemporary Japanese philosopher: “Up until almost the 1930s,” Tomonobu Imamichi (1922-2012) has written notably, “people’s lives were largely in harmony with nature, both in the East and in the West . . . Except for primitive humans, ever since the dawn of history we have made use of nature and regarded ourselves as being at its center. So when the relationship between human beings and nature is considered primarily in terms of the natural environment, human beings are regarded as being positioned at the center. […] a position akin to that of ruler in nature, because no other living creature seems to have been so intent on conquering and exploiting nature. So in a certain sense, we are indeed suffocating nature as our environment…”³.

     Now, two points here I think need underlining.

     The first point is that from this East Asian standpoint nature itself is obscured from any clear vision in a particular way. For largely believing themselves to be at the center of a world either existing scientifically or religiously created, people encounter very grave difficulties in understanding what nature is. This is not a difficulty, as in the case of human rights, with definition. Rather the distinctive difficulty here in understanding just what nature itself is follows from the transformation of the human environment.

     It follows that taking the main purpose of higher education to be the communication of the absolute priority of nature over all other human values is, practically speaking, impossible. For most human beings today no longer live their lives in any kind of direct contact with nature. Rather, almost whatever contact they have with nature is by way of one technology or another. How can we settle on communicating the overriding importance of living in harmony with nature when we no longer have sufficient direct contact with what makes nature essentially what it is?

     A second point in this Asian perspective on nature also raises a further distinctive difficulty for those who would take the major purpose of education to be the communication of the primacy of nature over all other human values including human rights. And that is the human incapacity, despite all the posturing of both science and religion, to dominate nature and thereby justify its centrality in the natural cosmos.

     Recall for example the most recent 5 October 2018 report of the Intergovernmental Report on Climate Change on the challenges of growing climate change with all the extraordinary shifts in global weather patterns, global oceanic currents, increasing tectonic events, and the disappearance of species despite our frenzied efforts to preserve at least some of those we find useful. But if this recent record has anything essentially to do with the dominance of human beings at the very center of the cosmos, then we are truly at a loss to understand just how that could be the case.

     So here too we have a major difficulty. How can one take the communication of the primacy of nature over all other human values including human rights to be the purpose of higher education when far from being the dominant entity in the cosmos the human being and the human person are fundamentally caught up with everything else in the apparently relentless processes of entropy?

     I conclude with the idea that perhaps talk of the fundamental purposes of higher education today in terms of communicating the primary values of human rights and nature is deeply problematic. For myself, living like all of us in a now globalized informational and communicational world, I need to say that quite simply I do not know what the fundamental purpose of higher education today is. I believe however that higher education specialists, whether in Europe or in Asia, would do well indeed to include among the primary purposes of education some older purposes that many even well-informed discussions today too often overlook. Among the older so-called primary purposes of education might perhaps figure what the late medieval philosopher and churchman Nicholas Cusanus (1401-1464) memorably called the teaching of a “learned ignorance,” and perhaps too some of the purposes of what the medieval Japanese philosopher and religious thinker, Shinran (1173-1263) called “entrusting.” But perhaps some ignorance is just inexpressible.

  1. Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, 2 vols., 6th ed. (Oxford: OUP, 2007).
  2. James Griffin, On Human Rights (Oxford: OUP, 2008), 337-338.
  3. Tomonobu Imamichi, An Introduction to Eco-Ethica (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2009), 76.

About author

Peter McCormick

Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and a Permanent Member of the Institute international de philosophie in Paris. Formerly Professor of Philosophy at the University of Ottawa, he is Fürst Franz-Josef and Fürstin Gina Emeritus Professor of Moral Philosophy of the Internationale Akademie für Philosophie im Fürstentum Liechtenstein.
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