• What is the Purpose of Higher Education?

    As long as I can remember, it was expected of me to attend college after high school. According to my father, if you had the means to do so, then it would have been unthinkable not to pursue a college degree. I spent my first year after high school taking basic credits at my local community college; then I applied and was accepted to Colorado State University as a Liberal Arts student. The degree I wanted to receive varied widely in those first few semesters. I started out thinking that I would be a journalist. An intro to environmental studies class made me briefly consider switching to natural resources. Eventually I landed on a Sociology degree with a concentration in environmental studies. At the time, I envisioned myself enacting social changes that would better our relationship with the environment around us. I wanted to be the person that got plastic bag bans put onto ballets, or enforced the monitoring of a company’s carbon footprint. To be honest, I think I fell into that degree because I had friends in a lot of the classes, and because it felt like a noble and relevant degree to have. Since graduating in 2013, I have done absolutely nothing related to Sociology or environmental studies.

    So, what was the purpose then, of my higher education? Economically speaking, my time in college was a failure. I haven’t been able to pay back my student loans and I haven’t had any sort of career that has helped shape the world around me in a meaningful way. If you were to ask Paulo Freire however, he would say that I achieved my purpose in pursuing higher education and that I am a more well-rounded citizen because of it.

    Paulo Freire, author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed

    According to Giroux in his article Rethinking Education as the Practice of Freedom: Paulo Freire and the Promise of Critical Pedagogy, Freire’s view of education is

    “Concerned with providing students with the skills and knowledge necessary for them to expand their capacities first to question the deep-seated assumptions and myths that legitimate the archaic and disempowering  social  practices  structuring  every  aspect  of  society  and  then  to  take  responsibility for intervening in the world they inhabit.” (Giroux, 718).

    Freire held critical thinking, self-reflection, and civic imagination in the highest regards. I, without a doubt, feel that I learned all of these tools in my liberal arts classes. In the jobs I have held since then, I have easily been promoted to managerial positions time and again because of my ability to use these tools. I have never taken information at face value and enjoy delving into a subject myself to form my own opinion on the matter. I pride myself on being an active member of society. One who can imagine a world beyond this reality, who can see through the “fake news” and political agendas, who can seriously partake in self-reflection in order to analyze my past mistakes and grown from them.

    Those who oppose Freire’s critical pedagogy theory would argue that yes, perhaps I have gained those tools; but is knowledge alone enough to make me a contributing member of society? In an article published by Leftvoice.org, the author argues that “It’s hard to see how simply posing the problems of racism, low wages, climate apocalypse, etc., to average people would lead them to formulate a single viable solution.” (Gregory, A Critique of ‘pedagogy of the oppressed’). They think that Freire is too idealistic in his belief that giving the gift of critical thinking will spur people into action. Yes, I may be able to self-reflect on my position in the economic hierarchy. Yes, I can think critically about the news and the facts. Have I actually done anything to change what I see as unjust? Not really, and so according to those that hold a market-driven view of education, I am a non-contributor.

    I would like to whole-heartedly believe in Freire’s theories. I do think that critical thinking and self-reflection are necessary tools that every person should learn, and I am grateful for my Sociology degree for giving me those. I also agree with him that it is a failure for schools to center their education around standardized testing and economic impacts. I am not sure, however, if education as Freire poses it, is enough to create contributing members of society. Part of me thinks that I could have gained those same tools from a route other than higher education, from a personal mentor for example, which would not have left me in as much student debt as I am in now.

    My ideal version of higher education would include all of Freire’s ideas, as well as some real-world training. I wish it had been required of me as a Liberal Arts major to learn finances. Freire believes that education should provide students with the tools to have a “self-managed life”, but it’s difficult to feel self-managed when nobody taught me how to do my own taxes or make financial investments. Even basic trade classes, such as Plumbing 101, would aid in me living a self-managed life. Freire’s views on education are beautiful, but perhaps not the most realistic for today’s world.

    -Samantha Maas

    Works Cited:

    Giroux, Henry A. “Rethinking Education as the Practice of Freedom: Paulo Freire and the Promise of Critical Pedagogy .” Policy Futures in Education, vol. 8, no. 6, 2010, pp. 715–720., http://www.wwwords.co.uk/PFIE. Accessed 25 Jan. 2023.

    Gregory, Kendall. “A Critique of ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’.” Left Voice, Seattle Revolutionary Socialists , 15 Aug. 2022, https://www.leftvoice.org/a-critique-of-pedagogy-of-the-oppressed/.