I no sooner perceived myself in the world than I found myself in a storm” – John Locke
In his American Higher Education, A History (Second Edition), Christopher Lucas posits that society’s earliest attempts at codifying the theory and practice of higher education were seeded in Aristotle’s pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, absent considerations of its utility (Lucas, 16). This thinking on knowledge was a forbear of the German school of higher education that would find its fullest and most robust manifestation in America’s establishment of graduate schools focused on research. Later, research and utility would become essential tools of American national and international advancement (Veysey, 156). Utility would grow to become a uniquely American school of thought and practice in higher education (ibid, 60). Utility, a direct descendant of the Aristotelian and, later, German schools’ ideal of research for its own sake, sought to find practical uses for research in American higher education, grounding its application in a philosophy of social advancement and improvement for many. Lucas, noting the importance of utility in evincing a more complete understanding of our universe and humanity’s place in it, quotes Descartes when he writes, “Give me extension and motion, and I will construct the universe” (Lucas, 93). Lucas, then, argues for both a mechanistic view of the universe and its processes and the importance of higher education’s focus on research’s practical considerations and its broader, socially advantageous application.
“Philosophy is now become very mechanical. [I value] this universe more as I know it resembles a watch, and the whole order nature the more plain and easy it is, to me it appears more admirable” – Fontenelle
American higher education is the product of several complementary and competing ideological, historical and cultural influences, the child of myriad forces birthed, as America itself, in a stew of rebellion, religion, rigor and radicalism. From its origins as a training ground for elites and clergy it grew to encompass fields of inquiry as disparate and detailed as physics, Shakespeare, economic theory, agriculture, automobile maintenance and business. The robustness credited with its eventual ubiquity can be traced, in part, to several prominent philosophical schools, though most prominently social contract theory as propounded by 17th century British philosopher John Locke (John Locke, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://www.iep.utm.edu, p. 1). Social contract theory views individual moral and political obligations as dependent on a contract or agreement among them to form the society, social subgroups and institutions, including colleges and universities, in which they live (Social Contract Theory, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://www.iep.utm.edu, p. 1).
John Locke, the son of a country solicitor and small landowner, was born at Wrington, a village in Somerset, on August 29, 1632. Following his schooling at Westminster in 1646, he matriculated at Oxford’s Christ Church as a junior student in 1652. He was later deprived of his student status by royal mandate in 1684 (John Locke, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://www.iep.utm.edu, p. 2). He was later elected to a senior studentship in 1659, having satisfied institutional requirements for advancement. He later took part in Oxford’s tutorial work. While he considered the clerical profession as a possible career, he declined an offer of preferment in 1666, and in the same year obtained a dispensation enabling him to hold his studentship without taking orders (ibid, P. 2). Here he developed an interest in experimental science and was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1668. He earned a bachelor of medicine in 1674, though he did not earn a doctor of medicine degree. He later made himself indispensable to Lord Ashley, Earl of Shaftesbury, saving his life with an operation, education his son and finding a marriageable mate for him (ibid). Upon entering public service, Locke later became Shaftesbury’s secretary for presentations to eminent political and social figures and was later appointed lord of trade. Locke later settled in the house of Francis and Lady Masham at Oates in Essex where he lived until his death in 1704 (ibid, P. 3).
Locke argues that the social compact and man’s relationship to authority is based on intellectual freedom, an idea undergirding both research and utility. He also argues for freedom from the unjust influence of others (as with academic freedom), positing a “state of nature” in which men are beholden to society and should work toward its uplift absent unjust social compulsion. These aims, he asserts, are achieved through both the spread of a shared morality and the pursuit of knowledge, designed for codification and sharing through mutually supportive social institutions including government and schools, particularly colleges and universities (Social Contract Theory, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://www.iep.utm.edu, p. 5). Locke further argues that the State of Nature espoused in social contract theory is not a condition of individuals but rather a “conjugal (family-oriented) society” in which study is but an extension of the affinity men have for one another, a tent pole of American higher education from Harvard’s founding in 1636, what Lester Goodchild in his History of Higher Education in the United States called “the search for truth” (Goodchild, ASHE Reader, 37).
Political society, as in colleges and universities comes into being when individual men, representing their families and interests, come together in social contract theory’s State of Nature and agree to each give up the executive power to punish those who transgress the Law of Nature, and hand over that power to the public power of a government (Social Contract Theory, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://www.iep.utm.edu, p. 6). In American higher education, this involves submission to the moral, ideological and practical ideals of a college or university. Indeed, any social group sharing an agreed-upon code of conduct, be it intellectual (as in higher education) or in subversion of the self to a “greater good” as supported by a majority extols the virtue of social group theory. “The end of men’s uniting into common-wealths,” Locke writes, “is the preservation of their wealth, and preserving their lives, liberty, and well-being in general (ibid).”
American higher education, itself a product of a shared ideological ethos based in a social contract supported by a majority of participants, is similarly grounded in an idea of a shared moral code and submission to social standards (in discipline and piety); adherence to rigorous and replicable standards (as in research); the development of practical solutions to theoretical problems discovered in research or arising from social necessity (as in utility) and a shared social and intellectual ethic grounded in aristocratic ideals (as in liberal culture), each part and parcel of Locke’s social contract theory. These four tenets of the construction and evolution of American higher education share a foundation with Locke’s theory on social group interaction and are the basis for the support and function of every American college and university.
Goodchild, Lester F., History of Higher Education in the United States, ASHE Reader Series’ History of Higher Education in the United States, Third Edition, Pearson Custom Publishing, 2007
Lucas, Christopher J., American Higher Education, A History; Second Edition, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2006
Veysey, Laurence R., The Emergence of the American University, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1965
John Locke, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://www.iep.utm.edu, 12/4/11, 3:12 PM
Social Contract Theory, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://www.iep.utm.edu, 12/4/11, 3:12 PM