EDEV_503 Week 1_2

Thanks for the opportunity to investigate Barnett once more.

Barnett is driven by a political agenda; he wishes to retain his particular sense of the meaning of ‘elite’ which he defines as;

“‘Higher education’ is essentially a matter of the development of the mind of the individual student. It is not just any kind of development that the idea points to. An educational process can be termed higher education when the student is carried on to levels of reasoning which make possible critical reflection on his or her experiences, whether consisting of propositional knowledge or of knowledge through action. These levels of reasoning and reflection are ‘higher’, because they enable the student to take a view (from above, as it were) of what has been learned. Simply, ‘higher education’ resides in the higher-order states of mind” ((Barnett, 1990, cited in White, 1997, p. 8).

Without reading his mind, we cannot know why he equates ‘higher’ with ‘elite’ or ‘leadership’ or ‘cultivated’ (to adopt Trow’s terminology). ‘Higher’ can mean all sorts of things. For instance, it may refer to ‘more advanced technical information’ or ‘better skilled’ or ‘specialist’ or any other of a dozen terms. Defining ‘higher’ with a certain quality, i.e.in this case a particular social positioning, of a person points to an elitist perspective.

Unfortunately for (my interpretation of) Barnett, his current occupation (as a University of London professor), his received pronunciation accent (a symbol of upper class Englishness), and his elitist statements about ‘philosophy’ can be negatively interpreted as a member of the ruling class trying desperately to cling on to status and position.

Perhaps Barnett does not actually feel this. However, he will be aware as anyone else in education that critical theorists will interpret his position in a particular manner. He will surely understand that if his true opinions, should they be different, need to be framed in very different ways.

You ask my opinion. It’s not a completely complementary one.

Barnett presents false dichotomies by setting up half-truths which creates space for his own opinions. For example in 2004 he claims that “there are no departments, units or research centres in the world that even have a primary interest in the philosophy of higher education. As a result, there is, for example, no journal that is devoted to the matter” (Barnett, 2004, p. 61). While it is true that there were no journals that focussed entirely on the philosophy of higher education, there were, of course, journals dedicated to the philosophy of education which had been active for decades prior to 2004 and which had numerous articles devoted to issues in higher education (Educational Philosophy and Theory, Studies in Philosophy and Education and Journal of Philosophy of Education to name the main ones).

It is true (c.f. White, 1997) that there are distinctions between higher and university education. And this discussion is a very pertinent and useful one. I wouldn’t discount Barnett’s elitism entirely as I personally feel that it has merit (for reasons space and time forbid the elucidation). But I think that you are right when you make a call for better titles. I would make a call for better article content, too.


Barnett, R. (2004). The Purposes of Higher Education and the Changing Face of Academia. London Review of Education, 2(1), 61–73. http://doi.org/10.1080/1474846042000177483

White, J. (1997). Philosophy and the aims of higher education. Studies in Higher Education, 22(1), 7–17. http://doi.org/10.1080/03075079712331381101

About theCaledonian

Scot living in north Japan teaching at a national university.
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