The purpose of education, particularly higher education, is a much debated question.  On the one hand it widens our thinking and introduces us to a range of perspectives, philosophies and the great cultural works of our time and throughout history.  On the other it prepares us practically for a job; how to balance accounts, build a house, or prescribe the right medicine.  It also often involves many years of study, assignments and exams, and costs either the individual or the taxpayers who fund it a significant amount of money.

Over the last few generations, increasing  numbers of women have become highly educated and successful in all sorts of careers that their great-grandmothers simply did not work within. With two other now largely stay-at-home mothers I went to the zoo yesterday; our educations were as a lawyer, doctor and a corporate human resources advisor.  

However, this does bring with it a much-discussed dilemma – whether and how best to stop and have children.  The German study I discussed last week found this dilemma to be one of the key reasons so many German women have no or few children and now find parenting such a struggle. When the German women in the study did have children they most often just had one or two.  Many women do not want to ‘waste’ their educations by stopping to work at home bringing up children, and it is a very real stress figuring out a balance if there is one to be had.  Yet, if one feels ones education is being ‘wasted’ when working as a parent, what in fact is the purpose of higher education?

A study published this month suggests that we are often confused and conflicted today about what the purpose of higher education is.  Perhaps this adds to women’s confusion. In discussion the paper notes that:

Historically, when the Puritans founded Harvard College in 1636, the public and civic purpose of higher education was to produce “a learned clergy and a lettered people” (Rudolph, 1962) and to develop learners to work towards improving the conditions of society at large (Dewey, 1916).

Although this statement has somewhat changed overtime, many colleges and universities today rarely have a single unifying purpose or mission statement. Readings (1996) once argued that colleges and universities served as producer, protector, and inculcator of an idea of national culture. Today, however, institutions of higher education are “no longer clear what the place of the University is within society, nor what the exact nature of society is…” (p. 2). Thus, many institutions of higher education pursue multiple, competing goals such as, democratic equality, social efficiency, and social mobility (Labaree, 1997) …

Historically, three decades ago, Lyotard (1984) talked about the growth of mercantilization of knowledge, in which the primary purpose of higher education was to create new skills rather than to train elites capable of guiding their own future and national destiny … (Astin, 1997; Perry, 1968) …

[Yet,] Lagemann and Lewis (2012) argued that the public purpose for attending higher education has less to do with the pursuit of economic or employment benefits and much more about preparing young adults with generic skills and civic education such as civic values and virtues.

…Like Lagemann and Lewis, Kiziltepe (2010) argued that the purpose of higher education is to develop five dispositional outcomes at the completion of a college degree: (a) interpersonal competence, (b) multi-cultural understanding, (c) skills in problem identification and problem solving, (d) a sense of purpose, and (e) the confidence to act in ways that make a difference.

Similarly, Nussbaum (2012) suggested that the purpose of higher education is to provide students with generic skills and dispositions such as, “the ability to think critically; the ability to transcend local loyalties and to approach world problems as a ‘citizen of the world’; and, finally, the ability to imagine sympathetically the predicament of another person”


Obviously the purposes of education are multi-faceted, and depend on the context of the degree and goals of learning.  However, in terms of people working as parents for some time in their lives, elevating the role of the mother in society as one worthy of an educated women and esteemed highly on a par with other work women also do outside the home would surely go some way to helping the chronically low fertility rates in so much of the world.  Many of the German women in the above-mentioned study obviously didn’t feel that society regards motherhood as high on the list of worthy and esteemed vocations, yet this work shapes our future citizens. 

If education is in part to ‘improve the conditions of society at large’, to develop ‘the confidence to act in ways that make a difference’, and to have the ability to ‘approach world problems as a ‘citizen of the world’ then mothers should not feel their education is being wasted.  Being a thinking person who is able to participate thoughtfully in public debate and discussion and teach children effectively both virtue and knowledge so that they might become well-adjusted citizens is surely one aim of education.  I hasten to add that we have often discussed on this blog the many economic benefits of parental work, not least the raising of sorely needed future tax-paying citizens. The work that motherhood and fatherhood involves is a worthy use of countless skills, both practical and otherwise.

There is also an argument to be made that women should be encouraged to think more about the sort of balance they would like in their lives in secondary school, before embarking on their desired education or career path.  An article I wrote back in June reported that: “Professor Nargund, a lead consultant for reproductive medicine at St George’s Hospital in London, was moved to write to Education Secretary Nicky Morgan [earlier this year] about the importance of fertility education not only for the benefit of women themselves, but also wider society and “the public purse”.  She strongly suggested fertility knowledge be included on the national curriculum, stating that “educated women are not necessarily educated about their fertility”.

Shannon Roberts

Shannon Roberts is co-editor of MercatorNet's blog on population issues, Demography is Destiny. While she has a background as a barrister, writing has been a life-long passion and she has contributed...