Summary: The Functions of Higher Education (Marcus Ford)

Some months ago, I’ve read this article in the library, here in Berlin (Germany). To me, those were the most remarkable sentences, I cite below. The whole article, you will find here.

Ford categorizes four overlapping phases in the historical development of higher education in the United States, defined by four institutions and four purposes:

  1. Liberal arts education: perpetuating the ideals of Western civilization, using both classical and Christian texts.
  2. Land grant colleges and universities: providing an education for the working people of the United States that was both practical and well rounded. (2nd half of the 19th century)
  3. Research universities: preparing an intellectual elite in the techniques of research to devote a lifetime to the advancement of knowledge of both natural sciences and the humanities. (imported from Russia 1890s)
  4. For-profit universities and technical schools: training the workforce with skills necessary to compete in the global marketplace in an institution run as a business. (since the 1960s)

All four of those institutions co-exist today, with the research universities still the dominant and most prestigious form of higher education.

Liberal art education was intentionally both elitist and conservative. It perpetuated a European tradition of training the children of elite families for professional work or for public service. This type of education inculcated didain for the pursuit of wealth if it served only instrumental purposes.

Humboldt at University of Berlin:

  • The highest form of knowledge is not the kind of knowledge that allows us to do things, rather it is the kind of knowledge that allows us to know ourselves and the truth.
  • One of the unique features if the University of Berlin was its academic structure. In order to facilitate pure understanding, academic disciplines were created.
  • The job of synthesizing all human understanding fell to philosophers and for a while, especially in Germany, they willingly accepted this project.


In addition to not providing a coherent (if always incomplete) understanding of reality, the research university differed from the liberal arts college in two important respects: it placed a greater value on research than on teaching and it dismissed value judgements as personal and therefore unscholarly.


For most of its history in the United States higher education was not about employment. It was about preserving Christian civilization and preparing young people for a life of service, and as such, it was as much about the personal character and the moral development of students as it was about intellectual achievement. To be a college graduate was something of an honorific title. It signed a person of quality. No doubt many who held this distinction fell short of the mark (and may who were not college graduates were admirable people), but the point is that colleges understood their task in a much more holistic manner. Their goal was to produce excellent individuals, not just capable employees.

Marcus Ford: The Functions of Higher Education, IN: The American Journal of Economics and Sociology, 25 APR 2017, p. 540


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