The Autonomous Self and Higher Education

In the previous blog, I addressed the first major issue regarding American college education – a growing lack of mental discipline from students. Although most social commentators focus on the negative impacts of video media upon college students, I believe that the root cause of these issues stem from the fact that we have re-defined education. We have moved from a view of education as a means of discipleship to education as a means of job training. Thus, it can be said that we have undervalued the need to discipline and train the human mind. Coupled with this change in education, I want to address the second major issue: the promotion of the autonomous self.

The self is our interior world, made up of our own thoughts, private intuitions, desires, yearnings, capacities, particularities, and all other elements that makes us distinct from other persons. In essence, it is the sum package of ourselves that makes us unique from all other people. I believe that the promotion of the autonomous self has had a profoundly negative impact on higher education, and I believe the development of the autonomous self is the consequence of three noetic effects of the Fall: faulty perspectives, intellectual pride, and vain imaginations.

As mentioned previously, we are all subject to these issues in varying degrees because of the Fall. We all have various intellectual prejudices that cause us to misunderstand and misinterpret the world around us (as well as the people around us). These intellectual prejudices also cause us to misunderstand ourselves as well. This suggests that prejudice is somewhat axiomatic. However, there is a difference between recognizing our inherent prejudices ourselves and claiming that reality is defined and shaped by the observer. This is a perspective that is being promoted throughout our society, particularly in education. What cultural forces have contributed to this and what impacts do these have on the quality of college education?

The Emergence of the Self

In his book The Courage to be Protestant, David Wells address how the self-esteem movement has dramatically changed the fabric of American culture. In commenting about the 1960s, Wells notes

In a nutshell, what happened was that our individualism, which had always been a potent factor in American life, turned inward in this decade. It withdrew from the outside world and during the 1960s, a new worldview emerged. To a great majority of Americans, it now became clear that the self had become the source of all values. The pursuit of the self was what life was all about.

In other words, the old world individualism has morphed into a new type of individualism. The older individualism in which you should think for yourself, decide for yourself, provide for yourself, and work to serve others in personal and civic ways has turned inwards. Now, individualism is about “finding yourself”, discovering your inner potential for your own benefit, developing positive self-esteem, and developing new ethical rules that serve the discovery of the self.

In this new style of individualism, self-esteem is elevated even above actual performance. This is a trend that is tracked by numerous academics in which virtually all students view themselves as “above average” in all ways. In this regard, we are producing a generation of students who are “cured” of their inferiority complexes, but whose academic performance lag behind that of many other nations. In therapeutic terms, we have all become adept at being our own healers and our own counselors, dispensing wisdom and comfort to ourselves. In other words, we are not challenging ourselves; we are soothing ourselves.

In our version of individualism, we have the emergence of the autonomous self. Instead of esteeming objectively-defined virtues, we have prioritized good subjective values. Instead of developing objectively-defined inner character, we have prioritized self-marketing, image, and personality. We have replaced an understanding of human nature (which is based on a presupposition of a common shared identity) with the new concept of self. We have drifted from what we all have in common to what is unique to each individual.

The promotion of the self has been the message delivered to many of us for the past several decades. When a child grows up, he or she is taught to embrace their distinctiveness and uniqueness. We are taught to develop our own values and that each person needs to be respected for their values. Moreover, each person is entitled to express who he or she is and each person should define the meaning of his or her life. The prevailing theory is that a poor development of the self explains all sorts of bad behavior and also explains failing academic work. We can now examine some of the impacts that this philosophy has had on higher education.

The Impact on Higher Education

There are numerous consequences of the promotion of self upon college education. The first obvious consequence is a growing sense of entitlement and overconfidence. College faculty members tend to believe that this sense of entitlement is fostered into college students because of grade inflation throughout high school education, but there is plenty of evidence of grade inflation within colleges and universities. This means that the quality and respectability of an undergraduate degree is rapidly declining – to the extent that some degrees are not worth the paper that they are printed on. If the statistics in the above link are correct, this means that all college students are literally above average (with an average GPA of 3.1). Because of these trends, there is a genuine sense that if a student fails a course, then it is the fault of the professor rather than the student.

The promotion of self in higher education has also led to an increase in the hiring of student affairs professionals while freezing or delaying the hiring of full-time faculty members. Furthermore, to meet this ongoing need, more colleges and universities are beginning to develop graduate degrees for Student Affairs, and these programs are even being expanded to the undergraduate level. Therefore, we are witnessing an increase of programs aimed at training people to guide, aid, and facilitate the “personal identity” development of students. And what all of these theories have in common is the promotion of the autonomous self. For evidence of this, please see the following cheat sheet of student development theories.

The expansion of student affairs professionals in higher education also indicates a shift in the financial priorities for colleges and universities. It has been documented that the financial endowments of many academic institutions have flatlined or decreased over the past few decades. Thus, the funding for these new programs/departments have come from four likely sources: (1) students (through increases in student fees and/or tuition); (2) private donors and/or grants; (3) at the expense of academic affairs programs; or 4) through cutting the budgets of current student affairs departments to create new departments/programs. In my view, the creation and/or expansion of student affairs has led to the growth of adjunct, non-tenured faculty within most universities as a cost-cutting measure. This is one of the key indicators that colleges have begun to prioritize the development of the self over the development of the mind.

Our Response

From a Christian worldview, we should see this, not as just a fad in modern American culture, but a rejection of the Christian view of man. The truth is that Western societies want to think only in terms of the self, and they want to use this psychological world as an alternative to the older religious world. This myth of the autonomous self is so well-established, preserved in place by so great a public desire to keep it there, that it borders on heresy to question it. Nevertheless, we should question it and confront it.

The question that we should be asking is whether or not we have the ability or the right to autonomously define themselves. The answer is emphatically no! We do not have the right to dictate who we are because we are creatures, not the Creator. We are not self-created beings who choose to define our own reality; our identity has already been prescribed as creatures made in the image of God. Our lives are not a grand experiment in order to discover our unique identity; we are a part of God’s work of creation and providence, which means that our purpose and function has been determined by God. This is our Father’s world, and reality is set and defined by Him. Consider the commentary by David Wells

To speak of virtue, then, is to speak of the moral structure of the world God has made. Rebellious though we are, we have not broken down this structure, nor dislodged God from maintaining it. It stands there, over against us, whether we recognize it or not. We bump up against it in the course of life and we encounter its reflection in our moral makeup. And from all sides a message is conveyed to our consciousness: “Beware! This is a moral world that you inhabit!”

God’s work of creation does not consists only of the physical structure of the world, but it also includes the moral structure of the world. This also implies that we do not have the ability or the right to define the reality that we live in. Therefore, education should not be a means to liberate our minds from prejudices so that we can discover our true selves in our own inner world. Education should be a means to confront our intellectual prejudices so that we can understand the world that God Himself has made.

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2 thoughts on “The Autonomous Self and Higher Education

  1. Pingback: Liberalism and Modern Education | CredoCovenant

  2. Pingback: The State of Higher Education | CredoCovenant

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