Against Expediency: The Ethics of Education

By Mannion, Gerard | Catholic Education, December 2007 | Go to article overview
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Against Expediency: The Ethics of Education

Mannion, Gerard, Catholic Education

This article suggests that church-linked universities and colleges can and should show that there is an alternative to the expediency and pseudo-utilitarian thinking which currently dominates higher education. Such institutions can and should serve as beacons of a virtuous approach to education which can show others a more positive way forward.

Theology and ethics--both disciplines mutually informing one another--hold the key to fostering and promoting a true culture of ministry both in the day-to-day existence of universities and colleges and in nurturing young minds to take that culture of ministry out into the wider community.


This article explores issues in the philosophy and, effectively, theology of education, taking as its primary area of focus the present situation in the UK university sector. However, the issues here discussed have much relevance for higher education institutions in numerous other countries worldwide. Primarily, the article suggests that educational institutions which are linked to the Church--as well as those linked to other faith communities--can and should show that there is an alternative to the thinking which currently dominates higher education.

To help readers understand the context here, it should be borne in mind that almost all institutions of higher education in the UK, including most with a religious affiliation, are part of the government-funded national university system. However, through their foundations, their alternative sources of funding and in the shape and form of their governance structures, church-linked institutions have much leeway with regard to how far they imitate and emulate the practices and ethos prevalent in secular institutions within that same system. Note, also, that throughout we will be assuming at least some agreement upon what the term "ethics" means, namely, the ethos, values, and norms of particular communities, as well as being the technical term for how human beings go about shaping, debating, understanding, and employing such values and how they come to understand the relation of the truth with good and evil, right and wrong.


In the UK, as in many other countries, at no time in the past have we had more regulation and imposed uniformity and standardization in higher education. And yet at no time have standards in higher education been poorer in real terms, as opposed to perceptions encouraged by published reports and their spin-doctored interpretations. This raises some important questions: What is education for? In other words, what are we supposed to be doing here? Have we clearly identifiable aims and objectives with regard to our own day-to-day activities and on what grounds can we defend the right of any educational institute to exist?

The character and tone that linger around much of what passes for educational policy today gives great cause for concern. It is borne of a similar confusion about the nature and function of the educational process, its methods of procedure and, therefore, the nature and function of educational institutions themselves. Do we today have any true mission in education, or are we more concerned with effective management of staff and students in order to achieve the economic goals placed upon us by successive governments equally bereft of true vision? Or do we fall somewhere in between, trying to balance incompatible missionary aims with economic goals?

Such questions can be examined through exploring the links between education and ethics--above all through asking whether there is a moral dimension to education and, if so, in what it consists. So we begin by asking, what are the ethics of education (i.e., what is that moral dimension)? Then we shall turn to related questions about the moral aspects of the philosophy of education, and next ask what of education in morals, themselves (i.

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