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Higher Education, Knowledge for Its Own Sake, and an African Moral Theory

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I seek to answer the question of whether publicly funded higher education ought to aim intrinsically to promote certain kinds of “blue-sky” knowledge, knowledge that is unlikely to result in “tangible” or “concrete” social benefits such as health, wealth and liberty. I approach this question in light of an African moral theory, which contrasts with dominant Western philosophies and has not yet been applied to pedagogical issues. According to this communitarian theory, grounded on salient sub-Saharan beliefs and practices, actions are right insofar as they respect relationships in which people both share a way of life, or identify with one another, and care for others’ quality of life, or are in solidarity with each other. I argue that while considerations of identity and solidarity each provide some reason for a state university to pursue blue-sky knowledge as a final end, they do not provide conclusive reason for it to do so. I abstain from drawing any further conclusion about whether this provides reason to reject the Afro-communitarian moral theory or the intuition that blue-sky knowledge is a proper final end of public higher education. I do point out, however, that the dominant Western moral theories on the face of it do no better than the African one at accounting for this intuition.

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  1. 1.

    See, for example, Stanley Fish’s (2008a, b) recent reflection on the value of the humanities. As I point out below, however, there is much natural scientific reflection that appears to be equally ‘useless’.

  2. 2.

    In other work I cite more than 50 books, chapters and articles that address the final ends of Africanist higher education (Metz 2009a); only the handful of authors discussed below take up the issue of knowledge for its own sake.

  3. 3.

    Touré (1963), Nyerere (1964), Yesufu (1973), Makgoba (1998), Dowling and Seepe (2003), Mthembu (2004), Adams (2005, p. 144), Nabudere (2006). Although the following do not explicitly reject knowledge for its own sake, their heavy emphasis on the need for knowledge to be relevant suggests that they would: Mazrui (1978), Lumumba-Kasongo (2000), Lebakeng (2004).

  4. 4.

    Beyond the rejections of the very concept of knowledge for its own sake, rebutted in the previous section.

  5. 5.

    The rest of this paragraph invokes some statements from Metz (2009a, p. 191).

  6. 6.

    And perhaps even to support them in doing so. If the final end of a state university did not include blue-sky knowledge, then an individual academic would do wrong if she pursued it with university resources. However, it would not follow that an administrator would be doing wrong if he actively supported this researcher’s blue-sky projects, so long as it were known to be a necessary part of a plan to do what is likely to realize the university’s final ends in the long run. To think otherwise is to neglect the tricky, but definitive, role that institutional factors can play in moral choice.

  7. 7.

    The next several paragraphs borrow from Metz (2009a, pp. 182–184, 2009b, pp. 339–342).

  8. 8.

    This conception of what makes something African also implies that there could be accounts of morality besides the one I propose below that are also worthy of the title (for two rivals, see Wiredu 1992a; Gyekye 1997, pp. 35–76).

  9. 9.

    For classic statements of these ubiquitous phrases, see Mbiti (1969, pp. 108–109), Menkiti (1979).

  10. 10.

    For yet another, representative comment, consider these remarks about the practices of the G/wi people of Botswana: ‘(T)here was another value being pursued, namely the establishing and maintaining of harmonious relationships. Again and again in discussion and in general conversation this stood out as a desired and enjoyed end in itself, often as the ultimate rationale for action’ (Silberbauer 1991, p. 20).

  11. 11.

    Elsewhere I have spelled out many of the following recurrent facets of sub-Saharan thought and practice, and argued that the present moral principle captures them best (Metz 2007a, b).

  12. 12.

    This sort of case is normally attributed to John Rawls (1971, p. 432).

  13. 13.

    Mbiti, the influential scholar of African thought, makes this point (1969), and is echoed by others (e.g., Menkiti 1979; Dzobo 1992, p. 229). Indeed, the standard objection to African ethics is that it grants too much weight to tradition and not enough to individual liberty, on which see Louw (2001, pp. 19–26).

  14. 14.

    The field of analytical ethics has by and large followed Samuel Scheffler’s (1982) terminology here.

  15. 15.

    For the most explicit and thorough discussion, see Gyekye (1997, pp. 69–75). An inability to go beyond the call of duty with regard to aiding others is probably implicit in Wiredu’s (1992a) suggestion that the golden rule is central to sub-Saharan morality; treating others the way you would like to be treated entails helping them an awful lot, supposing you would like to be helped an awful lot.

  16. 16.

    Quite often, the intuition is not thoroughly defended by its most ardent supporters in the West. For example, one encounters little argument for (and virtually no moral theoretic defence of) the claim that a public university ought to pursue knowledge for its own sake in Husserl (1935), Oakeshott (1950), Wolff (1969, pp. 7–8) and Pelikan (1992, pp. 32–43).

  17. 17.

    Suppose a morally upright, theoretical genius needed a new liver to survive, and the only one available were housed in the body of a malevolent, not-so-bright undergraduate student. Would the ethical imperative to promote human excellence permit the scholar’s university to forcibly extract the liver? Of course, doing so might well constitute a vice, but might that, on a eudaimonist ethic, be outweighed by the imperative to realize superlative intellectual virtue?


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This article has been improved as a result of: discussion with Pedro Tabensky and the students in his African philosophy class at Rhodes University; written comments from Stephen Kershnar and Ward Jones; questions from members of the African Moral Education Network at their inaugural meeting in Cape Town and from participants in a staff seminar sponsored by the University of the Witwatersrand School of Education; and reports received from two thoughtful, anonymous referees for this journal.

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Correspondence to Thaddeus Metz.

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Metz, T. Higher Education, Knowledge for Its Own Sake, and an African Moral Theory. Stud Philos Educ 28, 517 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11217-009-9141-7

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  • Higher education
  • Final ends
  • Knowledge for its own sake
  • Research
  • African morality
  • Sub-Saharan ethics