Learning for its own sake

You may have heard of this – what the heck does it even mean?


In an unrelated discussion, my fellow blogger Todd Pettigrew referenced learning for its own sake with the suggestion that this is what universities should be promoting. Now I don’t want to pick on Todd at all. He brings an important faculty perspective to this site and I’m absolutely sure, with a few well-chosen sentences, he could easily explain what he meant by “learning for its own sake.” But I would like to suggest that absent any such explanation the phrase has zero content at all. It means absolutely nothing.

One of my most critical concerns is that many people are so deeply committed to their ideas of what education is and should be that they refuse to even perceive the variety of competing and potentially valid perspectives. This is the grounding thesis of my book. We often criticize students who show up to university for the “wrong” reasons. But I don’t find it helpful at all when anyone utters nonesense phrases like “learning for its own sake.” That’s only a very common shield behind which professional academics hide their own agendas and unexamined assumptions.

Some people will suggest that education is good for society. It’s an outlet for social growth and contributes to a more fulfilled life. Do you want to offer that as a motive? I’ll accept that. But that’s still a reason. You can see meditation classes marketed on a similar basis. Or perhaps education should be for the (probably quite small) percentage of students who simply find learning to be fun. But that’s a motive too. That’s why many people go hang gliding.

Nobody does anything “for its own sake.” Behind that claim always lurks an unexamined or assumed motive. And by assuming a singular, obvious and apparent motive, we deny the complexity of motives that actually exist to seek out post-secondary education. This throw-away phrase, so much employed by academics who are deeply committed to their personal views of what education should be for, is the very antithesis of everything I promote. Think about why you’ve sought out university education. Be aware of the competing motives around you. Try to perceive that the university you are a part of, motivated as it is to cater to these differing interests, may do things that don’t serve you very well and may in fact appear irrational to your particular perspective. Concentrate on getting more of what you want from the experience rather than getting what the next guy may want.

Far more often than not professors will be great allies and assets in terms of making the most of your time at university. Certainly I can’t imagine my own university experience divorced from the incredible influence of a few key mentors. But be aware that they come to the table with their own agendas and biases. Simply because they have their own – doubtless valid – ideas on what education should be about does not mean that your own potentially competing ideas are wrong.

For most students, I’d advise you to be very careful about talking with professional academics regarding what university should be for. It’s a little like bringing up politics or religion. The topic is liable to cause more problems than it’s worth. But if you should get into the discussion, be aware that “the academy” (meaning all professional academics) generally proceeds from the assumption that they have the right to define what university is and should be. You don’t have to accept that assumption. I don’t. I believe that everyone who participates in university (faculty, students, staff, and yes even government) all have input regarding the nature and purpose of post-secondary education. Faculty have a critical perspective on the topic. But not so critical that it absolves them from holding their ideas out for examination.

Question your motives in seeking out post-secondary education. I’m convinced this is the key to any successful university experience. But don’t let anyone tell you your motives are wrong either, and certainly don’t let them tell you that from a perspective that claims you should be learning “for its own sake.” That’s only a rhetorical device to hide the competing view. Anyone who is going to make you defend your motives should be called to defend theirs in return. Professors included.

Questions are welcome at jeff.rybak@utoronto.ca. Even the ones I don’t post will still receive answers, and where I do use them here I’ll remove identifying information.


Learning for its own sake

  1. Stanley Fish does a pretty good job of unpacking what is meant by learning for its own sake. Scholars pursue truth and advance knowledge, and help to educate students by imparting that knowledge, and the scholarly skills required to pursue it. This is obviously less true for fields whose principle purpose is job training. Though many professional fields, such as law, could be justified outside their practical function.


    Michael Oakeshott, best known for his theories of learning in politics, also provides a good exegesis of what is typically meant by learning for its own sake within the university.


    I should note that neither of these authors spends too much time romanticizing education for its own sake. They are interested in the character of academic learning, and what it is actually capable of accomplishing.

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