Higher education as self-formation

In his recent IOE Inaugural Lecture Professor Simon Marginson argued for a ‘socially-nested’ form of self-formation in education that embeds individual life paths in the common good.

The lecture, entitled ‘Higher education as self-formation’, looked at the ways in which higher education can be understood as a process of self-formation – a process of self-cultivation, immersed in complex knowledge, that enables the student to become more capable and more autonomous and self-determining.

Here, the self-forming individual in education brings into practical form the idea of freedom to be and to do that is central to the human condition.

There are many perspectives on higher education that connect with this notion of self-formation – from human capital theory that sees education as an investment in future employment and earnings, and sociologists that understand it as a means of advancing social position, to JH Newman and Basil Bernstein who focus on how learned knowledge shapes people’s values and capabilities, through to German notions of ‘Bildung’ and Confucian ideas of self-cultivation that understand individual education as enmeshed in society.

In the lecture, Professor Marginson reconciled these contrasting approaches and developed an argument for a ‘socially-nested’ form of self-formation that embeds individual life paths in the common good.

The lecture drew on a sweep of ideas from the fields of education and social science, including the late work of Michel Foucault on the formation of autonomous human subjects, Amartya Sen’s forms of freedom and idea of capability, and Vygotsky’s positioning of individual development in social and cultural context.

Professor Marginson also remarked on the apparent paradox of today’s high participation higher education systems: while they have made self-formation more democratic and educated human capabilities more widespread, the opportunities to use those capabilities seem to be shrinking as societies (i.e. social formation, as distinct from self-formation) become more unequal.