Painting of a man reading while sitting on a chair at the edge of a cliff
By Invitation
Hope in Higher Learning: The University as a Site of Transformation

A glance at the news can make anyone feel hopeless about the state of U.S. higher education: a college degree is extremely expensive, prompting questions about whether its cost matches its value and obstructing opportunities for lower-income students seeking upward mobility. With some institutions threatening a sticker price of $100,000 next academic year, we have good reason to worry that the future of higher education will be reproducing inequalities, rather than remediating them.

Of course, U.S. higher education is not a monolith. Across nearly 4,000 degree-granting post-secondary institutions serving more than 15 million undergraduates, there are a vast number of concerns that drive institutional decisions and shape campus cultures. But as a collection of educational opportunities, the portrait is gloomy: college degrees have held the promise of success, mobility, and stability, yet they may yield diminishing returns. What’s the point in valuing the college system if it’s broken?

As a philosopher of education, I confront this question often because I share these frustrations about opportunity costs and inequalities. But I find that this portrayal of U.S. higher education inspires a different frustration, too. It ignores, if not misses altogether, another set of values at stake during college—the fundamentally educational possibilities for epistemic and personal transformation, for significant change in students’ values, interests, and beliefs. In my view, institutions of higher learning have the distinctive responsibility to create and protect those possibilities for their students. It is what sets them apart from other social institutions; and it is what college educators can help to foster through teaching and mentoring, even in the non-ideal contexts of their colleges and universities.

Going to college makes transformation possible because it immerses the student in a new context, with exposure to new people, cultures, ideas, and modes of inquiry. A transformative experience is necessarily an experience that the student has never had before. Only by having the experience can they know what it is like and then incorporate what they’ve learned into their self-conception. As a paradigmatic case, imagine the recent high school graduate setting foot on campus at the start of her first year, still unsure of her choice in major. But more broadly, imagine students across the lifespan pursuing higher learning for the first time. What is meaningful to an 18-year-old will be different from that of a parent or a person starting college after many years of work—but the higher educational setting is meant to present new and widespread opportunities for discovery, of both the world and the self-reflecting student.

For the scholars L.A. Paul and John Quiggin, a transformative experience involves both epistemic and personal change. An epistemic transformation “expands the psychological capacities of the individual, functioning as a key that unlocks the door to a trove of additional content about the nature and character of lived experience”—and this intellectual opening can lead to “significant changes in a person’s values, beliefs, and preferences, generating a personal transformation” (Paul & Quiggin, 2021, p. 562). By design, college should foster intellectual growth by cultivating critical thinking skills that enable students to evaluate, revise, and even replace their frameworks for understanding the world. That epistemic transformation can lead to personal transformation, too—enacting what Paul and Quiggin call “transformative education.”

The philosopher Agnes Callard (2017) offers another account of value transformation called “aspiration,” through which students do not just extend their existing values, but rather discover and pursue new ones. Students transform in ways that they could not have predicted at the outset of their educations, and that is exactly the point: it is only through the experience of cultivating new values that they can understand and articulate them. Both accounts emphasize that transformative education requires students to leave room for the unknown—to stretch toward something that they can grasp “only through a glass darkly” (Callard, 2017, p. 15). And while formal learning structures like classrooms and labs provide some of these opportunities, transformations occur because students are genuinely participating in their own change, with the help of teachers, mentors, and peers.

Now, I am not suggesting that a college education is only worthwhile if a student undergoes a fulsome personal transformation. But the opportunities for epistemic transformation should abound. They need not be totalizing shifts in a student’s worldviews, like upending their foundational political or religious beliefs (though they can be). Instead, they can take modest but meaningful forms, like performing at an open mic night and discovering a love for the guitar or spoken-word poetry, or moving from the biology classroom to the lab and finding a passion for material science. As I see it, U.S. higher education’s task is to create the conditions for epistemic and personal transformation—through pedagogy, programs, and other aspects of teaching and learning—so that students have plenty of opportunities for epistemic transformations, big and small.

But importantly, as we know, the conditions of U.S. higher education are fraught. Many institutions have legacies of exclusion and discrimination that have reproduced inequality and injustice across social groups; the Supreme Court ruling to strike down affirmative action in college admissions only amplifies doubts that they can promote racial equality. And as conflict in the Middle East rages and a federal election looms, the political responsibility of U.S. higher education remains contested—for example, public institutions are being stripped of state funding to limit DEI initiatives, and many (especially elite) institutions, including Stanford, are under scrutiny for their responses to rises in Islamophobia and antisemitism. Beyond the political moment too, institutions can communicate what they value intellectually and culturally through the norms and practices they uphold, as well as the departments and courses they offer (Ahmed, 2012; Jack, 2019; Morton, 2020). These conditions can create unequal barriers to epistemic transformation—an educational experience that ought to be available to all students.

This means that just as the university is a site of epistemic transformation, it is also a site of epistemic injustice—where someone or a group is wronged specifically in their capacities as a knower, learner, or inquirer, which are fundamental to being a person, and especially to being a student (Fricker, 2007). There are many forms of epistemic injustice that can interfere with student flourishing. For example, minoritized students might find that they are taken less seriously than some of their peers, affecting their willingness to speak up in class or pursue certain subjects of study (Dotson, 2011; Davis, 2021). And depending on features of the epistemic environment at a given institution, like the diversity of representation among faculty and students, or the availability of diverse majors and minors, students will gauge which intellectual pursuits are valued over others at their school.

In order to protect the possibilities for transformative education for all students, we must work to resist epistemic injustice. The philosopher Emmalon Davis argues that solutions should be directed toward improving not only the epistemic and ethical characters of individuals, but also the broader epistemic environments—“in which marginalized knowers are all too often either conspicuously present or (in)conspicuously absent” (Davis, 2016, p. 494). Although college educators have constrained structural power at their institutions, they can recognize critical features of the epistemic environments and take action as both individuals and collectives (Brust & Taylor, 2021). They can take steps in their classrooms to set norms for discussion and engaging one another across difference. They can prioritize teaching and mentoring practices that are culturally responsive. And more generally, they can interrogate their epistemic positions—both affordances and limitations—over time.

What’s more, all members of an academic community can pursue collective action solutions by, for example, demanding the formal recognition of valuable fields, just as Stanford did with the new Department of African and African American Studies. As collectives, we can advocate for better social and material conditions for learning—not only in the service of instrumental benefits of college degrees, but also of transformative educational experiences. The rising costs of college reassert the importance of protecting the transformative value of U.S. higher education, which cannot be charted in economic gains alone. This, I believe, is the ever-renewing hope in higher learning: empowering students to discover for themselves the interests, talents, and values that will guide their lives.



Sara Ahmed, On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012).  

Caitlin Murphy Brust and Rebecca M. Taylor, “Resisting Epistemic Injustice: The Responsibilities of College Educators at Historically and Predominantly White Institutions,” Educational Theory 74, no. 4 (2023): 551–571.  

Agnes Callard, “Liberal Education and the Possibility of Valuational Progress,” Social and Political Philosophy 34, no. 2 (2019): 1–22.  

Emmalon Davis, “A Tale of Two Injustices: Epistemic Injustice in Philosophy,” in Applied Epistemology, edited by Jennifer Lackey (Oxford University Press, 2021): 215–250.

Emmalon Davis, “Typecasts, Tokens, and Spokespersons: A Case for Credibility Excess as Testimonial Injustice,” Hypatia 31, no. 3 (2016): 485–501.

Kristie Dotson, “Tracking Epistemic Violence, Tracking Practices of Silencing,” Hypatia 26, no. 2 (Spring 2011): 236–257.

Miranda Fricker, Epistemic Injustice: Power & the Ethics of Knowing (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).

Anthony Abraham Jack, The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2019).

Jennifer Morton, “The Miseducation of the Elite,” The Journal of Political Philosophy 29, no. 1 (2020): 3–24.

L.A. Paul and John Quiggin, “Transformative Education,” Educational Theory 70, no. 5 (2020): 561–579. 


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Hope: The Future of an Idea

In a troubled age, hope may seem an elusive feeling. Alongside its history as a virtue, a political concept, and a psychological state, it enjoys a vivid presence as a necessary but poorly understood experience in everyday life. To reframe it in the context of this Colloquy, we might ask: how has hope been defined and critiqued? Where does it lie latent or unacknowledged? And how does the work of the humanities depend on hope, and perhaps arouse it? 


This year at the Stanford Humanities Center, we asked our fellows to reflect on questions of this kind. Their work ranges from the esoteric to the immediate, from the deep past to the present moment, and across the disciplines from music and art history to philosophy and education. Our aim here is to create a repository of informal thinking about the presence of hope in what we do, not only as scholars, artists, and practitioners but as people living in the twenty-first century. 

It is natural to say we live in a hopeless time, as climate change, war, authoritarianism, and other dangers loom over us. Without dismissing the force of despair, this Colloquy proposes to recover the grain of hope, not as a two-dimensional response to three-dimensional problems but as a complex problem on its own. The title of the Colloquy, in which we call hope an idea, is meant to signal this approach. 

The contributions collected here, while conceived from many distinctive intellectual and personal positions, are best discovered in twos and threes. Read or watch one, then another and another, at random. Imagine these items as belonging to a virtual conversation, which stands in for the exchange of ideas that takes place every day at the Center. Some of the contributors are professionally connected to the problem of hope—for instance, the historian of philosophy Pavlos Kontos is now writing authoritatively about hope in Aristotle’s thought—while others accept our invitation to fold the topic into their projects or their lives as scholars. Some simply register the place of hope in their lives. 

Finally, we bear in mind that, even when it is concerned with historically remote cultures or recondite questions, research in the humanities is always about the present and the future. It is through the lens of the present that we address every question, which means that, except for the most circumscribed topics, we seldom produce definitive answers; instead we tend to offer arguments and interpretations that work for our moment, to be improved by the knowledge and perspectives of our successors. Anticipating that conversation with the scholars of the future, we send off the fruits of our research hopefully to posterity. This Colloquy aims to render hope where the present meets the future.

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