As I look back on my education over the years, I have been a gradual disconnect in students between learning for the sake of understanding your field, craft, profession, where this alone is the fundamental reason for studying at an institution.

In contrast with this other attitude where educational hierarchies are simply a game meant to seek some sort of status or social power. In more concrete terms it is the difference between:

"I am taking this educational opportunity to understand phenomenon X better, in hopes it can help me answer a larger academic question"


"I am taking this educational opportunity since it looks good on a resume, which in itself provides me with an advantage over others in my situation"

I heard someone refer to the first attitude as academic purism (drawing from purist art movement and those ideas), but there is not much literature referring to this term. Has anyone bumped into a term for this ?

  • Is this part of a literature search? You could look at the entire economics of education literature for research assuming that people primarily. use your second reason for studying. Commented Sep 20, 2021 at 12:01
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    Why do you think these are the only two reasons?
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Sep 20, 2021 at 15:01
  • en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Careerism Commented Sep 20, 2021 at 19:07
  • And why do you think it is either/or, rather than both. I never thought about 2, but I did want to be a professor of mathematics as well as understand the deep things in Analysis and Topology. But it wasn't a competitive feeling. People's motivations are generally mixed, I'd suggest.
    – Buffy
    Commented Sep 20, 2021 at 20:04
  • “Education” in a classical sense vs “(vocational) training”? Commented Sep 21, 2021 at 0:13

1 Answer 1


Those are two general motivations for attending university, but they are far from being broad and encompassing enough as a world-view to constitute an "ideology" that would have a name.

As a general rule, people attend university both to acquire valuable knowledge and to acheive the certification of knowledge that the institution provides. In a full degree program it is unlikely that a student will see all the applications of particular courses at the time, so there is always some extent to which the student trusts the academic experts in setting an appropriate curriculum to give them a well-rounded education in their field. Most students see the certification of their knowledge as a desirable aspect of what the university provides. Of course, it is possible that a student can develop an attitude where they become entirely focused on grades and credentials at the expense of learning. That is usually related to motivations of careerism, status-seeking, or a certain mercenary approach to professional advancement. Academics usually try to guard against that, and encourage their students to concentrate on learning ideas and skills for broader reasons than passing assessments.

Some people might wish to pursue the acquisition of knowledge entirely for its own sake, without any concern for the knowledge-certification service that the university provides. However, such people are largely self-selected out of the university, since they can acquire uncertified knowledge at lower cost and with less restriction outside the university. The people who pursue this path are usually people who have little need for accreditation of their knowledge, either because they are independently wealthy, already have easily proven skills in their field, or they have no intention to pursue careers that require accredited knowledge or skills. As Will Hunting famously put it, “You dropped 150-grand on a fuckin' education you coulda gotten for a-dollar-fifty in late charges at the public library.” (at 2:51)

  • I have to diagree with the second part of this. While you can aquire uncertified facts at lower cost, you can't neccesarily aquire academic skills, such as critical thinking, analytical thinking knowledge synthesis, experimental design, empirical reasoning, arguement construction and rhetoric, etc. A university course that teaches only "knowledge" and not what might be called academic skills or even "wisdom" is a very poor university course. Commented Sep 21, 2021 at 10:03
  • @IanSudbery I haven't actually seen the movie, but I've read Tom Nichols' gloss on that scene, and I'm pretty sure that Mr. Hunting was not promoting an exclusive focus on declarative knowledge, nor the neglect of critical and analytical thinking skills. (Although like you, Prof. Nichols found it somewhat implausible that Mr. Hunting would be so much better-endowed with those skills than his graduate interlocutors.) Commented Sep 21, 2021 at 17:51
  • @IanSudbery: In any case, I think you are being generous in imagining that universities impart such a thing with any real regularity. There is quite a bit of evidence in Caplan 2018 suggesting that universities confer little to nothing in the way of critical thinking skills. As he quite validly asks, if university actually provides such things, why aren't people simply sneaking into the lecture theatres to get it for free (which they could easily do)?
    – Ben
    Commented Sep 21, 2021 at 18:46

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