The Purpose(s) of Education
Posted April 4th, 2009 by Peter Henry
The great existential question of my youth, thanks in large part to Woody Allen: What is the meaning of life?
And now, the great existential question of my adulthood, thanks in large part to standardized testing: What is the purpose of public education?
I will answer both in this post, I hope, but it should be very clear at this point that if we don't ask good questions, we will never get quality answers. And also, if we don't get quality answers, especially to question number 2 above, we will never know how, when or if we have been successful in the job of educating young people.
So, at the risk of delaying the readers sense of gratification, let me move to the second question first: What is the purpose of education?
And, right off the bat, we can see the limitations of not asking a good question. By asking, "What is the purpose" of eduction, we have, ipso facto, limited the answer to one thing. And, if education has more than one purpose, we would spend the rest of our days trying to figure out which of its multiple purposes is the "right" one.
Now, we know what the Business Roundtable and the Chamber of Commerce think is the purpose of education: to increase the math and reading scores of young people. We could get into a rather lengthy debate about "why" these two groups are pumping this particular feature of education, but that's not where I want to go. Just realize that for them, there is one purpose, they have identified it, and now so has the Federal government and most states as well, bent as they both are on testing our young people ad nauseum in math and reading.
And, don't get me wrong. Math and reading are definitely in the mix. Reading is the most fundamental skill that I ever developed in my days at school. (Though, I have to say, besides doing my taxes and balancing my checkbook, until very recently, math has not been the deciding factor in my overall success, either professionally, emotionally or interpersonally, in broad terms for my life.)
Anyway, let's get back to the question at hand: What is the purpose of education? But this time, let's phrase it correctly: What are the purposes of education? And maybe more so, since we are such a myopic and ahistorical nation: Historically, what are the purposes of education in the United States?
Well, now that is something worth answering, isn't it? You see how a better question puts you in a better position to get quality information from answering it.
Here they are then, the historical purposes of education in the United States:
1. Basic academic knowledge and skills
2. Critical thinking and problem-solving
3. Appreciation of the Arts and Literature
4. Preparation for skilled employment
5. Social skills and work ethic
6. Citizenship and community responsibility
7. Physical health
8. Emotional health
In one way or another, in one form or another, if you listen or look closely enough, you will find various of these mentioned in conjunction with questions about our schools, about why children learn, about what outcomes are worthwhile. We expect a lot from our schools, or at least, hope for a lot, and are frequently disappointed when we don't get one or another of these from one or another of our students.
And, really, who can argue with this list? Anyone?
And yet, as is now obvious, we have let a broad range of purposes for eduction get subverted, reduced and diminished down to essentially one thing: basic academic knowledge. That's what standardized testing is all about. That's what "standards" are all about. That's what accountability, in the final analysis, is all about.
Now, of course, this is stupid. Or really "stoopid" if you will. As mentioned, over and over again, at this site and many others, testing measures a very narrow range of human abilities. It also measures only one of the eight fundamentally important purposes for education. Is it even the most important purpose? That's debatable.
But, the point is this: we have arrived at this crucial moment of human history, where critical thinking and having a purpose in life, more than anything, determines a young person's success and happiness. And yet, we are completely letting our kids down because the only thing they can see about learning and education is that it is dumb, boring and useless--because in the end, it is all about filling in bubbles on standardized tests. Not even good standardized tests, mind you, but lousy ones.
Getting out of this mess, liberating our schools and our public understanding about the purposes of education will not be easy. But, it is possible.
It is possible if we return to the original question of this short essay, the one that I grew up with in the 1960s, and that seems to be the basis for most of the oeuvre of Woody Allen: What is the meaning of life?
If what gives a person meaning, or happiness, or joy, or fulfillment can be identified, then we can move ahead on the list of the eight purposes of education listed above. And, I submit, the answer to that question, like the answer to "What is the purpose of education?" is also multiple, multi-faceted, contingent, and above all subject to individual disgression.
The meaning of life is what you believe it to be. Don't look to find agreement or confirmation for your particular take on this question on a billboard or in a TV commercial.
Moreover, there might not be so much as a "meaning" for life, as there is "the experience of meaning". In other words, it is not an objective response to the question; it is the act of response itself. We may seek a meaning of life for assurance, but in reality, we create the meaning of life by what we do. Every. Single. Day. That is the meaning of life, whether we like it or not.
And thus, the fact, that some people, nay, most people, spend their lives in boring, useless or otherwise unstimulating jobs is what brings us full circle here. You see, they too, have been taught to believe that the only real purpose in life is to ... what? ... accept what others tell them is the purpose of life. Namely, to make as much money as you can, even if working a boring, lousy, detrimental job in an industry that may very well be destroying everything you believe in--like the environment, like community, like spirituality.
And how did they come to believe this? Well, because that's what they were prepared for by their upbringing, a good part of which was what they learned about in school.
Which is why it is so crucial to understand: there is not a single purpose for education. There are mutliple purpose. And these cannot be reduced to a number or a set response on a test paper. Or even just one purpose that is most important, can be easily measured and recorded in a box.
No. Like the life you live representing the meaning you derive from life, it is engagement itself in education that makes up its purpose. We do education so that we can engage the world. And how we teach kids to engage should not be limited to reading and math, but by the form of engagement they find most exhilarating, stimulating, fun, profound and fulfilling.
Education: What Is It Good For?
Peter Henry, another great edublogger, has a wonderful post up about the purpose of education. He seems to think we have ventured away from the purpose of education. In fact, Peter contends that we don't even ask the right question about education and its' purpose. Read it!