Friday, April 08, 2005


I've been pondering this question for some time - what is the purpose of education?

When I was a kid (I graduated in 1969 - no sleazy jokes, please, I've heard them all), most parents would agree that their school system's job was to prepare graduates for a good job. In the process, the schools would also provide some literacy, basic math skills, and some general knowledge. If the kid could handle all of these, they were considered educated.

At that time, most of my class did not intend to go to college. Among the middle-class, it just wasn't considered necessary. A few students of the middle to lower classes DID plan to attend, but they were generally very smart, and expected to be able to get some scholarship money.

The average student prepared himself/herself for work (or marriage) upon graduation. Many of the girls anticipated working for a year to two, until they married, and retired to raise a family.

In general, the schools did reasonably well. Even the kids on the lower-track levels could read, write, and handle math.

Guidance counselors had two basic functions - to help college-bound students get into their intended school, if possible, and to help everybody else get a job. Whether or not the student was happy or well-adjusted wasn't their problem.

I've been subbing, and, as I move from school to school, I've been asking questions of the staff, teachers, and counselors. The question:
What's the purpose of education?

I've gotten a wide variety of answers, including:
  • Get into college
  • Get a good job (definition varies)
  • Prepare students for the future (too often, fuzzy beyond that)
  • Various vague answers relating to happiness, fulfillment, and inner peace

I'm getting a feeling that too few people have a real sense of their educational goals. I'm now wondering about the educational organizations. What do they see as their mission?

The NEA (National Education Association) says that its mission is:
To fulfill the promise of a democratic society, the National Education Association shall promote the cause of quality public education and advance the profession of education; expand the rights and further the interest of educational employees; and advocate human, civil, and economic rights for all.

The AFT (American Federation of Teachers says:
The mission of the American Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO, is to improve the lives of our members and their families, to give voice to their legitimate professional, economic and social aspirations, to strengthen the institutions in which we work, to improve the quality of the services we provide, to bring together all members to assist and support one another and to promote democracy, human rights and freedom in our union, in our nation and throughout the world.

--From the Futures II report adopted at the AFT Convention, July 5, 2000.

In all fairness, the 2 above organizations were designed to protect and advocate for their members - the teachers. What about the organizations that are "for the children" (I really hate that phrase, particularly as it is so often used as a cover for activities that do NOT benefit children, and, in fact, often make their lives worse).

From the National PTA:
To support and speak on behalf of children and youth in the schools, in the community and before governmental bodies and other organizations that make decisions affecting children;
To assist parents in developing the skills they need to raise and protect their children;
To encourage parent and public involvement in the public schools of this nation.

From the National Association for the Education of Young Children
NAEYC's efforts are designed to achieve these ends:

1. All children have access to a safe and accessible, high quality early childhood education that includes a developmentally appropriate curriculum; knowledgeable and well-trained program staff and educators; and comprehensive services that support their health, nutrition, and social well-being, in an environment that respects and supports diversity.
2. All early childhood professionals are supported as professionals with a career ladder, ongoing professional development opportunities, and compensation that attracts and retains high quality educators.
3. All families have access to early childhood education programs that are affordable and of high quality and actively participate in their children's education as respected reciprocal partners.
4. All communities, states, and the nation work together to ensure accountable systems of high-quality early childhood education for all children.

The above 2 programs seem to be more focused on providing professional support for the schools, than on the issue of whether or not kids actually learn.

So, who speaks for the kids? It would appear to be no one.

Educational purpose was addressed thusly:
It seems to me that education has a two-fold function to perform in the life of man and in society: the one is utility and the other is culture. Education must enable a man to become more efficient, to achieve with increasing facility the legitimate goals of his life.

Education must also train one for quick, resolute and effective thinking. To think incisively and to think for one's self is very difficult. We are prone to let our mental life become invaded by legions of half truths, prejudices, and propaganda. At this point, I often wonder whether or not education is fulfilling its purpose. A great majority of the so-called educated people do not think logically and scientifically. Even the press, the classroom, the platform, and the pulpit in many instances do not give us objective and unbiased truths. To save man from the morass of propaganda, in my opinion, is one of the chief aims of education. Education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction.

The function of education, therefore, is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. But education which stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society. The most dangerous criminal may be the man gifted with reason, but with no morals.

The writer? Martin Luther King, Jr., 1948, Morehouse College.

A specifically Christian viewpoint is here.

From the Maharishi's website
The purpose of education is to culture the mind of a man so that he can accomplish all his aims in life. Education, to justify itself, should enable a man to use the full potential of his body, mind and spirit.

From what I've seen on the web, the people who most often express a stated purpose for education are those who come in from a religious perspective. Non-religious statements tend to be of the wishy-washy, feel-good type, that vaguely state something about how "students will realize their potential" and "become a good citizen (usually adds "of the world").

Their potential for what? Ted Bundy, Johnny Cochrane, and Abraham Lincoln all trained to be lawyers, but they used that training in different ways.

Good citizens? Osama bin Laden, Sandy Berger, and Martin Luther King, all of whom broke laws, did so for different purposes, and had different outcomes.

I think we need to begin thinking about what our educational purposes are, and aim our work at that goal.