Saturday, February 19, 2011

Purpose of education

I have been giving this some thought, and the discussion so far while very interesting has been between people who believe in education for its own sake (as do I). However, I believe that for most people education is instrumental – parents (and teachers) who tell children that if they don’t work hard at school / university then they won’t get a decent job etc.

I told my children that learning is an adventure and that if they found it boring then there was something wrong with the school and they should play truant. They didn’t and they do love learning. I will admit that close to exams I encouraged a certain amount of study. But then even adventures / exploration do have spells that are tedious slogs.

To push the metaphor a bit further, learning is like exploring where people have been before, it can still be an exciting adventure for those doing it, but the leaders have been there before and know the best routes; while researchers are exploring virgin (intellectual) territory.

So what then might be the purposes of education? Well, I don’t think that we can get away from the instrumental one that it leads on to other things that many people want including many learners, parents, teachers, politicians and the general public.

But for me the purpose of education goes beyond that to include much of what other people have already said to include both induction into society and personal fulfilment. Much of the discussion so far as focused on personal development and personal fulfilment, and this is of value. As Socrates said “The unexamined life is not worth living”, and part of education’s role is then to make life worth living, though this has been expressed in many different ways in the discussion including self-empowerment, self-development, fulfil ones potential. Others have talked of enabling people to follow their passion.

For me there is a third purpose around becoming part of society. While humans are social animals this has to be developed if people are to be positive members of society able to both contribute to and draw on the society around them. It doesn’t just happen, so it must be part of the role of education to help people to engage fruitfully with those around them in a manner that benefits all.

So, education should have three intertwined purposes: functional / economic, social and personal, and I think part of the work of purpose/ed could be to look at more appropriately balancing these three purposes to meet the needs of the learner and the wider society, rather than the too narrow focus on the functional / economic purposes that we see at the moment.

All this begs the question of how we might get closer to where we want to be, but if we cannot identify the target then it really doesn’t matter much in which direction we go.