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What's The Point of Education Again?

"What's the point of education?" is a question that’s been asked for thousands of years but we still don’t seem to have an answer that most people would agree with. In this post, I dive into the debate on what the aims of education should be and examine whether they're being implemented in our current system.
Nasos Papadopoulos

What Exactly Is Education?  

Education and learning are often used synonymously but contrary to what many think they’re not the same idea. Before we can properly discuss what the point of education is, we first need to know what we’re talking about – otherwise we’ll be chasing our own tails from the start.


Most of the articles and podcasts on MetaLearn fall under the theme of learning, which John Dewey defined perfectly as “the amount of emotional, intellectual, moral and spiritual growth” accomplished over a lifetime.


Learning of course is at the very core of education, or at least, it should be.


It relates directly to the content and methods of education – what is taught and how it’s taught - but education itself is part of a much broader field that includes many more questions about the organisation of the school system and the role of the state.


I think it’s important that all of us think more deeply about these ideas, whether we’re teachers, students, school administrators or parents.


Today, education is how culture propagates itself, so our educational system is continually producing the society we’re living in – and if that isn’t something worth thinking about, I don’t know what is. 


What’s The Point of Education?

This is a question that’s been asked for thousands of years, one that many people have dedicated their lives to answering but we still don’t seem to have an answer that most people would agree with.


If we look back through the great books however, there is considerable agreement amongst philosophers about the primary aims of education.


In The Republic, Plato provided his answer to this big question - “If you ask what is the good of education the answer is easy – that education makes good men and that good men act nobly because they are good.”


Several centuries later in The Advancement of Learning Francis Bacon declared that education should help people “give a true account of their gifts to the benefit of others”, while Jean Jacques Rousseau saw education as the means for helping individuals reach their “ideal state” of being and identifying with the “greater whole” of society.

Common to all these approaches is the idea that education should aim to help people fulfil their individual and collective potential - to live purposeful lives in harmony with others in society.

Freedom and Vocation: Are We Fulfilling Individual Potential?

To help us fulfil our individual potential, education should seek to cultivate the whole of the human being. It should help us to live well by teaching us how to deal with our emotions, how to build relationships and how to live a healthy lifestyle.

In addition, it should do the best job possible to prepare us for the type of environment we’ll live in once we’ve left school or university, providing some of the skills and knowledge that we’ll need to do fulfilling work and make a living for ourselves.


If we look honestly at the current educational system, it clearly fails on both of these counts.


While I don’t believe in spreading doom and gloom about our educational system for the sake of it, I think the most important part of solving a problem is accepting that it exists in the first place. And we have a serious problem. 


As I discuss here, the current system is focused religiously on the accumulation of specialised knowledge and the memorisation of facts, which may have been better preparation for making our way in society two hundred years ago, although even this is debatable. What is certain is that this type of education has outlived its purpose. 


Not only is our system failing to fulfil its aims, it's actually providing us with mindsets that are harmful in the current dynamic, continuously changing environment.


In What’s the Point of School Guy Claxton notes that by going to school, “children become more docile and fragile in the face of difficulty rather than becoming braver and bolder. They learn to think narrowly rather than broadly and to be frightened of uncertainty and the risk of error that accompanies it.”


Shouldn't we all be asking why we're training generations of people for a society that doesn't exist? Shouldn't we be questioning whether education is doing more harm than good? And shouldn't we be desperately trying to do something about all this?  


The State and Democracy: Are We Fulfilling Collective Potential?

Many philosophers saw the state as being the centrepiece of any successful society and the political system as the means to leverage the collective potential of individuals.


Following this logic, an important role of education is to train men for the roles they play as citizens in a democracy in order to preserve the state. In The Politics Aristotle stated that of all things “that which contributes most to the permanence of constitutions is the adaptation of education to the form of government...”


“The best laws,” he continued, “though sanctioned by every citizen of the state will be of no avail unless the young are trained by habit and education in the spirit of the constitution.”


Rousseau seems to take a similar view in Émile when he calls for a system of public education run by the state whose objective is to ensure that citizens are “accustomed to regard their individuality only in relation to the body of the state, and to be aware of their own existence merely as a part of that of the state.”


However, as Brazilian educationalist Paulo Freire noted, in order for people to be part of a society where they can contribute meaningfully to the political system, they must be able to think for themselves.  And it doesn’t take much looking around to see that our educational system is also failing badly in this purpose.


Whether it’s the rise of Donald Trump in the USA or the recent Brexit fiasco in the UK, it’s clear that most people aren’t thinking for themselves – if they were, I find it hard to believe they’d pay any attention to the type of rhetoric that continues to dominate modern politics.  


Ultimately, an uneducated democracy isn't really a democracy at all. If we value the ideal of people being able to have their say in how society is run then we need to look at the roots of the current problems we're facing and tackle them at the source. 


Let’s Keep Asking Questions

If education is about helping us to fulfil our individual and collective potential as humans it’s clear our system is failing us on both of these fronts. While there are many talented and intelligent people doing passionate work every day in education, nothing will change until we think about why we're doing what we're doing. 


To change this for the better, we need to keep thinking critically about what’s going on around us. We need to develop our own philosophy of education to guide our decisions and to continuously refine it as we acquire more knowledge and experience. We need to discuss these ideas with others.


And most importantly of all, we need to keep asking the question:


“What’s the point of education again?”

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