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The Purpose of Education

There is a distinction between the purpose of education, the purpose of schools, and the purpose of learning. The three may sometimes share some overlapping terrain, but they are, nonetheless, discrete topics.

The purpose of schools can be any one of a myriad things depending on who “owns” the schools and what they want or need to achieve through them (whether that ownership is in the hands a government, community, industry, or other individual or organization). This is fully reasonable: whoever is running a school does so to fulfill their specific goals and agendas.

The purpose of learning is a bit nebulous to pin down. Learning may serve a practical purpose or meet a need (learn to read, learn to fix a leaky pipe, learn to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’). At other times, learning may motivated purely by personal interest, like a friend who learned to read ancient Chinese simply because it interested him. Any practical effects (e.g. building mental discipline) were merely ancillary; they were not the reason for learning.

The purpose of education goes back to the root word, educare: “to bring up”. That begins to suggest something. Bringing up children (or puppies, or gardens) involves care, nurturing (and perhaps a bit of redirection or pruning); but “bringing up” does not add to what is already there, it merely allows it to develop.

Taking things one step further, there is the related root, educere: “to draw out”. Someone is drawing something out of the one being educated, maybe it’s a teacher, a colleague or even one’s self. If something is being “drawn out”, it had to exist in the first place.

In short:   The purpose of education is to allow people to reach their full potential.

That’s not as slippery a statement as it might seem. Full potential resides in the individual, not in jobs, tasks, families, or societies (those are where individuals put their potential into play). Since “full potential” is an individual thing, it can cover a lot of territory: some people are going to be clever at math, some are artistic, some observant, skeptical, optimistic… That all fits under the umbrella of potential.

For a person to achieve their full potential takes hard work, and there are three key elements to drive a person to do that work: Need, Hope, and Opportunity.

Youth in poverty may see the Need for education but might not have Hope  or Opportunity. Youth in affluent places may have buckets of Opportunity, but might see no Need;  they have everything, why work to become more than what they are? But when you have all three elements converge, it’s a powerful thing. It’s the girl who grew up picking through garbage at a dump in the Philippines, who saw the Need for education, held on to Hope and was given Opportunity, and went onto get a college degree so she could make things better in her community. It’s the ordinary middle class kid, who uses their Opportunities, sees a Need and goes beyond complacency into excellence motivated by Hope.

Ultimately the purpose of education is not rooted in politics, ideologies or educational theories, those are more likely to get in the way. It’s rooted in individuals who reach their full potential, and then turn around and use that potential to help the next generation find their own Need, Hope and Opportunity so they can reach theirs.



  • Doug Belshaw said on March 25, 2011

    Some clear, concise thinking here, Janet! Two things from your contribution struck me in particular:

    1. That the purposes of education, learning and schooling may be like an overlapping Venn diagram.

    2. That the purpose of education is not rooted in politics.

    I’d have to disagree about ‘ideologies’ and ‘educational theories’, although I’d argue that each of these have their own logic and internal narrative as to what constitutes the purpose of education. :-)

  • jleffron said on March 25, 2011

    Thanks, Doug. I may have been stretching a bit with ‘ideologies and educational theories’; I certainly didn’t define or support that sweeping statement, so thanks for touching on that :-)

    To clarify: educational theories come and go (and some come and go repeatedly under new wrappings) but regardless what’s in vogue in each decade, education (being rooted in people) still happens whether thanks to, or despite, the current theories. My use of “ideologies” is probably a bit sloppy or lazy here; my principle gripe is that it is very easy to (consciously or unconsciously) impose external ideologies or viewpoints on the “student” instead of letting them find their own meaning (and that statement proves I’m as likely to apply educational theories as the next person ;-) but but I’ll hold by my assertion that both theory and ideology are external to the root of education).

  • jleffron said on March 25, 2011

    Steve – Good point on the broader term “educational system”. And thanks for the video link – I’d seen that some time ago, it was fun to revisit it.

    When I’m looking at ideologies as external to the purpose of education, I’m coming from the framework that, like theories of education, ideologies are transient. In fact, even how one defines “full potential” is likely to be somewhat contextual; the two examples above are based on real people, and for each of them “full potential” may have meant something different. But the purpose of education (to help draw out that full potential) remains.

  • Paul Simbeck-Hampson said on March 25, 2011

    Great post, Janet. I like your references to Educare and Educere, to ‘bring up and draw out’, really resonates. You may like to follow the hashtag #edukare on Twitter too, there have been some really interesting posts and discussions of late.

  • oldandrew said on March 25, 2011

    “but ‘bringing up’ does not add to what is already there”

    Yes it does.

  • jleffron said on March 26, 2011

    oldandrew – I’m a big fan of the phrase “brevity is strength” but I’d love it if you could amplify your comment slightly – intrigued to hear your thoughts on this.

    I realize that the context of my sentence was not as clear as I thought it was – I was speaking of “potential”; one could go down a number of philosophical (and psychological, and cognitive science) paths with this, but my stipulation is that the potential of each individual is an innate quality of that individual. Circumstances from health, to opportunity and endless others either support the development of that full potential, or they stunt it (sometimes irrevocably). Education may draw out that potential, support it, nurture it, encourage, push or sustain it. But it does not create it. I don’t know if that clarifies my statement or not.

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