March 25, 2011
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.