What is the purpose of education?
There is so much educational change happening globally it seems as if any country NOT actively trying to change their education system is somehow missing something and really ought to just get with the programme!
Hardly a day goes by but the media carries stories about how much everything is changing, how fast it is changing, how we need to teach ’21st century skills’ or how we need educate learners for a future we can’t imagine.
I have a major problem with this. It has always been possible to imagine the future (just ask Gene Roddenberry). It’s just predicting it that has been difficult. Change has always happened. Change has always been rapid (that is, faster than if we had otherwise collectively planned it). And we have always needed to teach children for a world that hasn’t yet happened to them. What we need to do today, to equip children for the future is, in general terms, no different to what needed to be done 100 years ago. We have always needed to equip students with particular skills and knowledge for the future we could best imagine.
Now, I support the notion there are certain things every child should know – whether they like it or not; and there are certain things they should be able to do, whether they like it or not. But there are some skills and knowledge that if we focus on teaching only them, we do our children a disservice.
In Ireland, we (some of us anyway) urged students to get 600 points so they could study Law. Who predicted that solicitors would suffer as much as bricklayers from the downturn in the Ireland’s post-boom economy? Did we urge students to study Law because ‘that’s where the work is’ or because ‘the world will always need solicitors’?. How many people pursued careers in fields that were once popular only now to find themselves unemployed and without the skills for the available work (or jobs). Or worse, without the skills to acquire the skills for the available work.
Twenty years ago there was a big drive to promote business subjects in the Irish second level curriculum because it was felt that every child should study business at some level. The idea was that this would be good for business. Now, the mantra is that every child should learn to code.
This is wrong and it does our children a disservice.
Every child should perhaps know what code is and should appreciate its importance. But not every child should have to learn it. Digital literacies are as important as traditional literacy; but coding is a very specific and narrow skill and knowledge set that doesn’t justify requiring every child to learn it.
It should be obvious that students do need a specific set of skills and knowledge to access the available work. But they also need a general set of knowledge and skills not only to live with change but to live in a way that is more than mere existing.
So following a workshop, this and other issues got me thinking about just what exactly is the purpose of education. What is education for at its most basic level? I would suggest that the purpose of education can be summed up in the hierarchy below.
Level 1: Survival & Adaptability
The lowest level represents the fundamental purpose of education. ‘Education’ is a set of skills and knowledge that enable survival. ‘To get an education’ is to acquire the skills and knowledge needed to survive. ‘To be educated’, at its most basic, is to possess the skills and knowledge that enable survival. ‘Survival’ can be interpreted both individually and societally. Survival is context dependent. The skills and knowledge needed to survive in the Kalahari are very different from the skills and knowledge needed to survive in New York.
Adaptability is the potential to, and skill of being able to change in order to survive in a changing or changed environment. If the change is too great, the individual or the society may not survive. Even if the change is very rapid, once the individual has the skill to adapt, the chances of survival improve. From an education perspective, adaptability includes the ability to observe and comprehend change and know how to adapt to meet the challenge presented by the change.
Failing to survive can mean the very real possibility of not outliving the change. But for most, survival means being able to thrive and succeed – however it is defined by the individual (or the society) – in the environment (social, physical, work environment etc).
The most basic and necessary purpose of education – formal and/or informal – is giving learners the skills and knowledge to survive in their environment and the skills and knowledge they will need to adapt to change. By definition, some of these skills and knowledge are specific and some are generic.
Level 2: Meaning & Enjoyment
Deriving a sense of meaning and enjoyment from education is secondary to survival and adaptability. We all know stories of people stuck in ‘meaningless jobs’ or who ‘don’t enjoy’ their jobs. We know workplace stress linked to poor work environments takes a huge toll on workers’ health. Yet people continue to do meaningless and funless work in part because it is their means of putting food on the table and of meeting their mortgage repayments (aka survival) but they who would do something else if only the knew how.
We know of hundreds of millions of the global poor living in squalid conditions and utter destitution, the corner stone of their Poverty being the absence of Social Justice. Education, particularly of women, is the key to beginning change in their fortunes. But a society in which this education is absent forces people to remain in Stage 1- the need to just find some way to survive.
Education has the power to enrich our lives. We connect more easily with ideas and knowledge that resonate with us. And the more we learn, the more learning can resonate with us. Teachers know a learner has had a meaning-full experience when they hear a student say “aha!”. Knowledge gives us the understanding that allows us to appreciate our environment (social, physical, work environment etc). Education should impart or provide meaning so that we better understand who were are individually, societally and globally. In this sense, meaning can have practical value. However, meaning can also be merely appreciative. Either way, a more informed world view leads to greater success in life.
Education also gives us the tools to change our environment. Education should enable us to increase the quantity of joy in our life. Imagine an education that only made us miserable! ‘Enjoyment’ means the positive feelings we derive from constructive, positive intra- and interpersonal relationships, our environment and our interaction with it. And one hopes the process of acquiring this education would also be enjoyable!
Together, meaning and enjoyment are the experiences that tell us this is a life worth living.
Level 3: Self-Fulfillment
Self-fulfillment is the pinnacle of the hierarchy. We can derive meaning and enjoyment from education but we may still fall short of our goals. Not achieving our goals means not experiencing the sense of fulfilment with having reached the goal. Goals can be ones we set for ourselves (we may not even call them ‘goals’) or ones we feel driven or obliged to attain. Maslow once said ‘What man can be, he must be’. This is self-actualisation. Self-fulfillment is the contentedness from being self-actualising. Education should help us identify goals we can achieve (our potential) and enable us to achieve goals. Self-fulfillment is the pinnacle of education. Stage 2 tells us that this is a life worth living. Stage 3 tells us we are living it as best as we can in a way that gives us contentment with and in the life we live.
This is an exploratory post. I intend to develop further the ideas and explanations presented here. But I would be very much interested in your take on this. Is there something missing? Is there too much? Are there purposes which do not fall into the very neat schema offered here? Please feel free to comment below.