What is Education For?

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As I was writing my speech for the closing of the school year at Markham College, I began to think about what education is for in a slightly different way from the past. In recent years there has been a move away from the idea that education has been intrinsically worthwhile to the view that education is about preparing the next generation for success in employment. This has been due to a number of causes, but I would say it is mainly due to two things. The involvement of politicians and the need to justify ourselves.

Politicians have always been involved in educational planning and policy, of course, but more and more they have stressed that education is important because it is the key to making the country successful in the future. The argument is a simple chain of cause and effect.

  • The country’s success is defined by its prosperity. and a person’s success is defined by their personal prosperity.
  • Well rewarded jobs require skills and knowledge and the future needs of the country require those skills and knowledge.
  • Education prepares young people so that they acquire these attributes. Hence for personal success and for that of the country education’s main role is to get the next generation geared up to take on the best jobs.

It is a clever two pronged attack. On the one hand the politicians are pushing for the country’s success as a whole. On the other they are stressing that this is the route for individual success for each student in the competitive world that is out there. Great for our children in their own right, so the parents are won over. Great for the country as a whole so the electorate is won over too.

What follows is a stress on STEM subjects in schools because they are related to the jobs we need. Lots of students taking Business courses in schools and universities, because that is where individual prosperity often lies, particularly if you aren’t very good at Science. Entrepreneurship being taught in schools and dropped into all sorts of courses. Student numbers taking traditional subjects at university dropping dramatically.

Even the Arts are prone to these arguments. So seductive are these ideas that I have found myself saying to parents and students that taking Arts subjects is worthwhile because there are more people employed in Arts careers now that ever before. Every company needs its design team with an artistic eye. There is more music written, films made, books published in one form or another than at any time in the history of the world. Take an Arts subject to hone your creativity skills and the world is your oyster. They have even added an A to STEM! But is STEAM just hot air? (Sorry, couldn’t resist that.)

This is the self justification part of the process. I am prone to introducing changes in schools, as some of my colleagues and former colleagues will testify, often with a groan. So I am often in the position of justifying those changes. The easy way is to slip into the employment success merry-go-round. “We have asked employers what they need and look for. They have highlighted these skills. The changes we propose will enhance these skills.”

So the purpose of education, or Education as Alice would say (read the stories), is primarily to prepare people for prosperous employment. But …

There is a nagging feeling, isn’t there, among us in education that perhaps there is more to it than that. We sort of think that the sort of jobs that most people do are not really the goal of life, the universe and everything. This led me to trying to work out why that is the case and, in the end, to an interesting conclusion. To say that the main purpose of education is employment is exactly the wrong way round. The correct view is that the purpose of employment is education. The arguments for this view are set out more clearly in the text for my speech, here, but briefly they can be summarised as follows.

  • What sets humans apart from animals is what has led us to all forms of progress; that is the desire to learn about our world. We learn about it to understand it, to change it and to improve it. Learning is what we mean by education.
  • In order to devote time to education learn we need to survive with relative security. This is why we need employment.
  • Thus the purpose of humanity is learning. Employment is the means we allow ourselves to do it.

This is not a new idea of course. Aristotle defined the Good Life as being rich in learning and understanding. The city, or civilisation, he said existed to promote the Good Life, having been created for survival. (Aristotle, Politics, 1252b27-30).

This has been rather overrun by the employment drive, but as I concluded in the speech to the Markham community. “I hope that in the past year you have demonstrated your humanity by learning. Next year, make the commitment to yourselves to prioritise learning in your life because that is what makes you human. If your job doesn’t allow you to learn, or to have time to learn. I strongly suggest you get a different one!”

There are some other quite interesting things that I came across in that speech. The Aymara concept of time has the future behind you and the past in front, and a wonderful essay on the explosion of change in technology written at an interesting time. Have a look.


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