What is the purpose of education?

What is the purpose of Education?  I asked my wife how she would answer that question and she replied “with a yawn”;-) 

I’ve worked in Education (in some form or the other ) for most of my adult life, and I was being subjected (and yes subjected is the correct word to describe much of the experience) to education for most of the rest of it.  You would think that the answer to that question would just trip of my tongue!  Er.. well it’s to prepare people for life I guess?  Bit of a crappy answer? 

We may not have given a lot of thought as to what is the purpose of Education but we all think it is a good thing right? 

Well not always – in earlier times there were those that thought that educating the masses might have undesirable consequences. Davies Gilbert an MP and one time President of the Royal Society said in parliament, when the issue was being discussed at the beginning ot the 19th Century, that: 

“however specious in theory the project might be, of giving education to the labouring classes of the poor, it would, in effect, be found to be prejudicial to their morals and happiness; it would teach them to despise their lot in life, instead of making them good servants in agriculture, and other laborious employments to which their rank in society had destined them; instead of teaching then subordination, it would render them factious and refractory, as was evident the in the manufacturing counties it would enable them to read seditious pamphlets, vicious books, and publications against Christianity; it would render them insolent to their superiors” 


It turns out that the educated masses are more likely to read the Sun newspaper than seditious pamphlets but there you go. That’s progress for you;-) 

Politicians don’t say things like that anymore, at least not out loud. Just like they don’t say things like “legislation in Parliament shows that the interests of women are perfectly safe in the hands of men”  anymore;-) but it seems like Education is going to have to take it on the Chin in the current financial climate.  

One of the first cuts announced by the new Government of the UK was BECTA the government Agency for promoting Technology in Schools. Even though it came out top  in a survey of teachers(48%)  (that took place before the cut was announced) when they were asked which Government Agency they found  valuable!  This agency, employing 240 people, wasn’t just cut it was scrapped.  Other cuts that have been announced include £449m off the Higher Education budget this year, research funding has been frozen and an estimated 200,000 University applicants could be left without a place this summer. 

Labour’s record isn’t much better, if more hypocritical, Gordon Brown had already committed to  £100 million cuts in Education spending before the election. 

It was under a Labour Governement that BBC Jam was closed down.  BBC Jam was an ambitious project which aimed to provide the UK curriculum online to anyone who wanted to study any UK School qualification free of charge. The idea was that if your school was not able to offer you the qualification you wanted you could still do it online or if you had left school and decided in later life you would like a qualification you could get one, or you could simply use it for revision. 

Each to their own I guess but to me this is a more legitimate use of license payers money than say “Britain’s Most Embarrassing Pets“? 

The project was scrapped however after a huge amount of license payers money had already been spent in 2007. Why? – because large media corporations in the private sector complained to the European Commision that the BBC was exceeding its public service remit by offering free content to schools which could be provided commercially! The complaint was upheld. A ruling that has interesting ramifications for the future of public education? Ironically the biggest losers were the small new media companies to whom half of the £90m production budget for BBC Jam had been outsourced. Some of these firms have since gone under. 

It also seems that the results of education may turn out differently from the purpose those responsible had in mind? 

Fukuyama when discussing the reasons for the fall of the Soviet Union has argued in his book “The End of History and the Last Man” that, as well as all the obvious reasons, the state investment in education in the Soviet Union, although provided with the aim of indoctrinating the masses and creating a managerial class to lead industry, produced a new generation that with more education started questioning the system and demanding representation. 

Scotland is another interesting example of public education having results that went far beyond the original purpose of those that introduced it. I am of course proud to be Scottish and seriously believe that the world owes a great, and often unacknowledged, debt to the Scottish people, the thinkers of the Scottish enlightenment people like David Hume, Adam Smith, Francis Hutcheson and Thomas Reid helped create the framework that shaped the modern world and it seems that there is very little in the way of technology that Scottish inventors, people John Logie Baird, Alexander Graham Bell, John Dunlop…  didn’t have a hand in? 

If you go a little bit further back in history though there is less to be proud about? Scotland, Pre-Enlightenment, was seen as the one of the most backward countries in Europe, one dominated by an intolerant, authoritarian, fundamentalist religious establishment that could execute an 18 year old student, Thomas Aitkenhead, for a joke he made on the way home from the pub and where thousands of women could be executed for … well for being “wise” 

Maggie Wall

A rare monument, near my home town, to one of the 1000s of women (and they were nearly all women) who were executed not so very long ago in my country for no other reason than being a bit different?

So what changed in Scotland? Well in 1696, ironically the same year that Aitkenhead was executed, the Scottish Parliament passed the “Act for Setting Schools” establishing a “commodious house for a school” in every parish in Scotland and a salary for a teacher! Every child in scotland was in theory to be provided with a rudimentary education for free!  Scotland was the first country in Europe to introduce such legislation. 

What was the purpose of this education? Well the purpose was that, of those same people that executed Aitkenhead, to ensure that every boy and girl was able to read scripture.  What was the result? Scotland’s literacy rate would be by the end of the 18th Century be the highest in Europe.  You can still visit Scotland’s first free public library, again, near my home town of Crieff. The reading record of the 18th Century shows that the local farmers, tradesmen and household servants were reading both religious works and the secular classics of the time. The Scottish National Poet is Robert Burns a man of humble origins, a plowman by trade, he did however receive an Education worthy of any English Gentleman of the time.  In the words of Burns:

“Though it cost the schoolmaster some thrashings, I made an excellent English scholar; and by the time I was ten or eleven years of age, I was a critic in substantives, verbs, and particles.” 

Innerpeffary Library

Innerpeffary Library

Whilst it may be that Education can result in the advancemnet of the individual and Scoiety even if that was not entrirely the purpose of the Educators it can also be argued that Education can hold back the creativity of the individual. In a recent intersting and amusing TED talk Sir Ken Robinson made the case that the purpose of Education has become – to force everyone into a linear path with college being the pinicale of that path. He describes and education system that has been built on the model of fast food – “We have built our education systems on the model of fast food. Standardized, not customized to local circumstances….Our education system is impoverishing our spirits as much as fast food is depleting our bodies” 

There is no doubt that Sir Ken presents a passionate and convincing case that the education system is failing a great many kids and rather than nurturing their creativity it undermines it.  He describes in this and in other work – kids that are taught to abandon their true creative desires (to become a fireman, an artist or a dancer) and chase the ultimate goal of getting to college instead. 

It’s a long time since I went to School but my experience was a bit different.  I didn’t like School and wasn’t very good at it I am slightly dyslexic which didn’t help (thank god for keyboards and spell check). I was told on more than one occasion that University wasn’t for the likes of me, that I wasn’t Academic enough.  Shockingly a “Guidance” teacher once told myself and other pupil that it was difficult for “Lads Like us” to get into University because all the University places were being taken, by Asian Kids because “they never stop working”, and we should think about other “options”!  I guess Education has changed since my day and I hope that there are less teachers like that, but there are still Counties in England where the High School that you go to and therefore the chances of you going to University are decided by an exam that you take at 11

I ended up going to University and I am very, very glad that I didn’t listen to the “Guidance” of some of my Teachers at School.  I am also very, very grateful that I went to University at a time when it was still felt to be a good use of tax payers money to help people get an Education.  I left Higher Education without saddling myself with the burden of debt and without having been a burden to my parents, who were certainly not in a position at the time to subsidise my Higher Education!

I guess the answer to the question what is the purpose of education is that it should be to nurture the creative potential of the person being educated and enable them to realise their own purpose whatever that might be.  Unfortunately it seems that when this occurs it is often more the result of happy accident than the purpose of the Educators?

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One Response to What is the purpose of education?

  1. What a refreshing and sensible look at the question of education. Should go to the Times Educational Survey.

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