I attended a public high school and state college, and during that time I had spent a lot of energy antagonizing over the question of what the purpose of education is. Back then I had an intuition that a lot of the stuff I was learning didn’t seem very important or relevant. Now that I am a few years older as a mid-career millennial I still feel mostly the same way, but I have a better understanding of why. When discussing what the purpose of education is I think it is helpful to separate what it is now versus what it ought to be.
To figure out the purpose of education as it currently stands I think it is helpful to look at the two predominate theories of what purpose it serves and then analyze what materials are covered or seem to be missing from the standard curriculum to determine which of the theories is most plausible.
The first theory for the purpose of education is that it is for the benefit of the educated and the citizenry at large. The idea is that education is meant to form well rounded citizens who are capable of managing their own affairs and interacting with the rest of society in a way which brings about positive outcomes. In this view of education pupils are meant to learn not just the bare basics of life, but also critical reasoning skills meant to provide them the means to elevate their condition and participate in society. While educating the masses might have some positive benefits for everyone who interacts with them, first and foremost it is meant to benefit the educated and the society they form between them.
In the second theory for the purpose of education, education is primarily a means of preparing the educated to become useful tools for employers. I chose the word “tools” not to be disparaging, but to make an important distinction between the two theories. While in the first theory the educated are expected to become more productive, it is primarily for their own benefit. By being more productive they can contribute more to society and also demand more for themselves. What distinguishes the education for the advancement of employers theory is that while the educated are taught useful occupational skills in both, in the latter they are also taught to be low power and obedient. While they are taught to increase their productivity they are also taught to ask for nothing in return. In this arrangement the educational system primarily benefits the employer, making higher education a requirement to maintain the same wages rather than a means to increase one’s salary proportional to the increase in their output.
What Is The Purpose Of Education?
At first glance, both of these theories seem plausible, so lets take a look at the evidence. Keep in mind that this is my perspective as a white, male, middle class, college educated millennial who graded fairly well while attending public institutions. *Your mileage may vary*
For The Educated
First, some arguments for education as a means of self enrichment. It would seem strange if the purpose of education was to create productive obedient employees to offer so much in the way of extra curricular classes and activities. For some extra curricular activities there is an apparent connection, such as shop class, but what benefit is it to an employer to have an employee who learned pottery or who was on the varsity swim team? These seem superfluous the the goals of employers.
Another argument in favor of education being to form good citizens is that at least to some degree it does. In surveys conducted year after year those with more education consistently scored higher on knowledge of what is happening around the world than do their less educated peers. While they still often vote from the heart, they tend to have a better understanding of what policies each politician is actually in favor of and what the affect of those policies might be. While knowledge is not itself sufficient to produce good citizens, an informed citizenry is important to making better decisions as a society.
For The Employer
Now, let’s take a look at why some might believe that the primary focus of education is to support the desires of employers. The first reason, and the one that was most obvious to me while I was in the system, was the lack of obvious life skills classes. It was incredibly off putting to me that in a nation where so much is purchased with debt that there was to personal finance or an everyday, every-man contract law class. Or, that while there was a class to teach you the proper way to dress and act in an interview, no attention was given to game theory or the art of negotiating. So much attention was placed on pushing you into that first corporate job, with no effort put into making sure you were compensated fairly for it, or that you would know how to manage the money you did earn. In addition, while sex is likely to play an important role in almost every person’s life, there is no nationwide standard for sex education like there is for subjects that are more relevant to the workplace. These, among many other obvious classes that have been omitted, make it seem apparent that the curriculum is not meant to cover things that would actually benefit the student in their everyday life. To further drive home the point, many institutions actually conduct surveys of employers to ask them what skills they feel recent graduates are lacking; to my knowledge no similar survey is conducted of recent graduates to ask the same.
A less obvious on the surface but possibly an even stronger argument that education is for the benefit of the employer is the way that courses are taught. Students are taught that for every problem they are presented there is one right answer, that the answer is known, and that there is only one acceptable way to achieve the correct answer. I distinctly recall being frustrated in math class because I would fail to memorize the gobbledygook formula to solve a problem and instead logically work my way to the correct answer another way. For this I was rewarded half credit; I had the correct answer, but I didn’t arrive at it the correct way. I also recall an incident in a physics classroom where the instructor asked the class “assuming the price per ounce was the same, in which city would you get paid more for a gold ring?”. I answered the question correctly, but was told I was wrong because that was not what was in the book (yes, I did look it up and double check afterwards). The professor was not interested in finding the right answer; he had the answer, and it was the students’ job to memorize that answer. This idea of “follow our process” and “don’t question our answers” is not a terribly useful skill when navigating the realities of life, but it does serve a useful purpose if you are an employer looking for a complacent, docile workforce.
The final argument I will present for education primarily supporting the goals of employers is what we have done with educational institutions during the pandemic of 2020. Despite the danger to the student body, the school staff, and ultimately the families of the students, there has been a huge push to open schools for in-person classes, even though many classes can be done virtually. While there is some credence to the notion that in person classes are more effective than remote classes it would be hard to argue that it is worth the risk of killing grandpa. Instead, it seems that the main draw to force schools to reopen for in-person classes is to use them as daycare centers so that the parents can go back to work. As far as I can tell the arguments presented about the quality of the education or students “falling behind” have been presented in bad faith, and are merely acceptable justifications to give for what are otherwise unjustifiable actions.
All of this said, I may have revealed my hand a bit when it comes to what I believe the purpose of education is. Honestly, it seems to me that it serves both as a means of enriching the individual and advancing the objectives of employers, but it also seems to skew heavily towards the latter. I think we want to believe that education is to benefit the individual and society, or that it is to benefit the employer and that is somehow not at odds with benefiting society. But, there are too many glaring omissions for it to primarily be for the benefit of the educated, and it is too easy to see where the interests of the educated and the employer are not aligned. Learning to follow a process but not think critically is not in my interest or the interest of society. Learning how to convince an employer to allow me work for them but not to convince them to pay me decently is not in my interest.
There are a lot of individuals working in education that I believe have the best intentions in mind, probably even the vast majority of the front line workers; teachers, counselors, etc. However, as an institution it would appear to have other motives.
What Ought To Be The Purpose Of Education?
So now we get to what the purpose of education ought to be. While learning the skills necessary to be productive in your occupation is no doubt important, to focus primarily on that alone is a mistake for two reasons. The first is that other than developing well-rounded individuals there is little you can do to prepare students today for a job market that probably doesn’t even exist yet. What skills are needed is changing so quickly and many of them are best learned through first-hand real life experience. I don’t think we can know what the jobs of the next decade will look like, and even if we did we could not prepare students in a way that is even the equivalent of a year of experience actually doing the job. I learned so much more the first year of working in technology than I had the previous 4+ years being educated for it. The second reason that focusing on jobs skills alone is a mistake is that there is so much more to life than working. Both from a lofty perspective of art, music, romance, travel, and family, and from the perspective of the mundane, like deciding if you should pay off your credit card or invest in your 401k. A graduate who is capable to putting his nose to the grindstone for his boss, but incapable of finding joy in life and of managing his own affairs is not an adult, but is instead a depressed child in a business suit.
When our systems are laid bare and we do not like what we see we have a duty to change them. While I have no intentions at this time to return to the formal “educational” system, I hope for others and our future as a society that the coming generations will pull away from what is and push towards what ought to be.