Why we get so confused about the purpose of education

The purpose of education? That’s a big place to start for my first post. But if I’m clear about this then everything else should follow more easily, right?

This area has come back to the fore in the blogging world recently following Secretary of State Nicky Morgan’s implication at the BETT show that the true value of education could be measured through future prosperity. Daisy Christodoulou responded by suggesting that the true value of education was in enabling the proper functioning of democratic societies. Parallel to this, Martin Robinson and Alex Quigley have been gradually raising the question of both how desirable and how possible character education might be. Following this, Andrew Old has reasserted the case for schooling to simply focus on the creation of ‘cleverness’, and ijstock similarly on the ‘academic’, and Oliver Quinlan has pondered the question ‘What ISN’T the purpose of education?’. Having been at the centre of the ‘Purpose/ed’ campaign in 2011/12, I can imagine Oliver preferring this route, as the responses given then were so varied as to reduce the exercise to near pointlessness. His main focus however was Tom Bennett’s response to rapper Dave Brown’s viral video criticising the things we teach in school.

Facing the problems:

As a body of opinions this paints a picture of clear confusion across the educational field. Why? Well, here are two problems to start with:

  • Firstly, everyone seems to have an intuitive sense that the ultimate purpose of education must boil down to one single thing, which will be obvious when we see it, but we can’t seem to get the same view. It’s as if we’ve woken up on top of a mountain, facing different directions and we’re trying to decide the correct route down it.
  • Secondly, everyone has an opinion on it because, well, everyone has an informed right to one; we all have education done to us, most of us fund education through our taxes (and in many cases direct payments too), most of us end up having children who require education, and all of us have to deal with the effects of education (good and ill) as they resonate through the society around us. Whose education system is it? All of ours.

So, that’s a confusing recipe to begin with. Now here are three more problems:

  • People talk about the purpose of education but by implication are applying it to the purpose of schooling. They aren’t synonymous. Schooling is the ‘Education System’; the mechanism put in place by society to ensure that at least some education does take place in the absence of other societal processes.
  • Having said that schooling isn’t the totality of education, where do you actually draw the line on its remit? There is no other guaranteed mechanism of education in our society. Plenty of potential mechanisms (churches, public figures), plenty of presumed mechanisms (parents), but educational accountability stretches no further than parents needing to get their kids to school and take some responsibility for their law-breaking.
  • Also, although everyone might feel a right to an opinion on it, who actually, are the experts in society who should have responsibility for deciding what the focus of the education system should be? Politicians make decisions on what should be taught in schools, based on guidance from wherever, but who else could really call the shots? Teachers might well be able to lay claim to wisdom on what is the best way to teach, or on what is realistic to expect from schools, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we are any better judges of what the whole point of the education system should be in the first place.

Untangling the strands:

Let’s start trying to untangle these matters. It’s tempting to try to draw some analogies with other systems within society: The prison system for example. What is the purpose of sending someone to prison? Protecting the public from law-breakers? Retribution? Deterrence? Correction? Well, we could simply say, “all of the above – there are multiple purposes”. We could then draw a parallel and say that there’s also no fundamental reason why the education system HAS to have any one single purpose. It has evolved (not been suddenly invented) to comfortably fulfil multiple obligations. What’s wrong with that?

However, we could take a step back a bit and say that actually, those 4 ‘purposes’ of the prison system are not purposes at all. They are functions in the service of one higher purpose: To maintain a law-abiding society, and of course, in the pursuit of that, they are but one mechanism.

Is there a parallel for the education system? Well, we could say that the creation of productive workers and participants in democracy society are two inescapable functions required of the education system; as is, like it or not, allowing already productive citizens to go about their business by providing child-care for their offspring.

We can also point to another function, something more inspirational perhaps, such as the continued transmission and growth of the world of ideas, which seems so fundamental to the experience of what it means to be human in the first place. We could then also point out that if our focus is purely on the development of cleverness, or knowledge building, or whatever label you want to give it, then this cultural transmission, and the productivity, and the good citizenship etc, will all fall smoothly into place anyway.

But, I’m still not sure that we can be fully certain that we’ve got to the top of the purpose of the education system, as we still haven’t actually got to the purpose of education, and we simply couldn’t fully draw the line between the two. I believe that in stopping at ‘cleverness’ we have merely reached a staging post; a ‘super-function’ if you like.

Let’s try this: The purpose of education is to ensure the increasing success of the human species.

“FOUL!” I hear you cry. “TOO BROAD! TOO VAGUE…!” Yes, but… there is a point to this, and it starts as follows: A definition of education such as the one above is perhaps the only point which every reasonable person could agree with (using their own definition of what the species being successful would mean – even if that was to “more fully do God’s will”). Now, there are inescapable realities which spring out of this and surround us:

  • Ultimately, the purpose of education is inextricably associated with the purpose of the continuation of the human race in general. The meaning of life if you like. Hands up if you want to argue a case for what that is!
  • Consequently, the purpose of education cannot escape from being associated with values and to be completely blunt: sentimentality. This is not a dismissive comment. Everything of ultimate value to humans, everything that makes them feel that life is actually really worth living, boils down to sentimental subjectivity.
  • In a Liberal Democracy, society in general owns the education system, and there simply is no single decision-making body which can dictate what it is actually for. There is also no single group who can be completely blamed for how children turn out. Children are the product of society. All of us are to blame and none of us are to blame. Yet as teachers we can’t just shake our heads and give up – it’s not in the rules.
  • In schools, even if we don’t think that we can design a programme of study to develop character, or even if we think that values should be taught by ‘the rest of society’ and be kept out of the classroom, we UNAVOIDABLY influence these things day in, day out. The very cultures of functioning in our schools and our classrooms build mental models in pupils of what is important in life, and weave in behavioural patterns of how to respond to life seen through those models.

So what is my point? My point is that none of us can clearly demarcate what should ideally be within the remit of schooling. We can disown responsibility for the character and values education which results from our thousands of hours of being in a position of authority and influence over children, saying “well, that’s not what I’m really here for – my focus is cleverness”, but then I would suggest that we shouldn’t be teaching in schools. We should be simply writing books for children about specific areas of the world of ideas. What I think we as teachers should do is this:

  • Accept that character and values education simply cannot escape from being within the remit of schools.
  • Seek a central concept which purposely holds the key to the widest range of functions which society requires of our education system. Andrew Old’s ‘cleverness’ seems to me as good a construct as any.
  • Take a position regarding what values and character traits we would hope for pupils to pick-up from being educated by us, continuing to unpick and debate such matters with sincerity.
  • Accept that this will inevitably conflict with the priorities and messages which are being given out by others, and can never be the final word on the subject.
  • Finally, accept that a coherent model of the purpose of education can only ever be a work in progress. It’s a frustratingly messy situation, but why should it be any different?

10 thoughts on “Why we get so confused about the purpose of education

  1. Many thanks for the link. I enjoyed your post and I think I am in broad agreement with your main points. I think it is indeed useful to distinguish between the functions and purpose of education, as you point out. I want to give some further thought to your fascinating suggestion that “The purpose of education is to ensure the increasing success of the human species.” I look forward to reading more of your explorations of conceptual models in education!


    • Thank you very much Gethyn – I appreciate your very charitable comments! My next post – “The Cult of Engagement” – will focus on a taxonomy for methods of engaging pupils (hierarchical).


  2. Thanks – a good read. I completely agree that we should accept the plurality purpose of the education system and learn to leave it at that; hopefully by children being exposed to a multitude of different outlooks and approaches, the majority do find something of value. What really concerns me are those who would channel educational activity into a single-minded economic function, in other words preparing people for the ‘world of work’. This is to overlook so many of the other effects of education that it’s hard to know where to start. And yet this is what the politico-educational system at present seems intent on doing.

    If I were splitting hairs, I might also quibble with your point about *increasing* human success. While there will always be problems that humans need to address, maybe we have reached the point where we don’t need to increase it any more for fear of doing ourselves out of a planet to live on in the first place. I think we need to be aiming to permit people to live satisfied lives (on whatever terms they choose) rather than constantly craving improvement. That is also where the skills = work = money = good life economised model of education falls down: once you escape the important consideration of meeting basic needs, then it is utterly unsustainable (in every sense of the word), and it cannot actually guarantee those things that arguably do bring greatest satisfaction to human lives.


    • Thank you so much for your comment – I find your view always broad and insightful. I take your point entirely about the *increasing* element of human success. I pondered wording it simply as “maintaining”. I suppose it depends upon your definition of success – some people might consider us to not have been that successful at all yet as a race – perhaps viewing it in ethical terms, or indeed as you allude – being ‘satisfied’. Hopefully it doesn’t undermine my point too much – namely that at some level of abstraction there could be a point we agree on if we ‘zoom-out’ enough.
      Thanks again 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Pushing Harder at the Purpose of Education | Stepping Back a Little

  4. “The purpose of education is to ensure the increasing success of the human species.”

    “Success” normally implies meeting purposes, which means you are either saying nothing (“the purpose is to meet our purposes more”) or you are saying that the purposes of education are the purposes of the human species. The latter makes more sense, but actually makes the purposes of education vaguer and more contestable, rather than makes them more precise or clarifies them.


  5. Thank you for commenting Andrew – I value your time.

    – I think you’re exactly right, and that was my point. At the only level we can reach where there might be consensus (ie. that education is to make us more successful at doing whatever it is we think our species is for), there is inherent vagueness. But as soon as we start to simplify/clarify it we get into the realm of contestable values, which is fine, but we shouldn’t ever assume we can nail our argument once and for all.

    We can however hope to use dialectic to get closer and closer to an ideal, clearer vision of the purpose of education as we use it to get us closer and closer to an ideal, clearer vision of what we are about as humans. It certainly should be easier to get closer to it within a particular culture, such as a liberal democracy, but since a large part of the culture of a liberal democracy is to try to avoid pinning down specific cultural values (other than the ones inherent in being a liberal democracy!) I’m not going to hold my breath!


  6. Pingback: The purpose of education 2; or, forward the Flynn Effect! | e=mc2andallthat

  7. Pingback: Why ‘To make people Cleverer’ just CAN’T suffice as the answer to “the most annoying question in education” | Stepping Back a Little

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