What is the purpose of education?

Nathan Adlam
Age of Awareness
Published in
11 min readApr 17, 2020

--

Image courtesy of Burst on Pexels

Education is what survives when what has been learned has been forgotten.

B. F. Skinner

The advent of the coronavirus has caused some hard questions to come up for educators.

How do we educate young people in this situation? How much responsibility can they have to learn material when a brick-and-mortar school is not an option? And maybe from some more open-minded thinkers; what’s really important here?

In the words of the great Professor John Keating in Dead Poets Society, the purpose of education is to teach you how to think for yourself. While thinking for yourself lacks the tangible metrics that GPAs do not, the emphasis on delivering in modern school systems is far greater than thinking or learning.

To be clear, a system that solely incentivizes thinking and learning will produce a generation of airheads. Delivery is important, but the cost of delivering more and more is taking a toll in the form of mental health issues. Inequality (another topic) is silently breeding competitiveness that squeezes young people each and every day.

Our educational system favors results. Standardized test scores. Deliver the results and check the boxes in order to get into a prestigious university so you can get a good job. Hell, in my home state of Michigan, our state threatens to shut down underperforming schools that don’t meet a certain academic standard.

The problem with checking the boxes is that we often forget the purpose of school is to actually learn something. The current educational system incentivizes results, which is nice and all, until twenty-somethings graduate and grasp at any results/external validation they can get their hands on. Until this is fixed to incentivize learning, we will continue to churn out results-focused (*corporate term that makes me shudder*) little monsters.

The problem with favoring raw data in learning is that you miss an entire element of learning called failure. Learning comes from failure, while unfortunately the already-razor-thin funding for classrooms does not.

Even though our teachers for decades have been telling us that C’s are ok/average, B’s are good, and A’s are great, that’s not good enough for us. A’s are given to avoid nagging parents and boost resumes. From the late 1960's to 2004, the percentage of first-year university students who claimed to have an average grade of an A rose from 18% to 48%. A 2017 study showed that 47% of high school students nationwide had an A average (A minuses included). Are half of students nationwide great students? Students are customers in the economy of education. Make your customers (and their parents) happy, and your school will benefit.

As the number of A’s received has grown, SAT scores have fallen. Sorry, one more time? In 2005, the average math score was 520 and reading was 508. In 2016, the math average was 508 and the reading average 494. We stop there because there was a massive re-design to the test in spring of 2016, to a much more predictable, student-friendly design. Conveniently, the average jumped to 527 in 2017 and 531 in 2018. Based on this re-design, it’s hard to compare these last two years to the previous ones.

The value of A’s has inflated over time and these days, means very little. The pressure to succeed, especially in today’s times (one of the few times I will use this phrase), puts immense pressure on both teachers and students to deliver. Having a report card with straight A’s is not even something to call home about… All A’s? Ok, what else? Sports teams? Club presidents? Entrepreneur? Have they started a charity and built a school in Africa yet?

As educational currency, A’s, like any measurable metric, does not tell the whole story. It’s like saying the USA is the richest country in the world based on nominal GDP, and sweeping the part about them having the most social problems under the rug.

Anything below a 4.0 GPA can be considered slipping up. And while we’re at it, there is no upper limit; GPAs spill over the traditional 4.0 mark of perfection to achieve more than perfect scores. We allow this to happen and then wonder why millennials run around like validation junkies, craving our next hit of good job, Nathan.

Even the teachers who truly believe in this A=great, C=average grading scale can’t survive, because no other teachers are grading to the same scale. Even though C’s were average (let me just repeat that for emphasis… C’s are AVERAGE…. Meaning MOST PEOPLE SHOULD GET THIS SCORE) I would rather tell my parents that I drove the lawn mower into the car than reveal a high school report card with a C on it.

It’s as if the grading scale has been copy-and-pasted for the last 45 years in the United States. I haven’t been in public school for (a few) years, but when I left, they still told us the A’s were excellent, B’s were good, C’s were average, and D’s were poor.

I don’t believe classes should be graded on a curve; meaning a certain percentage of the class must get a C, but we should be realistic about what these grades mean. Abolishing the grading system sounds extreme (can you imagine the justification for this…. I don’t believe in grades, I believe in learning is the fluffiest thing I can imagine) but giving out A’s to everyone is just making us feel better instead of actually being better.

The summary of my high school learning experience is that I was just trying to beat everyone else. I wanted to get the highest grade. I didn’t put value on learning as much as possible, I just wanted to get a higher score than everyone else. This was mostly due to my own personality and motivations formed in childhood. Sure, this can be a great motivator to study and learn some, but my goal wasn’t to learn as much as possible. And I know I am not alone in that regard.

Looking back, it’s disappointing. It’s hard because learning doesn’t happen when you’re ace-ing the class without trying, or when you’re just doing enough to scrape by. Learning comes from those moments when you read something you don’t understand or something that makes you uncomfortable, as you stretch your comfort zone.

Learning comes from failure. As I write this, I know there’s some part of me looking at the past with rose-colored glasses, thinking it would have been nicer to sit down and spend more time learning instead of ingesting and regurgitating the information. It’s easy to sit here and think I could have just pushed myself a little bit harder, which is absolutely a Blind Spot.

But when you’re running on little sleep and have sports games and practices every single day, who’s going to spend more time learning over that? Why take the time to learn something when you can do the minimum and get an A? Call it laziness, call it taking the path of least resistance, call it doing what it takes to get an A. Whatever it is, it doesn’t mean you’re learning anything.

To clarify, I had some great classes and great teachers in high school. I attended classes that challenged me and that I had to work hard for. The point here is that the world is changing (especially becoming more unequal in the US, one of the leading causes of social problems), and education is not.

A problem with many public schools is that their uniformity creates negative reactions in many students. Students don’t have to be inspired and in love with every subject; they can be serviceable in some areas, but an irony of education is that it often takes years to unlearn the negative responses to simply hearing the name of certain school subjects… English, Math, or Chemistry.

As I grow older, I am finding myself interested in subjects I found myself hating during school. The requirements of public education made me resent great topics like classic literature and world history. It took me a good few years to regain interest in these topics. The difference is now, I’m choosing to learn these things. I love reading (some) classic books and discussing them with other people. I love feeding my brain with great writing. I love learning about the world history of new lands I am fortunate enough to visit.

Did my high school self ever think I’d become so interested in these things? I don’t have particularly good memories of English or History class; now those are my favorite subjects.

The difference is now, I’m living my own life. I’m choosing what I want to learn. I’m not being forced to read the monstrosity that is Anna Karenina. I’m not reading Shakespeare simply because it’s a classic and great literature. I’m not being forced to write a comparative analysis of some books I don’t feel strongly about, likely because in my teenage years I can’t yet relate to the plight of the protagonist I’m reading about. Now, I can read something like The Alchemist or Fight Club or Brave New World and actually enjoy these classics and become inspired by them.

I chose them for myself. I wanted to get something from them. I was bought-in from the beginning.

Public schools could do with more buy-in from students. Being told what you have to learn is a great way to cause students to resent a topic. Sitting through dense classes for six hours a day is a snooze. If the purpose of this practice is to establish discipline and work ethic, at least push students to find what they’re good at and encourage them to explore how they can make money with what they are good at in the future. Find a way for students to get on a more individualized track a few years before age eighteen.

People are motivated to do what they do well. That, or what they feel like they do well. You can explain to them that they may have to slog through some classes that are challenging for them but give them something to look forward to. Get them learning something they know is useful for their future.

To take it a step further… create more opportunities for apprenticeships/job shadowing at a young age. We put this insane pressure on young people to figure out what degree they want, when at age eighteen, the only place they’ve ever worked is the supermarket. Many people don’t even know what degree they want before they enter school; they just know what school they want on their resume. This seems backwards.

Call me a hippy/idealist/spiritual-seeker for allowing young people to pick what path they want to go on at age fifteen. I’m not advocating students pick their own curriculum from top to bottom… give them a framework for how they can learn a subject and let them choose their own adventure. Present some material in class and let them choose what they want to read, write, or learn within that context. Projecting onto students what they should learn in order to be successful is a lesson in futility.

This is a progressive idea. But, that’s the point of education, right? Education shouldn’t remain static. It should evolve as we learn more about people, what serves us well, and what does not.

Useful life skills, like Communication Skills and Finance 101, sound like good ideas to teach and are some of the most valuable knowledge you can have as adults… but could a high-schooler take these seriously? These sound like total blow-off classes. In schools where easy classes are seen as a break by most people (especially at Universities, where easy blow-off electives are treasured and difficult to get into) the incentive to learn something, instead of just getting an easy A, is very low. Nobody will care much about finance at this time, because you’re not at a point in your life where you yet realize the relevance of this topic. Telling children what to learn because it’s important for the future is fruitless. Children who have been taken care of their whole lives will not give a shit about personal finance. They will become interested in personal finance when they are neck-deep in debt and they need to buy a car or want to buy a new place to live with their new husband.

Currently in high school, you can choose the classes you take, but within that, there’s almost no flexibility in what you can learn within the class. Why? Standardized testing. Benchmarks must be met, so put on your big boy pants and make sure your school does well enough to receive funding from the government.

In the United States in 2015, by the time High School seniors had graduated, they had taken an average of 112 standardized tests throughout their public school lives. One more time for emphasis; 112 standardized tests.

Standardized tests are a nice way to measure readiness for school at the next level (ability to regurgitate information, *cough*). But 112? Really? How much information do we really need? If you change schools around three times in your life, what is the purpose of all the other testing?

Whether we like it or not, in today’s culture, we use these numbers as metrics for how to value ourselves in society. It’s unhealthy, we shouldn’t, and we know that; it doesn’t help how much our mothers tell us that numbers don’t matter, what matters is in your heart… we will always use these numbers as a metric to compare ourselves to others. Especially in today’s time, when comparing ourselves to each other is so easy via social media likes, followers, and views.

Millennials enter the workforce at age 23 used to checking boxes to validate our success. Our goals are to achieve quantifiable landmarks. Then in a blink… internal anarchy. The check boxes we see are a paycheck, marriage, and children, most of which are being challenged in a way society has never seen.

After we go to high school, (check), go to a good university (check), we get into the real world with decent-paying job (check), realize a few years later that we don’t want to do this for the rest of our lives, and all we really want to do is move to Denver and work as a park ranger.

Or, we stay at our decent-paying job, and get the life-equivalent of C’s at work — we get put on the projects nobody wants, we’re new so there isn’t too much expected of us, and we don’t meet our own expectations at work. We’re new, we’re average, but all we know is how to succeed at school. We are not emotionally prepared for the working world after being pampered with A’s and B’s earlier on.

Students respond to incentives. Offer the chance to go to great schools and students will fight each other for A’s. Dangle a carrot (or an A) in front of a hungry student and they will go to battle for it. Ask them why they got a C and make them question themselves, scaring them into never getting a C again.

The modern educational system doesn’t incentivize students to take risks. To ask questions. To challenge authority. Because doing so would shake the foundation of the educational system. It doesn’t reward creativity or finding your strengths.

Perhaps learning what to appreciate in life is the mission of our twenties. After we check the boxes (and get out of student debt), we start to forge our identities and become more comfortable with ourselves.

To reiterate the words of Professor John Keating in Dead Poets Society…. I thought the purpose of education was to learn to think for yourself. It gets people used to having freedom to think for themselves, so when they get to their first job at age 23, they don’t lose their shit. At present, the educational system does not incentivize thinking for yourself. It incentivizes delivery.

In terms of education, this nebulous millennial age is one where we do a great deal of un-learning. We un-learn the negative feelings we have for school and self-education. We unlearn how to try to fit in and become our own person. There is no higher purpose for education than this.

This is an excerpt from an upcoming book: Avocado Toast and Other Millennial Insights

--

--

Nathan Adlam
Age of Awareness

English teacher, engineer, expat… writing about things I am passionate about. Author of Avocado Toast and Other Millennial Insights.