It’s a question heard more and more, and yet its answer seems only to drift further and further away.
I believe the core of the problem lies in the fact that education doesn’t serve one purpose. It serves different purposes for different people.
For students, the hope is education exposes them to broader ideas and provides a safe space to explore them. This is with the aim of identifying subjects and skills students enjoy pursuing and continue to pursue once they’ve left the classroom. It also offers the opportunity to build relationships with fellow peers and engage in a melting pot of social interaction.
For parents, education represents a hopeful and positive future for their child, helping them discover who they are and what their contribution to the world will be. It also acts as structural daycare. How can a family put food on the table while also having a hormonal, adolescent teenager to look after everyday? It’s no longer as simple as sending them off to the mines like in the early 1800s.
For government, likewise education acts partly as structural daycare, so adults can continue working while they raise a child. Education also aims to produce responsible and skilled workers who can contribute to a country’s productivity.
For employers, education is a signalling function. It’s not practical for a bank to personally assess every application they receive, and so degrees and grades are used to filter applicants to those who are most likely to suit the job. I’m sure many great accountants are missed in the process, but it’s worth the saved time in recruitment.
For society, education informs young humans what is expected of them in society. It teaches humans how not to be animals (don’t poop on the floor, don’t eat crayons, don’t scream to get people’s attention). Education ensures everyone knows the rules of the game they’re playing. It explains how actions are perceived by society, and the consequences that come with them. It ensures the smooth running of society.
Education tries to do all of these things, and does none of them perfectly. And so education will forever be meandering somewhere in the middle, leading us to constantly question, what is education for?