What Is the Purpose of Education?

Alice Germain
Sep 5, 2019 · 6 min read
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If I were in charge of a PGCE course (let’s dream for a moment), I think I would start with this philosophical question: what is the purpose of education? And, in particular, what are the roles of schools?

But I am not in charge of a PGCE course, and during my own PGCE we didn’t tackle this question at all. Instead, we had to reflect during one early session on why we wanted to become a teacher, and make, in groups, a mind map of all our motivations — certainly interesting, but actually we were supposed to have thought about it by the time we applied for the training. I believe it is most valuable, when you want to become a teacher, to have clear answers for yourself as to what the roles of schools are in a society. Then you can link it with your personal motivations for becoming a teacher and decide how you want to contribute to what you think are the roles of a school. You could also realise that different schools may have a different vision or promote different values, and appreciate the importance — or not — of adhering to them.

So what are schools for? The response to this question is certainly not universal. Rather, every society has its own answer, which also varies with time. One element of the answer is seeing the role of schools as preparing adult life. But this is still a very vague answer. How do you prepare a child for their adult life? Answers can be actually quite divergent. I think the different views can be classified according to two dimensions, with two strands in each. In the first dimension, the two strands can be defined as deriving from either a societal (schools educate children for the sake of society) or an individualistic (children are educated to be made adult human beings) vision of the role of schools. In the second dimension, views are classified as to whether they are pragmatic or idealistic. This results in a rough grouping of different views in four types.

In the societal-pragmatic view, essentially the school has to produce the workers that the labour market requires. Consequently, curricula must be aligned with labour market needs. For instance, statistics and IT skills are now taught at school while it was not the case 30 years ago. Holders of this view will easily dismiss subjects with ‘low’ economic value, such as plastic art and music.

The view that the purpose of education is employment has led to an individualistic-pragmatic view of education, where every piece of learning has to be useful to the student (not necessarily for any potential future jobs but mostly). This view, combined with a will to make learning contents more attractive, has probably underpinned the development of maths or science problems in ‘real-life situations’. They were made fun of by one of my maths teachers at university because often they wouldn’t even correspond to what people would do in real life. For instance, if you are a carpenter, you can’t conclude that with a piece of wood of say 15 cm x 10 cm you will be able to cut 5 pieces of 3 cm x 10 cm — because there are always losses when you saw (think of shavings of wood). This illustrates, I believe, the confusion between general education and vocational education.

This mapping between schools and labour market in both pragmatic views was reflected in my school during assembly when a member of the school leadership would make a direct link between the GCSE grades one gets and their future salary. The aim is to ‘motivate’ children to work harder, and the intention is certainly valid. But it represents a highly depressing view of life success, only measured on one’s salary. It also implicitly depicts teachers themselves as failures, regardless of other values like their dedication, intellectual abilities, contribution to society, etc. Certainly we cannot blame a government for being concerned with the economy of their state, but is it really all that education is about? The adage says ‘money can’t buy happiness’…

One of the essential questions is finally: if schools are to teach children, what should be taught? An alternative to the individualistic-pragmatic view is the individualistic-idealistic view. This view is summed up by Reboul[1] when he suggests that what is learnt at school should be, among other things: (1) A long-term knowledge, meaning that one can draw on them later on in life. For instance, if you learn how to go from point A to B in a given city at some point, this knowledge will be useful only for going from A to B. But if instead you learn how to read a map, it will be useful for going from A to B and for going from anywhere to anywhere else! Or, to come back to the maths problems in a real life context, it is essential that children learn to transfer their knowledge to a wide range of different problems and do not remain confined in solving one type of school problem; and (2) Selfless knowledge — with no other purpose than the intellectual and physical development of the pupils. In the same vein, Jerome Bruner[2] proposed two criteria that outline what knowledge is worth learning (in particular in mathematics) namely: “whether it gives a sense of delight, and whether it bestows the gift of intellectual travel beyond the information given, in the sense of containing within it the basis of generalisation“.

As one can see, this view is in stark contrast with the previous ones. It is also refreshing in my opinion, especially when I think for example of my mentor in the school I did my training who advised me to show my students the ‘purpose’ of the lessons by reminding them how much time was left until the next test. I experienced that sort of view (let’s call it a ‘short-term individualistic pragmatic view’) with a music theory teacher in a music school in France. She would mention in every single lesson what would be asked at the end of year exam. It was a course for adults, all amateur musicians, and that there was a test at the end of the year hadn’t even crossed my mind when I signed up for the course. As strange as it may sound for my teacher so deeply involved in the preparation of students for their exams, I was taking this course for my own pleasure — just for myself.

Beyond the idea that schools teach knowledge for the personal development of children, there is something important that schools teach as well: values. Values are not universal either, and so everyone may come up with a different opinion of what values a school should teach or rather embody. One may think of effort, critical thinking, solidarity, fairness, equality, discipline, integrity… And this brings me to the societal-idealistic view of schools which considers that schools prepare children to live together in a peaceful society. This statement in reality encompasses two conflicting views: do schools prepare children to live in a fixed society? This implies that schools are a tool of the dominant class to perpetuate their domination by ‘training’ the working class to accept their fate. As such they play a central role in the reproduction of social inequality, as argued by Bourdieu[3]. Or should schools aim to generate a better, fairer society by allowing social mobility, spurring people to question the Establishment and fight for their rights, and promoting values such as solidarity and equality?

These questions about the purpose of schooling are complex and there is no single ‘good’ answer. The position of everyone will differ in accordance to their own values and beliefs. This is why debates over education can polarise the public so much and be so emotionally charged. I personally like Olivier Reboul’s definition of an ideal education: “Education should free humans from everything that prevents them from being themselves, and unite them in a society where everyone has its place.”

[1] Reboul O. (2006). La philosophie de l’éducation, PUF

[2] Bruner J. (1960). On learning mathematics, The Mathematics Teacher, 53, 610–619

[3] Bourdieu, P., & Passeron, J.-C. (1990). Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture, Sage Publications

Dr. Alice G. on Education

Math(s) content writer with Ph.D. in physics writing about education and pedagogy

Alice Germain

Written by

Maths content writer, qualified ‘Physics with Maths’ teacher, , Ph.D. in Physics, mum of 2.

Dr. Alice G. on Education

I worked in scientific research and edition before moving from France to London, where I did a PGCE in Physics with Maths. Discovering another country’s education system from the inside has been an incredible journey. I write about it here and about pedagogy.

Alice Germain

Written by

Maths content writer, qualified ‘Physics with Maths’ teacher, , Ph.D. in Physics, mum of 2.

Dr. Alice G. on Education

I worked in scientific research and edition before moving from France to London, where I did a PGCE in Physics with Maths. Discovering another country’s education system from the inside has been an incredible journey. I write about it here and about pedagogy.

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