Ivan Snook

The purpose of education

Since the beginning of the Western tradition there have been two rival models of education. The first, exemplified by the Greek Sophists, demands that schools prepare young people to be…

Since the beginning of the Western tradition there have been two rival models of education.

The first, exemplified by the Greek Sophists, demands that schools prepare young people to be uncritical workers and conforming citizens. In recent years this model has been advocated by the prevailing philosophy of neo-liberalism (and its political servants) with its demand that the schools serve the market and protect the wealthy. The purpose of education is to prepare people for jobs.

The second, emphasised by Socrates, who despised the Sophists, looks to the development of autonomous and critical human beings. This is done by introducing students to the traditions of human thought and feeling preserved in the sciences, humanities and arts. The purpose of education is to prepare people for life in all its richness: not only as workers but as parents, spouses, neighbours,  community members and citizens.

A democratic purpose

This, in my view, captures the true purpose of education; particularly in democratic societies where, it is presumed,  all citizens (not just an elite) are involved in governing: this requires that all citizens are fully educated, totally rational and committed to the Common Good (“the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfilment more fully and more easily” ). Thus democracy requires an education system which produces knowledgeable, rational and moral citizens.

The basic issue can be exemplified in relation to the current government stress on literacy and numeracy. Of course these are important but they are merely requirements for education not education itself.

A lifetime of engagement

Literacy is important as a tool for living but more importantly it opens the door to the stories of peoples past and present” making possible a lifetime of enjoyment, engagement and creative contribution.

It reveals to us the treasures of literature, history and the arts, helps us to make ethical judgements and enables us to contribute to society. Ironically, the current stress on literacy may itself operate against the true purpose of education. As a result, we may improve children’s reading and technological skills while destroying the excitement which alone can sustain a life-time of engagement with ideas.

Narrow outcomes

Numeracy too is important as a tool for living but more importantly, it opens up the scientific traditions which have been built up over the centuries: by hardworking people carving a living from a hostile environment, by creative geniuses theorising in their studies, by dedicated scientists toiling in their laboratories and by workers applying knowledge to practice.

It would be tragic if the stress on numeracy were to be accompanied by a reduction in scientific understanding. (Overseas, there is some evidence that this is happening.)

At the present time there is a fixation on narrow and immediate outcomes from schooling but the true outcomes of education are manifest only in later life when people live more critically, more creatively, more ethically. True education opens minds “sometimes dangerously so” that is why it is so often feared.

True education is critical, especially of grand claims advanced by people in power. True education poses questions of value: Not “will this work?” but “will this lead to the welfare of people?” This vision of education is totally absent from the narrow, skills based, and utilitarian model of education which drives our politicians and those who support them in business and the media. How has this come about?

For one thing, those who spearheaded the political and social revolution of the past 20 years were determined to change teachers from educated professionals to skilled technicians. Teacher education came to focus on “curriculum” and classroom procedures and to omit not only critical studies (such as philosophy, history and sociology) but also subject studies so that teacher education has been systematically dumbed down.

Teachers not blameless

Yet teachers themselves are not blameless. The strength of teacher education (particularly primary teacher education) in New Zealand prior to the reforms of the 1990s was its involvement with the profession and its concentration on producing skilled practitioners. The major weakness, however, was that the training tended to be anti-intellectual and to spurn the relevance of the various disciplines. A spurious dichotomy was set up between teaching “the child” and teaching “subjects”. Ideally we must teach subjects to children taking account of the nature of both subjects and learners.

Can we as a nation get back to believing in education as a liberating and humanising force? Current government policies seem off the mark, concentrating on market mechanisms, and scores on tests. The opposition parties do not seem to have a rival vision, concentrating as they do on re-assigning money in different ways but leaving the model intact.

Teachers (rightly) want to reject much of what has been imposed in recently years but they (wrongly) seem to accept a weak notion of the purpose of education. One can argue about test scores (for example, in PISA) but that is merely playing with the issues. Education is not centrally about test scores but about preparation for life in its broadest sense.

Universities drop the ball

I once hoped that universities would take the lead in fostering an enlightened view of education but sadly they have themselves adopted a utilitarian view of education (“serving the economy”) and their involvement in teacher education has been very disappointing.

They should have grasped the opportunity to expose students to scholarship in languages, history, arts and sciences. Instead, ghettoed in the Colleges of Education, students study merely “the curriculum” (the rather dull bureaucratic documents put out by the Ministry of Education) and have little grasp of the political and ideological context in which they work.

Somehow we need to reassert the traditional belief in education “for its own sake” (which really means “for life in all its complexity”) rather than for conformity, jobs and the national economy. I dare to hope that teachers themselves, who have kept so many educational ideals alive despite constant attacks, might lead the way to an enlightened view of the purpose of education.