The Purpose of Education

The 1925 Butler Act in Tennessee decreed:  “That it shall be unlawful for any teacher in any of the Universities, Normals, all other public schools of the State which are supported in whole or in part by the public school funds of the State, to teach any theory that denies the Story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.”   It remained on the books until 1967.

What was the purpose of education in the USA in 1925?  The nation was primarily rural.  A high percentage of the population worked on small scale farms.  Others did low skill jobs in relatively unmechanized factories.  It was similar to life in Nepal in the very recent past.  The skills children needed were learned in the fields or factories not schools.  What parents wanted kids to learn in addition to practical skills were the beliefs on which their culture depended.  That’s why the 1925 Butler Act became law, so children would not be taught to question the Bible’s teachings.

The 1944 Butler Act in the UK promised every child would in future have secondary education, and it would be education best suited to their abilities.  The economy would be supplied with intellectuals, technicians and general workers, each with the necessary training.  Before 1944, some local governments provided secondary schools but most were tuition-funded.  To prosper in the aftermath of WW2, every British child was to get secondary education either in a Grammar school with an academic curriculum for intellectuals, an equally respected Secondary Technical school with a curriculum for future scientists, engineers and technicians, or an equally respected Secondary Modern school focused on training for less skilled jobs and home management.

That plan collided with both economic reality – the UK economy was devastated by WW2 – and cultural reality.  Grammar schools got all the prestige, few Technical schools were established, and Secondary Modern schools were inadequately funded.  To promote a more egalitarian society, Comprehensive secondary schools were later established for children of all abilities and social classes.  There is now a mix of the two systems.

But it was not just that there was a form of caste in the UK with land-holding families looking down on merchants who looked down on laborers and so forth.  There was also a profound division within Britain’s intellectual class.  Education in Britain traditionally focused on study of the human condition via history and the arts, not reasoning from the outcome of scientific experiments.

In a famous 1959 lecture, British scientist and novelist C. P. Snow said Western education had split in two, the sciences and the humanities, and he later wrote: “A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated … if I had asked [them] ‘What do you mean by mass, or acceleration?’, which is the scientific equivalent of saying, ‘Can you read?’ not more than one in ten would have felt that I was speaking the same language.  So the great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the western world have about as much insight into it as their neolithic ancestors would have had.”

Snow wanted two things, an end to the contempt for scientists among “gentlemen” educated in the humanities, which in the USA we call social sciences, and for everyone who would have an impact on future society to know the fundamentals in all fields of knowledge and be trained to use all available thinking tools.

The Dalai Lama recently advocated essentially the same thing: “The great benefit of science is that it can make a tremendous contribution to the alleviation of suffering on a physical level, but it is only by cultivating the qualities of the human heart and transforming our attitudes that we can begin to address and overcome our mental suffering.  We need both, since the alleviation of suffering must take place on both a physical and a psychological level.”

In summary, the purpose of education is to motivate and enable us to take better action.

What, then, are the implications for public education in the USA?  What are our existing problems, our future challenges, potential solutions, and likely obstacles?

I’m exploring our greatest new challenges in other posts.  In summary: (1) Capital is over-represented relative to people as a guide to government policy, (2) Extremists too easily thwart government action, (3) Our citizens are poorly equipped to understand what government action is appropriate, and (4) We have not recognized the implications of globalization and information technology for our economy.  Also, we still face all the same challenges guiding our behavior with each other as all civilizations have throughout history.

Because our government at all levels is elected, our most serious obstacle would be if many of our citizens are poorly equipped to differentiate between fact and fiction or use reason.  The world has changed greatly since I was in school and the pace of change has greatly accelerated.  We should prepare our children for a world whose characteristics we can only intuit, not know.  The better they can understand how that world works the better able they will be to thrive, and the better trained they are in controlling their minds the better they will behave with each other.

We should not allow our children to be taught as factual theories about the world that we know are false.  What we should teach them is how to gather the facts, how to differentiate between facts and non-facts, how to reason and experiment, how to develop intuition and know how to use it, and how to communicate effectively.

Unfortunately, I do not know enough about how education is directed in the USA, the respective roles and authority of the Federal, State and local governments, school districts and individual teachers to propose a solution.  The intentional division of power makes it hard to steer.  We must worry in a different way about what my brother-in-law who advises new national governments about education policy pointed out:  “You and I want education to develop people’s ability to think for themselves, to find the facts, analyze them, come to a conclusion and act accordingly.  That is not necessarily what heads of government want people to do.”

4 comments on “The Purpose of Education

  1. In the Morehouse College student newspaper in 1947, Martin Luther King Jr. laid out “The Purpose of Education” so much more clearly. Here’s what he wrote:

    “…It seems to me that education has a two-fold function to perform in the life of man and in society: the one is utility and the other is culture. Education must enable a man to become more efficient, to achieve with increasing facility the legitimate goals of his life.

    “Education must also train one for quick, resolute and effective thinking. To think incisively and to think for one’s self is very difficult. We are prone to let our mental life become invaded by legions of half-truths, prejudices, and propaganda.

    “At this point, I often wonder whether or not education is fulfilling its purpose. A great majority of the so-called educated people do not think logically and scientifically. Even the press, the classroom, the platform, and the pulpit in many instances do not give us objective and unbiased truths. To save man from the morass of propaganda, in my opinion, is one of the chief aims of education. Education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction.

    “The function of education, therefore, is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. But education which stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society. The most dangerous criminal may be the man gifted with reason, but with no morals.”

  2. About the best counter to fanaticism, British philosopher, mathematician, historian, and social critic Bertrand Russell in 1951 laid out his vision for responsibilities of a teacher:

    1. Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.
    2. Do not think it worth while to proceed by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.
    3. Never try to discourage thinking for you are sure to succeed.
    4. When you meet with opposition, even if it should be from your husband or your children, endeavor to overcome it by argument and not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.
    5. Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.
    6. Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do the opinions will suppress you.
    7. Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.
    8. Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.
    9. Be scrupulously truthful, even if the truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.
    10. Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool’s paradise, for only a fool will think that it is happiness.

  3. Despite having one of the largest vocabularies of any modern language, English often leads us to use the same word to describe concepts that differ vastly. Take “love” for example. I love my parents; I love my friends; I love my girlfriend. I love horses; I love Autumn; I love my cat. While all of these affections may have certain commonalities, they are clearly very different from one another. The emotion I feel for my father is not the same as the emotion that I feel for my girlfriend; it is certainly not the same one that I feel for my cat. The word “education” is similar. We use it to describe learning experiences that fundamentally change the way we think about reality; we also use it to describe learning how to operate a fork-lift, or install Microsoft Word. The difference between “love,” and “education,” is that when I say, “I love my cat,” most listeners understand that the connotations of the word “love” are not the same as if I say, “I love my parents.” On the other hand, when I say “we really need to improve education in the United States,” different listeners have very different ideas about what I mean. There was a time when this would not have been true.

    During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the word “education” had clearer connotations than it does today. A person was educated if he or she had studied western intellectual history, which focused on the use of logic and rhetoric to make sense of the questions that have defined the human experience from the beginning: What is true about the world we live in? How ought we to live? Does God exist? What can logic and reason alone tell us about the epistemic status of truth and meaning? In theory, such a person not only possessed sophisticated critical thinking skills, but had also read the arguments concerning these questions and could speak, think, and write about them with clarity. A good Grammar School education provided foundational skills for real education, which took place primarily in the University, and was mostly the privilege of those who occupied the top tier of the social hierarchy. Although education was revered as a tool for making men wiser and better able to make good decisions in the world, there was no implied link between this type of education and employment.

    As western nations became increasingly democratic, public schools were created to develop populations that would be more educated than their predecessors and therefore better able to participate in democracy. Although the purpose of this reform was to create a wiser citizenry, it may also have planted a seed that would eventually lead to the decline of the Enlightenment oriented model for education in favor of a vocational one. When the first state schools were created in England, it was thought that although it was necessary to prepare the lower classes to play a larger role in civic life, they could not be expected to learn Latin and Greek. Such skills were considered beyond them, (as were the philosophical ideas contained in the texts written in those languages.) Instead, in addition to reading, writing, and arithmetic, state schools taught Shakespeare. The proletariat might not be capable of reading Cicero, but anybody could read Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, or Antony and Cleopatra. Perhaps in this way, the lower classes could soak up a little of that classical wisdom that provided the foundation for philosophy, and its subcategory which we eventually came to call science. Despite having underestimated the substantive value of Shakespeare, this early democratization of education contained the seeds of an idea that would eventually undermine classical learning: those at the top of the social hierarchy need wisdom, everybody else just needs a little knowledge and a few practical skills.

    In early America the anti-intellectual vision of education was championed by some of our greatest intellectuals. Ben Franklin wrote: “to America, one schoolmaster is worth a dozen poets, and the invention of a machine or the improvement of an implement is of more importance than a masterpiece of Raphael… Nothing is good but in the measure that it is useful.” Although Franklin goes on to say that in centuries to come America might have a use for poetry, the message is clear. For middle class and working class people struggling to build a thriving economy, practical concerns trump abstract notions of enlightenment. Emerson condemned the study of history and literature that was not contemporary. Thoreau denied the value of travel outside of New England. Although there was considerable reverence for the intellectual tradition in some segments of society, many working class Americans remained suspicious of the usefulness of such learning. This attitude remains even today, especially in rural areas. When a new library was built a few years ago in the small Vermont town where my father lives, the farmers at the local diner complained that it was a waste of tax payer money. “What do we need a bigger library for?” asked one weathered northerner; “I didn’t see any lines forming outside the old one.”

    Although this skepticism toward traditional ideas about education have been part of America since its earliest days, it was not until after World War II that ideas about the purpose of education were profoundly transformed. The GI bill massively increased the availability of university level education as a way of elevating more Americans to the middle class. New branch campuses of state universities were created to accommodate a new America, an America in which the primary purpose of a college education is to help graduates make more money. Over the next fifty years, universities lost their identities as the handmaidens of truth, reason, and enlightenment values, and became the servants of Mammon.

    A recent article on Yahoo.News professed to identify the five degrees employers love, and the five they hate. The alleged beloved degrees where all vocational: hospital administration, nursing, computer programing; the five hated degrees included history, philosophy, and other abstract intellectual pursuits. Over the last twenty five years, we have transformed American higher education to become more “relevant.” America now leads the world in undergraduate programs that are vocational and “relevant” to the market place. Those who view education as job training, and view the study of abstract ideas and the arts as pretentious empty elitism, can consider this a great success. The university has become an adjunct of the corporation.

    Today, people in the United States remain deeply divided over the purpose of education, although most of the dialogue about policy does not recognize this dichotomy. One view is that the primary purpose of education is to provide students with practical knowledge that will enable them to succeed in the market place such that they can support themselves and help grow the economy. Such a view holds teachers at the secondary and primary levels to be technicians who impart skills and information essential to perform quantifiable tasks. They teach students their times-tables, how to use a semi-colon properly, and how to read informational texts, so that when those students reach college, they will be ready to learn complex job skills.

    The other view of education, is closer to the old enlightenment ideal. On this view, the primary purpose of education is to enable students to lead richer fuller and more meaningful lives by helping them to develop sophisticated critical thinking skills that are informed by a nuanced understanding of intellectual history across the disciplines. According to this view, teachers are not technicians at all; they are scholar-guides providing intellectual pastoral care to a generation of students trying to find truth and meaning in a world filled with complexity and uncertainty. On this view, the ability to make good decisions in the face of uncertainty is not a job-skill; it’s a personal quality that can be cultivated by education. We used to call this quality wisdom.

    Unlike many of the value dichotomies in America these days, this one does not exist primarily along political lines. Many on the Right favor a vocational understanding of education because it is more identifiably connected to the market forces for which some Republicans have idolatrous reverence. Some extremists even view “intellectualism” as a left-wing conspiracy and worry that what liberals call “critical-thinking” will drive their sons and daughters away from ideological truths that are the foundations of their worldview. Meanwhile, many liberal intellectuals oppose the old enlightenment view of education for their own ideological reasons. They have embraced a Postmodern worldview that abhors the “logo-centric” approach to enlightenment learning as a tyrannical fabrication used to repress minorities. These crusaders have largely undermined the teaching of analytical philosophy, narrative history, and canonical literature at some of the most selective universities. They encourage students to open their minds to pluralism by closing their minds to the possibility that truth may exist as a reality independent of what we believe about it.

    I am a high school English teacher, and my biases here are clear. The first day of class, I ask my students, “if you can already read, write, and speak English, why are you in English class?” (Inevitably, a few declare that I have a good point, and pretend they are going to leave.) Then I ask why they bother coming to school. They tell me they need to get good grades. When I ask why they need good grades, they explain the want to go to “good” colleges, so they can have “good” jobs. When ask which jobs are “good jobs,” they tell me that the good jobs are the ones that pay a lot of money. When I ask why they want to make a lot of money, they tell me about the things that they want to own. They have come to understand that the purpose of education is, ultimately, to own a big house, a European car, and a plasma screen TV.

    At this point, I write “Omni viae romam ducunt” on the board and assure my students that just as all roads once lead to Rome, all human inquiry, whether in science, in literature, in history, or in math has the same destination as its goal: truth. Ultimately, there are only two questions that human beings really care about: “what is the nature of the world that we live in?” and, “how ought we to live?” The history of philosophy, science, art, and literature is the history of the ways in which human beings have tried to better understand these questions. Although we may never be able to answer them with certainty, we become better able to navigate the world by learning to pursue truth as though it were attainable. In doing so, we transform ourselves and our experiences of the world. We improve our ability to think and to understand. We become reflective. The real purpose of education is not to help us satisfy our material desires; the real purpose of education is to help us want better things.

  4. Here is an excellent article about education:

    Barry says although our idea that we have free will is a cognitive illusion, we can get closer to it by developing awareness of our mental habits. Instead, however, we are taught to rote memorize, not think critically, and we’re fed empty headed nonsense by the media. If a year’s worth of critical thinking lessons in legal course work was adopted for high school students we could have a much better society because more people could think analytically. But he isn’t holding his breath.

    As well as learning to think analytically, we must also learn to be aware of our emotional habits. That’s where meditation comes in.

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