What is the purpose of education?


I’m well into the Fall semester now, and my head is full of my goals for the semester. I’ve got goals for myself and goals for my students. These goals remain relatively stable from term to term and class section to class section, with small scale changes here and there reflecting the tinkering I like to do with my curricula. Some of my student-oriented goals reflect an increase in knowledge, but other goals reflect skills – skills in carefully evaluating information in a fair and objective manner, in appropriately applying information to real situations, and in developing professional communication skills. These goals play out differently across classes and levels, but they all guide my course design decisions.

In varying degrees across classes, I aim to …

… broaden my students’ knowledge bases by guiding them through their immersion in the course material.

… hone my students’ skill at accurate and objective critique of empirically based knowledge

… help students recognize that knee-jerk reactions to empirical findings (and the implications therein) are only human, but importantly are not the safest way to make policy decisions, therapeutic decisions, or any evaluative decision that may affect the wellbeing of another human

… develop my students’ professional communication skills in terms of written and verbal presentation of information to an audience of stakeholders

How do I set these goals? I set them by reflecting on what I see as the purpose of education. With a purpose in mind, I set goals that I think will help that purpose get actualized.

My belief on the purpose of education

I don’t see the purpose of education as the mere conveyance of knowledge. Rather, to my mind the raison d’etre  of education is to create an environment where more skilled members of a society help socialize the less skilled members of a society in meaningful ways. Part of that process involves acquiring knowledge and part of that process involves developing skills. When I think about purpose, I think about broadening learners’ horizons so they can give back once they reach their educational or vocational majority and become contributing members of society. And I think horizons are broadened with an increase in knowledge and with an increased facility for using that knowledge for good.

How do we know when a system is working?

When I critique the curriculum of others, my inclination – because I am human, after all – is to make an implicit comparison between what I see (in the curriculum in question) and what I think the goal of that curriculum should be. Yet, I know that this isn’t fair. That is, I shouldn’t be comparing what I see to my goals. Rather, I should be comparing what I see to the goals the curriculum was intended to address. If our sense of purpose differs (i.e., mine and the person who designed what I am evaluating), then my knee-jerk critique isn’t appropriate. A curriculum is only fairly critiqued when it is held up to it’s intended purpose.

Back to my broader aim with this blog post then: why did I ask my blog visitors what their understanding was, of the purpose of education? I did it because right now, folks are clamoring for educational reform and folks are critiquing the US education system left and right. But these critiques and calls for reform often leave the purpose of education implied.  That is, the purpose of education is left out of the conversation.

If we want to make any headway in advancing our educational system though, we need to agree on the purpose.

What do you think, regarding the purpose of education?

With this in mind, I was curious to know what others think of, when they think about the purpose of education. Do we agree or do we differ? It could be that though it’s left implied in the national debates, we do all agree, rendering my concerns moot. But it could be otherwise.

Here’s what you all said, in response to the prompt I put out there a few months ago:

“… the purpose of education is to provide a person with a layered, interconnected understanding of the world, the self, the relationship between both, and the foundations to actively contribute to it.”

“I think the purpose is twofold. One, the purpose of education is, for the individual, self-improvement. This takes many forms, including learning job skills, emotion regulation, how to learn, interesting stuff to think and talk about, the skill of persuasive argument, and self-efficacy. Two, the purpose of education is, for society, to provide a set of facts, ideas, and approaches to problems that function as common ground for any two members of that culture. For example, those educated in the U.S. can understand references to Plymouth Rock and Pilgrims, or that “X” means “times” in an equation. That is, we need not only a common language but also a set of common referents. If everyone knew only the idiosyncratic information they ran across in daily life, it would make it much harder to communicate with each other.”

“I think that education should be about teaching children critical thinking skills, social skills, emotional intelligence and preparing them for the workplace.”

“The purpose of education is to equip students with the knowledge and skills needed to think critically, make informed decisions, and solve real world problems. It also involves teaching them positive values and good citizenship.”

“Schools are a mere preparation for further fields. And after that, we are free to choose our lines as per our interests. Like, one needs to have a good command over the language if he wishes for a future as a Writer. Schools provide us with a wide variety of subjects and hence we don’t need to face much hurdles deciding our future domains.”

“Also, I’d like to include that, as we all live in a conflated world, knowledge of things that surround us is also a must. Who says an engineer doesn’t need to have knowledge of Medical Sciences? That could save us from rushing to the doctors, everytime we suffer a mild illness.”

“I believe the purpose of education is to help find connections to self and develop a sense of spirituality. The role of the educator should be to facilitate learning and opportunities to explore, contemplate, and draw meaning; not to impose thinking or values. The problem is that education has become more associated with making a living rather than an opportunity to create self.”

“As an educator myself, I subscribe to Rudolf Steiner’s view on this question. Education literally means the process of leading things out, bringing out knowledge and understanding, drawing from the individual inner capacities. From a less esoteric perspective, the ability to analyze is paramount, thus presenting techniques and helping to develop and refine skills is more important in my view than presenting information, per se.”

“Education is a process of knowing, understanding, analysing and later implementing consciously into ones day to day activities.”

Interesting array, isn’t it! Sure, this is a minuscule sample, given the vastness of the population here on our lovely planet (and note that not all these comments come from US citizens, as the wordpress community is international). But this small sample shows, right off the bat, that we do not all agree on all points. The themes I see in the array above are these:

  1. To foster personal growth, self-understanding, and self-regulation
  2. To build a knowledge base of known facts
  3. To establish and refine skills, either vocational, informational/intellectual, or both
  4. To prepare for an (un)certain future
  5. To become a functioning citizen of your community, culture, and/or of the world

Is it reasonable and fair to assume that an educational system do all these things? I actually think it is, and as you can see above in my opening statement, I take steps to build into my curricula ways to reach all these goals. Its easy for me to say this though, because I have many luxuries that other educators do not. That is, working in higher ed, I have some freedoms that educators who work in the US public school system (i.e., primary and secondary system, that is) do not. And on that note, it is not clear whether (a) all teachers working in US public schools agree that all 5 themes should be a part of the purpose of education, nor (b) whether all teachers want to design their own curricula. As well, it’s not clear whether all US citizens share a common set of goals for the purpose of educating our youth.

From my “read” on the reform movement, I suspect that many teachers do want more freedom in the classroom though, because they do share with me an array of goals for education, goals that reflect both knowledge acquisition and skill attainment. I’d hazard to bet many share a goal of fostering compassionate citizens too. That is, from my “read” on the reform movement, I suspect that many US citizens believe that the purpose of education extends far beyond the mere acquisition of knowledge. And if that’s the case, then the current public school system that’s ruled by high stakes testing, top-down curricular decisions, and limited budgets that lead to the elimination of extra curriculars, art, music, and even recess isn’t meeting our goals. High stakes testing, as currently defined, is about knowledge attainment.

The question we need to ask is this though: is the current educational environment in the US meeting IT’S goals? The stated mission of the US department of education, as posted on the .gov website is this:

“ED’s mission is to promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access.”

What does this mean?It is quite vague, but to me, here’s what I take it to mean:

  1. The “student achievement” as indexed by tests of knowledge bit, means “knowledge acquisition.”
  2. The educational excellence bit doesn’t clearly translate into actionable goals.
  3. Ensuring equal access bit has to do with getting all kids into school.

This set of goals does not reflect the diversity of opinion reflected in the comments other bloggers left on my site, in response to the question I posed. But it does, perhaps, meet the government’s goals rights now. To that, I say “yikes.” But do you? That is, current government sponsored efforts make no sense when one holds a different purpose of education in mind. But if you agree on the goals as stated, then perhaps you don’t see a need for further reforms.

Yet, it appears that many of you, as do I, want more from the educational system. To make our dreams come true then, first what needs to change is the US position on the purpose of education. When the stated purpose is structured to meet what the people agree upon as important, then meaningful reform can fall from that. Has anyone done a nationally representative poll on this question?

If such a poll exists, and it shows that the general public in the US is happy with the goals, as stated on the US Department of Education website, then there’s no need to reform any further, right? But if the general populations goals don’t match, and we the people are fed up with the system, then what needs changing first is the stated purpose of education and an educator’s role in actualizing that purpose. From there, reform efforts that align goals and behavior together can make some real traction. As long as all this remains out of alignment – the people’s sense of purpose, the government’s stated policy on purpose, and the top-down curricular pressures therein – reform efforts will continue to spiral without ever reaching a target.

What do you think? Might it be possible to align it all and shake ourselves out of the national funk we are in? With the government shutdown in progress as I type it’s easy to throw up your hands in despair. But if we want change to happen, then there’s no time like the present to start shaping the national dialogue.

What do you think? What would you like to see happen, in the educational reform movement?


  1. Thanks for the discussion of purpose. I think that higher education loses sight of purpose very often, focusing exclusively on things that matter, on reflection, only in light of some more important focus. For instance, we focus a lot on access to education. But access to education only matters as an intermediate aim. Access is not the purpose. The learning that cannot take place without access is the purpose. However, access in and of itself does nothing to promote that learning.

    You suggest that “A curriculum is only fairly critiqued when it is held up to it’s intended purpose.” But then you, rightly, ask critical (critiquing?) questions about purpose. I think that whether a curriculum accomplishes its purpose and whether its purpose is appropriate ought both to be open to critique. I like L. D. Fink’s idea of “significant learning” goals as a way of talking about just that. And I think that most teachers have a vague idea of the significant learning they would like to happen but that they’ve not through concretely about what that entails or how to get there. For instance, virtually all college professors support critical thinking skills as an aim of higher education. But many fewer have worked out a concrete understanding of what that means or have taken concrete steps to help students develop it.

    Paul T. Corrigan
    Teaching & Learning in Higher Ed.

    • Paul, thanks for taking the time to share your perspectives. I agree with you on both points. Regarding access, it is indeed important, but it is not a purpose statement that can inform process in terms of what happens in classrooms. Rather, an emphasis on access determines who is in your classroom. Regarding what’s open for critique, I agree with you as well, and that’s just what I do in the end of my post (i.e., I was trying to lead by example). I feel like if we want to effect positive change here in the US educational system, we absolutely have to critique the purpose and stated goals, and get them changed. I think that’s a first step that many folks ignore. Its easy to throw stones at high stakes testing and all that, because such practices don’t match my views on the purpose of education, but that won’t effect change if high stakes testing matches the purpose and goals as stated by the department of education. Practices and teacher expectations should change though, if the stated purpose and goals that follow invalidate them.

      As for higher education practices, yes, there are folks who do not put their money where their mouths are. But that’s not true of all. I spend a lot of time thinking about what it takes to engage critically, respectfully, and within reason, and I model it for students, then ask them to do it themselves. As I do this, I take the perspective that skills are what I students to take away, and I use the material of the class to guide them. This is a subtle, but important difference from teaching content, and some critical thinking on the side. Wouldn’t it be interesting to see more teachers doing the former, in age appropriate ways, across the educational spectrum? One can only dream.

  2. I found your blog from our Finnish Fulbright teachers blog. I am a Finn I am straight.
    First, please, too many words, where’s the beef :o)

    My question in about the purpose of education.
    Give me an example of a country after 2nd world war that has not thought education as an input (to education) output (economical growth) system?
    So everybody agree with you with your “My belief on the purpose of education”.

    The big question is why in some countries the politicians/theoneswhohasthepower have made decisions that produce lots of highschool dropouts to go to work with minimun wages, compared to countries who have schooled their kids also in vocational schools giving them a profession at the age of 19?

    The 3rd is
    What does the “educational reform movement” mean? Where is it? Do you have a web site?

    • Hi Mikko, thanks for visiting and taking the time to pose some questions. WordPress makes it easy to find like-minded postings, doesn’t it. So are you asking, in your first comment, on what my point is with the “where’s the beef” query? If so, my point is that in a democratic society (idealistically, perhaps, but still) we the people should have the power to effect positive change at high levels of government. Currently, in the United States, there’s an open dialogue in news media, social media, and in face-to-face meetings, and in higher education classrooms about the need for education reform (and that’s the movement of which I speak in my post), with critiques lobbied at local practices and top-down pressure (pressured coming from the likes of the “No Child Left Behind” legislation) rather than at the higher level of the government’s department of education’s stated mission. The critiques seem to just hang in the air doing nothing but souring everyone’s attitude and causing families to abandon the public school system though. I think that the critical mass of reformers are missing the mark here – they need to change the stated purpose of education so that it more broadly reflects the humanitarian goals they are advocating. Once that’s done, the practices will change in line.

      To your comment about education being yoked to the economy, yes, that is true and surely a part of every country’s desire to educate the populace. But does that have to be the only aim? I, and many others think not. There’s a large contingent (though I don’t know how large) in the United States who want more humanitarian goals embedded in the educational system and I am one of them.

      Finally, alas, I do not keep up a website. This blog is where I share my ideas and perspectives with interested readers. And I thank you again for visiting.

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