Doug Belshaw and Andy Stewart have initiated a debate at Purposed.org.uk based around one question: “What is the purpose of education?”. Over the last few weeks, educators, academics and others have been sharing their thoughts through a set of thoughtful, insightful posts and tweets from a range of perspectives. Please visit purposed.org.uk to look at the concept of their campaign, a plan for how the debate and associated events might develop, and to read the contributions so far.
I’m going to add my voice to the debate in this post.
What is the purpose of education?
My, what a question! Do we look at the question from the perspective of an individual student, or from the perspective of what is ‘best’ for society, or for the future of the world? How do we try to answer the question in such a way that our answers are relevant to learners in a range of circumstances: a child growing up in a village in Sub-Saharan Africa and a child with severe learning difficulties in the UK and a talented student living in Shanghai? Is there really some sort of overarching principle to education that encompasses all of these children?
I’m going to be very pragmatic here, and try to answer the question using an anthropological perspective.
Imagine that the question ‘What is the purpose of education?’ was being posed not of human education, but of education in another mammal species, say, the lion. What is purpose of lion education, from cub to adult? That seems to be an easier question, and we might think of answers such as:
- To be able to hunt for yourself and to protect yourself - an autonomous imperative
- To be able to successfully interact within a pride, to cooperate with other members, and to absorb their knowledge and skills - a social / cultural imperative
- To be able to breed and bring up your own cubs - a parenting or 'legacy' imperative
Is human education really so different from that in lions? Two and a half weeks ago, my wife and I gave birth to our second son. (Well, she did the giving birth, I did some hardcore hand-holding). Here he is:
What are my hopes for his future? What do I hope that education will give him?
- It will support him in becoming an independent, autonomous member of society, with the freedom to make choices for himself, to critically evaluate ideas, to be creative in ways that he chooses, and to be financially secure.
- It will support him in becoming an able social communicator who can cooperate successfully with others. He will be able to ‘stand on the shoulders of giants’, utilising the knowledge and ideas of others within human culture (past and present) to achieve (and create) new and exciting things.
- It will allow him to put back into society, helping those who are less fortunate than himself, and, should he choose to, to become a loving, successful parent himself. Beyond this, it will allow him to leave a 'legacy' in the form of new knowledge or ideas, or some other form of positive change for future generations.
If his education gives him these things, I postulate that he is likely be a happy, fulfilled person. And happiness, of course, is our ultimate aim for him.
We would assess the success of lion education by looking at a lion’s success as an adult in a culture of lions. I see no good reason to significantly change those principles for humans. We are species Homo sapiens. We have evolved into social, collaborative creatures, who survive and cooperate in groups. We have extraordinary brains, featuring the greatest computational and simulation mechanisms on the planet. We have created great 'memes' of art, music, literature and religious expression with those brains of ours. We have established great civilisations. We have made extraordinary progress towards understanding where we come from, and how the universe works.
Isn’t education ultimately about supporting people in becoming happy, autonomous, caring, productive, creative members of our rather wonderful species? Is that all horribly simplistic?