Tuesday, May 21

Education and Its purpose

What is the purpose of education? It’s an age-old question that we still grapple with today, and one we should perhaps be asking quite explicitly at this point in time. Recent reports about the dire state of our literacy and numeracy outcomes have led, incredibly, to comments about the relevance of these foundational and, many would argue, crucial aspects of education. Indeed, while some view education as a focus wholly on the pursuit and acquisition of intellectual skills in literacy and numeracy, others believe education should include developing children’s social and emotional competencies and validating various socially-approved aspects of their identity. Some have even positioned these latter factors as the sole focus of education, with little or no value placed on intellectual skills. 

So what are some of the different views on the purpose of education, and what might adopting (or discarding) these ideas mean for the education New Zealand children receive? 

Martin Luther King, Jr. suggested that the first function of education is to teach learners to think intensively. A reporter conducting research in a Los Angeles high school in the mid-1980s came to the conclusion that “A human being who has not been taught to think clearly is a danger in a free society”. Similarly, John F. Kennedy noted the relationship between the ability to think critically about civic affairs and the strength of a democracy. King went one step further in his contentions, however, and added that moral development through education is crucial. “Education without morals”, King argued, “is like a ship without a compass, merely wandering nowhere. It is not enough to have the power of concentration, but we must have worthy objectives upon which to concentrate.” 

The topic of morality is certainly one that is difficult to untangle, and with so many things viewpoints on what constitutes morality in the 21st century, it is unlikely that a consensus can be reached anymore. The threat an increasing absence of a general consensus on morality poses to our civilisation is severe – and with such a large moral smorgasbord to tempt us, it begs the question as to whether or not King’s contention can be met in our time. Certainly, many schools delve into areas that impact on morality with gusto, and what seems to be emerging is a warped sort of consensus on morality that many would argue is a form of indoctrination that would turn the eyes of medieval clergy green with envy. Is morality an area schools should be wading into? Are teachers equipped to do so? And what role do families play in moral instruction? As I mentioned, this aspect of (re)education aims to generate a consensus of sorts, and some would argue this appears to be emerging. However, how meaningful is it? Those who do not conform to the neo-religious aspects of today’s morality are burned at the modern-day stake, so exactly how genuine is the consensus when agreement is the only option available? And what does it say about those who demand it?

Still, I digress. Ultimately, King hoped that education would “teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.” Perhaps the jury is still out on what sorts of characters our current system is producing. 

Another view about the purpose of education came from scholars such as John Dewey and Carl Rogers, who waded into the debate, noting that education should be relevant. While it is hard to conceive why anyone would wish it to be irrelevant, Dewey, Rogers and others who supported this line of thinking were particularly concerned that “no one should ever be trying to learn something for which one sees no relevance”. This line of thinking has supported the rise of ‘child-led learning’ and student choice about what one might (or might not) learn. How, though, does a child determine what is or isn’t relevant, when that child has little or no knowledge of the material to be learned, nor any experience of how that material might apply outside of school or in their future? For example, can a young child in kindergarten, who is just learning the alphabet, truly appreciate the extraordinary implications of learning these 26 symbols in their arbitrary order, and the lifelong access to an array of skills such an undertaking will afford? In other words, does the child learn the symbols of the alphabet (and in that order) because they think they are relevant, or do they learn them because they are instructed to do so by adults who know how important it is to learn them? 

The argument that education must be relevant has spread into other areas of education too, perhaps most notably in relation to ethnicity. While it is important to recognise different cultural knowledge, experiences, and worldviews, such thinking has also led, to give but one egregious example, to classical music programmes being discarded for Pacific children, on the basis that classical music is not relevant to Pacific children. Classical music may not be part of a traditional Pacific musical heritage, but this sort of thinking begs the question: “Should education open doors to a wider world, or should it paint a child into his or her own little corner?” 

At various points throughout history, schools have been used to bring about social change – the residential schools in North America, Hitler Youth, and Mao’s Red Guard, to name but a few pejorative examples. Often credited to Dewey, the central tenet of this idea is that role of the teacher is not solely to transmit knowledge to students, but rather to act as an agent of change and to condition students to want a different kind of society. Examples of this in the 21st century are rife, with even primary school children taking (or being told) a view on things like capitalism and climate change. In many cases, these are complex issues that the most intelligent in our society have yet to wholly understand. Thomas Sowell noted that teaching such things to children is like instructing people on “how to perform surgery [who are] lacking the rudiments of anatomy or hygiene. Worse, it is teaching them to go ahead and perform surgery, without worrying about boring details”. While it is important for children to engage in current affairs and issues that affect the society in which they live, perhaps we need to ensure we get the basics right first in order for them to be able to properly engage with such issues.

Indeed, Sowell argued that education should “give the student the intellectual tools to analyse, whether verbally or numerically, and to reach conclusions based on logic and evidence.” That would seem to me to be a good place to start (together with ensuring children actually attend school), and would surely go some way to ameliorating the less than desirable outcomes that too many New Zealand children are currently experiencing. One of the most tragic aspects of this is that those who espouse the various theories outlined above (and these are but a few!) pay no price for being wrong. Rather, that price is paid by those children for whom a good education is often the only chance they have at changing their trajectory in life. In other words, the price is paid by those who can least afford to pay it.