The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Monday, June 22, 2009

What is the intent of Education?

I was having a conversation with several teachers recently, complaining about the state of education, and I asked them what the intent of education was. Their answers were all over the map, and it once again occurred to me that you have to work backwards from a clear intent. I mean, if you don't know where you're going, how do you know you're not already there?

It seems to me (and I think we may have had this conversation before) that there should be some agreement on this...and that that lack of agreement is part of the problem. I mean, if we say education should produce basic mastery of Readin' , Writin' , and 'Rithmatic, we all know the kind of lessons the students will be required to master. If we say that an education should produce a citizen capable of earning enough money to pay taxes sufficient to pay for that education, THAT also suggests some pretty clear paths. But no two teachers I've talked to so far have said the same thing.

Jeeze. That seems so...counter-intuitive to me that it's frightening. So I want to ask a question I may have asked before: what, in your opinion, should be the purpose of our education system?

And if your answers are all over the map...we've identified a major, major problem. If everyone in the car has their hands on the wheel, and everyone wants to go somewhere different, the car will go over the damned cliff.


coxcrow said...

"...what, in your opinion, should be the purpose of our education system?"

To produce a mature, free-thinking adult.

Scott Masterton said...

The three "R's" seem simplistic and old fashioned, but what they really are in my view, are tools for freedom as an individual. These things combined with a strong understanding of scientifc principles really are the things needed teach children how to think and form their own conclusion. Children must have tools to educate themselves. They must be able to gather data and disseminate that information in order to come up with their own views.

Sadly, I believe education has become 75 percent indoctrination.


Anonymous said...

"To produce a mature, free-thinking adult."

Ideally, yes. In practice, much publicly-sponsored (K-12 and undergraduate studies) education devolves to molding "Good Citizens" who'll obey the laws, tow and enforce the party line, and be productive wage earners and tax payers. This makes for a "Education" that's in practice a medley of political indoctrination, home ed and the 3 R's. While the nobility of free-thought is extolled, in practice, the pupil's mind is tightly constrained by the ideological strictures framing the curriculum. In addition to pressure tacitly imposed by The State, add peer pressure (which often promotes mediocrity and stigmatizes "nerds") and that exerted by local communities (ex: Bible Belt school districts where instruct in Family Planning or Evolution is sabotaged). Then there's the Bell Curve issue, i.e. many public education inmates may simply be incapable of assimilating substantial portions of the curriculum.

IMHO, If you desire a REAL EDUCATION, you must go out and actively get it YOURSELF. TO expect another entity with its own self-serving agenda to instill "free-thought" is an oxymoron.


Marty S said...

I believe the goals of education beyond the basics rightly should be all over the map. The public education system serves millions of children/young adults who differ markedly in their interests, abilities and goals. If the system were too narrowly designed it would not serve all the different purposes of its clients. In fact in this country I think it is to narrowly defined today. It seems designed to ready everybody for college when there are a lot of people who don't need or want college. There should be after the eighth grade a non-college path that trains you for a career. Many good careers in areas like Information Technology really don't require college.

Daniel Keys Moran said...

The purpose of education as practiced is to produce good citizens, and this is broadly true whether the schools are public or private. The definition of "good citizen" is much the same, too -- "good citizens" are hard-working and moderately competent individuals who can be a useful economic entity and are willing to surrender their lives to protect the state.

Personally what I want to see my kids get from their education is the ability to teach themselves. Everything else follows.

Nancy Lebovitz said...

I'd noticed a while ago that the educational system has no focus, and I came up with a few possibilities, but no certain answer.

One would be to create good citizens. I've heard that the Renaissance goal was to create people who could argue their own lawsuits. I don't know if this is true, but it would have an interesting effect on the curriculum. And I've wondered what schools designed to create entrepreneurs would look like.

I believe the actual goals of the school system are to supply low quality custodial care and (class-based) a good enough credential so that the students can go to college.

I want students to learn how to think and some basic adult life skills, and how to apply what they've learned to their goals. I believe a lot of the real current curriculum is about learning to endure boredom, and while some boredom is unavoidable, this should *not* be how most time is spent. Some of this is "first, do no harm"-- students should *not* leave school thinking that they're bad at learning.

Marty has a point about not having a narrowly defined goal.

Anonymous said...

I've been homeschooling my two kids for the last ten years. My goal is to produce literate and moral citizens with scientific reasoning skills who are capable of critical thought.

I'm a secular homeschooler, btw.

Scott said...

Teleological autodidacts; what Dan said.

Unknown said...

The primary purpose of mass education in the US - in schools, public or private - has always been to create what Benjamin Rush called "republican machines" - the "good citizens" which have been described below. A secondary purpose, since the 1920s, has been to turn out a body of workers capable of working, fairly happily, in a modern industrial setting (that's what all the "100 book challenge" type programs are really about - repetitive work to gain trivial rewards).

It does not have to be this way. This is why I will be joining spaceoperadiva in homeschooling starting - well, starting tomorrow, as it happens. (not actually JOINING, as far as I know, but joining in principle). The purpose of an education, as far as I am concerned, is to "produce a mature, free-thinking adult" - liberal education is liberal because it liberates the educated. If, at the end of 10 years, my daughter retains her joy of learning new things, and has gained the ability to do so without my holding her hand, I will have done my job. And, as a college professor, I must say that the students who seem to embody that - a joy of learning, and an ability to apply that joy - tend to be homeschoolers.

Reluctant Lawyer said...

I had a similar conversation with my mother once on the purpose of the public education system. She commented the public school serve the purpose of "americanizing" the large numbers of immigrants entering the country.

The problem is, what about the children who were born here and know nothing but America? What do they get out of it? Particularly considering that there is no real emphasis on developing children to success as opposed to just being productive citizens with a shared culture.

Christian H. said...

Well, I'd say there's what education should be and what it actually is.

It doesn't happen only in school, it happens everywhere. If you give a child homework on Calculus and then show them a raunchy MTV vdeo you just lost a large part of the child's attention.

If a good technical career leads to a life of debt while sports stars are millionaire illiterates, you just made getting an education useless in a lot of ways.

What education should do is to help a person understand the environment, their bodies and minds and why science is a necessary thing.

Imagine what would happen if you had to have a certain level of knowledge in order to have a cell phone or TV or computer?

More people would go to college.

Thsi country is too lax and a major reason is that a truly educated society wouldn't have the levels or corruption and crime we have.

You have to ask yourself if there would be a MAFIA if not for greed and prejudice.

Would our economy have crashed as hard if more people could do those jobs that are outsourced?

Without an equal, structured environment for learning teachers will always think differently. I used the same technique for learning screenwriting as I did software programming and I'm one of the more sought-out consultants in my company.

Christian H. said...

Also, to the homeschoolers, I'm working on a program that will allow you to create content, use standardized content and test your kids "securely"(read:they can't cheat).

I'm looking for beta testers who will use it for a month to test and evaluate. I should be finished in a few months. Keep in touch and I'll make sure you get a copy.

darealdjc at

Lobo said...

I don't know that I'd go so far as producing "good" citizens. That adds a whole layer of algae to the pond. What constitutes a "good" citizen is going to be just as broadly interpreted as the purpose of education.

I'd say, at a minimum, the purpose of education is to produce functional citizens. What makes a functional citizen? I'd start with the ability to communicate meaningfully with the people around them and the ability to solve everyday problems.

We should shoot higher, but it doesn't hurt to figure out what the foundation is.

Unknown said...

It really depends on what level of education you are referring to; for elementary education, "readin', writin', and 'rithmetic" are the main goals. In junior high-early high school, you should begin instilling the building blocks of independent thought - critical theory, algebra, and the scientific method. By late high school & early college, the goal should be rebellious, free-thinking adults. At the more basic levels, rote learning is necessary (to a certain extent, and is very much overused in our system) because the building blocks are just being laid down. By the later years, critical thought and analysis should be emphasized.

Steven Brewer said...

The question is a bit naive. It's like saying "I wanted to know the meaning of life, so I asked some people and their answers were all over the map."

There are graduate programs devoted to studying this question and lots and lots of books that take on this question in great detail. Read John Dewey, Paolo Freire, Robert Glaser, Jonathan Kozol, or John Gatto. Or many, many others.

Personally, I'm more inclined toward Gatto and I see compulsory education as a form of social violence against the young where their work is systematically devalued. But that's just me.

Unknown said...

for elementary education, "readin', writin', and 'rithmetic" are the main goals.

If that were the case, why did my daughter's kindergarten "graduation" yesterday start with a prayer to the US flag, and continue with singing songs about generically "good" citizen type stuff - being polite, and sharing, and such. Surely some sort of display of reading, or arithmetic would have been more apropos, especially since I know she's learned how to read and write and do some basic math?

Joseph said...

I agree with the commenters who reference the basics and "tools." The goal should be a competent, functional adult.

Education should provide students with a wide array of cognitive skills, such as literacy and mathematics, as well as a fundamental grasp of social and scientific facts (history, biology) that are "likely" to impact their real lives.

From there, they should be free to explore specific fields and subjects of their own choosing either through electives in high school or college courses.

Steven Barnes said...

Mostly excellent responses to one of the most important questions we can ask. And no, I don't consider it naive to ask a professional what the purpose of her profession is. Mr. Brewer, a more precise analogy would be if I asked a series of gurus what "the meaning of life" might be, and their answers were varied, not merely asked people at random.

Anonymous said...

I homeschool my children. As such, I am looking not at the goal of a system, but at the level of educated I think an individual should have before being set loose on society. As a parent I want to raise them to be good and conscientious and whatnot. As an educator I will be done when I have fostered a thirst for knowledge and imparted the skills necessary for them to quench that thirst. I am trying to give them a sound foundation in a variety of subjects and the skills to seek out resources and information to learn more. I had a school librarian when I was little who always said "It's not what you know, it's what you know how to find out." That, in a nutshell, is my intent for my children's education and it seems a fine goal for the public schools too.

Marty S said...

If I were to try and pick one overarching goal for an education system I would make it to help each individual student to be all they can be. With respect to turning out a "good" citizen I would say the the education system should do the god's work. That is students should leave the school with

The serenity to accept the things they cannot change;
the courage to change the things they can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

The key to being a good citizen is being an informed citizen. The education system has two functions with respect to this:

1) The lesser purpose of informing them.
2) The greater purpose of giving them the tools to inform themselves

cindaed said...

As a homeschooler, I have thought of this often. it is the reason I chose to homeschool my children. I wanted my children to learn how to do several things.
1. I wanted them to learn how to teach themselves the things they would need in life. I would be a simpleton if I thought that I could ever teach them everything that they needed to know. I wanted to give them the tools to learn and create on their own.
2. I wanted them to learn how to think. To be able to debate someone with clear points of view if they didn't agree with someone.
3. I wanted them to learn compassion and love for their fellow human (which I found sadly wanting in our local school). In a big sense, I wanted them to learn my worldview, and not someone elses. I wanted them to learn the things that I hold dear. My faith is one, my love of the founding of this nation is another.
4. I wanted them to learn how to work and strive for excellence.

I recently read a quote by Frank Zappa. I am not a fan of his, and couldn't even tell you a song that he sang, but I thought the quote very interesting. Written in the mid 60's. "
Drop out of school before your mind rots from exposure to our mediocre educational system. Forget about the Senior Prom and go to the library and educate yourself if you've got any guts. Some of you like Pep rallies and plastic robots who tell you what to read." - Frank Zappa

Epicurus said...

I so enjoyed reading all of these responses! I think it is a wonderful question and one anyone with children should ponder. I also fall in line with Gatto. Here is the link to his book if anyone else is interested.

I also homeschool(ed) my kids who are now ages 19, 16, and 9.They were all homeschooled from the start and I have never regretted this decision. The goal is to raise my children with the ideals that are important to my (atheist) family. Education is just another aspect of raising my children to me. It is not a separate entity. I want each of my children to be knowledgeable in reading, writing, and arithmetic as well as scientifically literate and historically well read.
My kids so far have "graduated" at age 16 and begun community college. My 19 yr old is ready to go on to university now. They each have their own career goals they are pursuing and want to be able to enjoy their work and also support a family some day. I did not raise them with the ideal of going to college. I raised them to understand that some careers require college and if you choose one of them you will need to go. They chose robotics and psychology. Both of these require a college education. I am very pleased they each chose something they are deeply interested in and that they think they will enjoy pursuing in their lives. Mission accomplished. Happy, well read, non-drug using, well adjusted humans.

I should say that I intentionally avoided the public school standards all along. My kids have always worked to their current level and interests. They cut their teeth on science fiction and if they wanted to read a book I thought they weren't old enough for I let them give it a go (as long as it wasn't inappropriate). They usually surprised me. They are all still voracious readers.


Mama B said...

I have loved the responses to this question. This, in part, is what eduction is... open dialogs that include the sharing of thoughts and ideas between people.

I have to agree with the some of the previous post about wanting to raise a child who knows where to get the information. I always say to my kids "it is not just what you know but what your willing to learn that makes you smart."

I also fall in line with the reasoning of John Taylor Gatto when it comes to public schools.

I homeschool my children and for me, giving my children the tools or skills they need to continue to learn on their own is the goal. I "teach" them the basic, learning to reading, write and even math but from there the world is their oyster and we go where their curiosity takes them.

By living in a family and in a community they already are learning the social skills of getting along with others and by doing community service they learn that the world is much bigger then just them and as such they need to be part of the solution and be part of making positive changes. We impart our values on them as their parents, that have nothing to do with religion.

As I write this my two children
(10 and 5) are drawing geometric shapes and patterns trying to out do each other in the depth of detail. I never cease to be amazed at their ability to self-entertain and explore the world around them.

The intent of Education, to me, is to give my children the tools they need to be life long learners.


Just Me

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