Education and its purpose


3:46 pm - November 7th 2007

by Gracchi    


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Mike Ion wrote an interesting piece earlier on today about the school leaving age. I found it particularly interesting because of the language that Mike used, and the language that many of us use when discussing education. We tend to think of education as a way of maximising economic benefits to society- if you have a GCSE you will earn x, if you have an A-Level you will earn x+y, if you have a degree you will earn x+y+a etc. To some extent that is obviously true- though higher up the degree structure- with PhDs for example I’m not sure the link is as complete. To some extent the more educated you are, the more you earn and the more likely you are to get a job. But is that really what education is about, is education effectively a synonym for training only a broader sort of training that equips you with some transferrable skills like being able to read and do mathematics?

Part of the argument I think for suggesting that we need to train people as oppose to educate them is an assumption that what our society needs is a constant supply of labour. We need lots of workers and very few drones. But I think that misses something about education that we ought to think about. Because we aren’t merely a capitalist society, we are also a democratic society. There might be skills that a citizen needs in order to make decisions, vote and take part in the political process that aren’t the same as those that she requires as a worker. The point is for instance that if you can’t at a very basic level interpret and evaluate what politicians are saying on TV, you can’t really understand which party to vote for. Education should help you understand a bit of the world around you- understand something about the way that people live and enable you to understand more about that. Obviously it shouldn’t indoctrinate you, but it should provide you with the means to understand and think about things.

As liberals, and therefore committed to democracy, I think we should be a little more ambitious in what we want education to do. I don’t know what this means in policy terms- and obviously there are a hundred different arguments to be had about that. I don’t think it means anything in the context of the debate that Mike and Chris Dillow are having about the school leaving age. I do think though that if we aren’t careful we might just design an education system that reflects the language that we are using about education- that would be a disaster because it would bequeath us a generation of people, who were perfect employees, but unable to contribute to the world around them.

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About the author
'Gracchi' is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He started a blog last year which deals with culture and politics and history, where his interest lies. He is fascinated by all sorts of things including good films and books and undogmatic discussion of ideas. This seems like a good place to do the latter... Also at: Westminister Wisdom
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Reader comments


Gracchi

I agree entirely with the sentiments expressed in your piece. I am not in favour of a totally utilitarian approach to education, far from it. We must, as Plato suggested, use education to help turn the mind’s eye to the light. In the context of the ‘education to age 18’ debate it is worth emphasising that such a policy move should primarily be motivated by the benefits such moves will have for the young people themselves.

There might be skills that a citizen needs in order to make decisions, vote and take part in the political process that aren’t the same as those that she requires as a worker. The point is for instance that if you can’t at a very basic level interpret and evaluate what politicians are saying on TV, you can’t really understand which party to vote for. Education should help you understand a bit of the world around you- understand something about the way that people live and enable you to understand more about that.

– Gracchi, from above

Doesn’t education already perform these functions, though? We – on both sides of the Atlantic – commit resources to government so that way people are educated in what other countries and cultures there are, so that if they miss those lessons at school they can watch something at home and have more knowledge/know how processes work…

I’m putting you on the spot because I want to know what you have in mind that is specifically different from the status quo. Should fellow liberals know and understand something particularly well, for example, before voting?

“The point is for instance that if you can’t at a very basic level interpret and evaluate what politicians are saying on TV, you can’t really understand which party to vote for.”

You have to be kidding. People vote on ideologies, the party system was developed for that very purpose, so people didn’t have to think.

If there were no parties, and we voted for _people_ and their own individual policies, which is how democracy is supposed to work anyway, then perhaps you’d have a point.

Perhaps a “voter test” might be in order, akin to a “citizenship test” ? Or how about raising the voting age to around 30 or 40, if you haven’t understood politics by then, then you probably can’t write an X down either.

I think that Mark Twain said it best when he said:
“Don’t let school get in the way of your education”

Nice post Gracchi,

Part of the problem is that children/young adults are taught in a kind of darkness, without reference to the bigger picture. For example, when it comes to choosing GCSEs, A levels, a degree etc, they are pretty much left to their own devices to figure out what is in their best interest. I believe there is not enough content on ‘why’ we are learning what we are learning and because of this, there exists a persistent cloud of futility that has no right to be there. We need to empower children by teaching them the role of education, the value of different subjects etc.

I fully agree that ‘Education should help you understand a bit of the world around you’ and that ‘it should provide you with the means to understand and think about things’ but this is done not only through subject choice but also through learning how to learn, how to think, how to analyse etc. In a world where information is readily and freely available via the internet, education can be so much more than simply remembering facts, it can be about truly developing one’s mind so that he is able to tackle and learn about his or her interests effectively.

That is a great quote from Nyrone:
“Don’t let school get in the way of your education.”

It is not that education can only happen in a compulsory state sanctioned institution. You can education yourself so long as you want to. however if somebody is not enthused by learning, if they do not want to be educated, there is no power on earth that will be able to open an unwilling mind. All that will happen is that you will end up disrupting it for the people that haven’t, yet, had the love of learning drilled out of them.

Not having children nor caring a great deal for them, education has always been a policy area I’ve struggled to muster much interest in. Selfish, I know, but hey, nobody’s perfect.

Yet the one point that does stoke my flames is the abject failure of this country’s education system to get kids learning foreign languages fluently. It seems whenever a new report comes out about how Britain has the most depressed, binge drinkiest and pregnant teens on the planet, Newsnight or someone will send a journalist over to Holland to interview their flawlessly English-speaking cherubs about how great their lives are. When you learn a new language it introduces you to new ways of thinking, and this makes for a tolerant and civilised society where political engagement stands more chance of flourishing.

Maybe it’s a good idea to keep kids in school until 18, but how much good will it do if the education system has already failed them at 16? It’s at the other end of the age spectrum that a bigger difference can be made – by teaching them another language.

You have to teach them early because that’s when they are best able to absorb it. Yet when it comes to the 4-7 age range, whenever we hear about “teaching basics”, it seems those basics are reading/writing and maths. Well, yes to those, but yes to language too. This should be the absolute priority for education reform.

Part of the problem with convincing young people that education is worthwhile is that a degree doesn’t give you any guarantee of earning any more money at all these days, as evidenced by the number of checkout girls I know who have degrees (2:1s and firsts, too).

Education is valuable in and of itself, to my mind, and this is a more persuasive argument than “if you get more qualifications you will earn more money” because even the less intelligent young person can see that’s bollocks, if his mum is a barmaid with a law degree and a shedload of student debt.

Interesting to read this, particularly after reading the recent McKinsey report on What’s Makes Great Education Systems in the World (something to that effect) in last month’s Economist , which argues that a focus on teachers, investing in their skills and incentives, might be the single most effective way of turning around children and young people’s learning outcomes. Sounds NOT like rocket science but you would be surprised by how many governments get this wrong – and then continue to lecture at length about irrelevant education, bad schools, and so on.

Education must serve a number of purposes; some would emphasize rates of returns to education in terms of growth and the labour market; and others would emphasize education as a right – which enables children to skill up as global citizens.

I am interested in the idea that education might be an end itself – in fact, a fundamental human right, which we take for granted in Europe, but millions, well, 77 million to be precise, children out of school, globally, struggle to stay in enroll or stay inside a school.

Whatever the function of an education system might be in any given country, we might agree on investing in a reasonable system that allows children to emerge as young people equipped for the future.

[driveby comment alert]

“Yet the one point that does stoke my flames is the abject failure of this country’s education system to get kids learning foreign languages fluently.”

You mean, like English ?

Exactly right. Education is about much more than its economic benefits to society, it’s about giving people independence. You don’t need to spend five minutes with a group of adult literacy or ESOL learners to see that.

Apart from hearing about what education should also be about, what I am interested in hearing is what you consider should be done once the purpose of education is approximately established.

I think there’s a lot of truth in this

Firslty i’d like to say I thought Matt sinclaris response was very good

http://sinclairsmusings.blogspot.com/2007/11/education-is-about-more-than-economics.html

Secondly i think that given that educaion is about understanding and appreciating values, parents should have the right to select that education(wihtin the limits of those values that are legal) – because otherwise the government is indeed “indoctrainting” rather than allowing freedom of expression as it does with other parts of civil society.

“We tend to think of education as a way of maximising economic benefits to society”

If that’s a so-called Left view, no wonder we’re up the creek. Whatever happened to education as introducing children to “the best that has been thought and said” ? Is that what Gracchi’s on about ?

Alas no. Some dreary “citizenship” initiative, one which “obviously shouldn’t indoctrinate you” but will apparently help our worker make the “right” choice.

Schools used to be big on stuff like character, speak-the-truth-and-look-the-world-in-the-eye stuff. Now it means having the correct view …

In Churchill’s one-page precis of Mein Kampf he paraphrases Hitler as saying “the ultimate aim of education is to produce a German who with the minimum of training can be converted into a soldier”.

The ultimate aim of current education is to produce a Briton who with the minimum of training can be converted into a social worker.

http://ukcommentators.blogspot.com/2007/04/influencing-voters-of-tomorrow-while.html

What Laban says.

People tend to miss the real reason for a publicly funded education system. Whilst it is a willing receptacle for billions upon billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money, it has nothing to do with education. It is in fact I giant employment scheme set up to ensure that many people who could not otherwise survive in the real world, keep voting for ‘Nu-Labour’


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