The Purpose of Education

“The value of a university education resides in the fact that it puts young people in proximity to learning. The students of Good-enough Dormitory are less than thirty yards from the Library, no more than fifty yards from the Physics Lab, and a mere ten yards from the Chemistry Lab. I think we can all be justly proud of this.”

— Robert Sheckley, Journey Beyond Tomorrow

I am simultaneously a cynic and a romantic when it comes to education.

Yes, I am the curmudgeonly staffroom cynic, always ready with an eye roll, a derisory snort and a sarcastic quip. (Or two. Or three. Or four — I mean, just read this blog!)

However, I am also a romantic: show me something that works, or even could work, and I can’t wait to try it out, for all the world like I was a naive young bright-eyed bushy-tailed NQT.

The great untold truth of teaching is that it can be a lot of fun being in the classroom. Of course, it can also be a major league pain in the arse. And the weird thing is that, even after many years experience, my expectations of whether it is going to be a good day or a bad day are often completely and utterly wrong.

A number of edu-blogger heavy hitters have been weighing in on what the point of education is. I particularly enjoyed the posts from ijstock, Daisy Christodoulou and Esse Quam Videri: they disagreed with the Education secretary’s recent assertion that the point of education is essentially to increase one’s earning power.

I agree with them, of course. But, then, what is the point of what we do?

I think it is simply this: ignorance is not bliss. It is not foolish to be wise. A person who believes (say) N sets of true things is less likely to make poor decisions than person who believes even N-1 sets of true things.

As Samuel Johnson observed to Boswell as they were being rowed to Greenwich on a summer’s day in 1703:

“Nay, Sir, it is wonderful what a difference learning makes upon people even in the common intercourse of life, which does not appear to be much connected with it.”

Boswell immediately countered that “people go through the world very well, and carry on the business of life to good advantage, without learning.”

Johnson conceded his point. “Why, Sir, that may be true in cases where learning cannot possibly be of any use; for instance, this boy rows us as well without learning, as if he could sing the song of Orpheus to the Argonauts.”

But then, unexpectedly, Johnson turned to the boy and asked him: “What would you give, my lad, to know about the Argonauts?”

“Sir,” said the boy, “I would give everything I have.”

In all my many years as a teacher, I haven’t encountered a single person who has looked back and wished that they had worked less hard in school. (The trick, of course, is to make students realise that while they’re still in school.)

I will leave the last word to the estimable Doctor Johnson:

“Sir, a desire of knowledge is the natural feeling of mankind; and every human being, whose mind is not debauched, will be willing to give all that he has to get knowledge.”

2 thoughts on “The Purpose of Education

  1. ijstock February 3, 2015 / 9:39 pm

    The problem, of course, is that the value of education is a sort of truism, in that one can do no more than state it – and this is normally done by those who have enough of it in the first place, to understand. Unfortunately, you can’t *prove* it because it is a statement of cultural value rather than scientific truth. I think that much of what is going on in education at present, including the SoS’s comment, is a completely pointless attempt to prove this improvable point.

    I once saw education described as a ‘post-consumption good’ i.e. one whose value you only gain after you’ve acquired it, This was the best attempt I’ve seen to put it in terms an economist might understand – but it doesn’t really come anywhere near capturing the soul of the issue. It’s because of this that the bean-counters are busy driving the soul *out* of it, so they can measure what’s left…

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