Thursday, September 19, 2013

What's the Point of Education?

A provocative title like this needs a bit of explanation. I'm not asking a rhetorical question, with the implication that there is no point in education. I'm asking what the real point of education is, the goal of the thing.

With that out of the way, let us ask ourselves, “What is the practical point of education?”

First, education is about letting a kid know a little bit about a lot of things. Even if he'll never go to China or meet a Chinese person (which is unlikely in our increasingly multi-cultural society), he'll at least know where China is and some of its history, so that if China becomes important in some way in his life, he'll know something about it.

Second, education is about learning to understand how the world works, both scientifically, socially, and otherwise.

Third, (and this one, I think, is the main point), education is about preparing people for life. This takes on a variety of forms.

a) Education should prepare a person for what they want to do in life—that is, their job.
b) Education should prepare a person for what they will encounter in life—like, for instance, basic math skills needed for things like money matters.
c) Education should prepare a person to communicate and interact effectively in society.

I think that pretty much covers it.

The reason I bring this up is because, before something is done, you should first understand why it is done. When something becomes about the method rather than the reason behind the method, then the method can stray from its original purpose.

So maybe that's a little confusing. Let me explain, in the context of education.

What has happened to education, in almost all forms, is that education has become the end rather than the means. Education is the “method” to helping children become adults who are equipped to face the world. But today the point of education, it seems, is education.

If this is true, that education has become the end rather than the means, then there should be certain results.

First, that education will be more about tangible results rather than intangible knowledge. This will mean that the focus will shift from people to statistics, and that the new “method” of education will heavily involve the measuring of those statistics.

Second, that people will view education as a necessity, resulting in people who go to school for no reason other than to go to school, or people who go to college for no other reason besides going to college.

These results are exactly what we see in today's education. Schools are rated by their statistics; if they produce kids who have “good grades”, they are a good school. This is also why testing is apparently so important to schools. They're always measuring people to see how well they're doing.

The thing is, if rules are based off of reasons, if the rules break the reasons, you ought to break the rules. In other words, if the point of education is to prepare a kid for life, and education instead inhibits that preparation, then education must be changed.

So here's the deal about our methods of education:

Point number one. Education today is about tangible results instead of intangible knowledge. There is no harm in measuring how well a person is absorbing the knowledge taught in school, but tests have gone far beyond that. Tests become the end rather than the means.

Last year, I had to study to take a chemistry semester test. I studied long and hard and took the test, got a pretty good score. The point of my studying, however, was not to learn more, but to get a good score. This meant that what I understood, right or not, was that tests were not about measuring learning but about scores. (This issue has been given to Third World countries to a more drastic degree. Literally half of the school year where I live in West Africa is comprised of test after test about stuff the students never even learned with textbooks they never had.)

This is the message that is given, whether intentionally or not, by today's education system. Tests are about scores, not learning. Classes are about good school statistics, not knowledge. This, in the end, results in less real learning.

Point number two. This makes education a disturbingly commercial operation, making school function like an assembly line: more efficient and less individualistic. Businesses are all about making more money and achieving higher rates, which makes school sound more and more like a business. And the bad thing about businesses is that they're not afraid to cut corners in order to cut costs and maximize efficiency, which is the last thing you want for a school.

This also means, as much as schools might want to, they cannot minister to each person's individual needs and goals in life. They can provide a flat education. By that, I mean, education that's almost exactly the same for each person, which is not half as effective and limits potential.

This, too, results in less real learning.

Point number three. Education for the point of education results in a waste of money and time. For instance, take college. Some people go to college because society tells them that you basically have to go to college to get anywhere in life.

Remember that the point of education, particularly higher education, is to prepare for life. If that is true, then a person ought to know what they're preparing for when they're going to college. But if college is the end in itself, then people will go to college simply for the experience...which is what has happened to a lot of American teenagers and twenty-somethings. Some people constantly change colleges and change majors because they honestly don't know what they're going to do in life – but the message they've been given is that you've got to go to college if you're going to get anywhere.

And if you don't know where you're going, I wonder how much you're actually learning.

So what are we left with? A system where education itself has become the point of education, whether on purpose or not.

What the education system needs is a way to regain the original point of education, a practical application of what people need in order to be prepared for life and gain knowledge of the world around them.

The paradox is, the most effective way to do this is to get rid of effectiveness. If you're running education like an impersonal business in order to gain effectiveness and efficiency, you're going to lose effectiveness and efficiency, because school has to be personal in order to be effective.

Either school's got to change or Wal-Mart and McDonald's are going to get a steady stream of new employees.


  1. Hey love this post! I love school and wish there were more kids out there who understood what a privilege it is to be able to do school. It helps being homeschooled.

  2. Wow…you just summarised two posts of mine, one I published yesterday and one that's been sitting unfinished in my draft folder for a few weeks. These are exactly—and I mean exactly—the thoughts I've had about education for lucrative purposes and the purpose of examinations. But you beat me to it.