The purpose of education is:
“To teach you stuff, so when you grow up you know what to do and everything! You wouldn’t be able to read and write and do stuff like that.”
This was the quite succinct response to the question offered by my ten year old son and on reflection I’m not convinced that I could provide a more pithy statement. Unlike many of my colleagues my focus in this post is on Education as a system as opposed to ideal. From a cybernetic perspective systems are defined by what they “do”. What is it exactly that education does? What attributes do we assign to an educated person?
It would be easy for me to write a scathing critique of the education “system”. A system designed in and a relic of the Victorian era to produce the well educated workforce required to fuel industrial manufacturing output. As Ken Robinson et al argue it is a system that stifles creativity and innovation, one shaped by political doctrine. I could offer a list of worthy ideals, my own particular favourite being “enlightenment”, not purely in the Ionian sense but in the spiritual, others would include curiosity, creativity, connectedness and magic, ideals that undoubtedly resonate with my peers in the academic community. The purpose of education should be all of these things and more … the process by which wisdom is attained an ability to think beyond what is “given”. John Dewey suggested the primary purpose of education is the transfer of established conventions of knowledge and values across generations.
For me though, Education is about compromise, a negotiated social contract, one that deals with the complexity of expectation management. Ask the stakeholder constituents, and you will find a series of conflicting expectations and that’s why education is unavoidably political. Governments of all persuasions want, indeed need be seen, to care and provide “good education” of one flavour or another in an attempt to satisfy, through compromise, the conflicting demands and expectations of society for their own political purpose. Teachers invariably want to provide a “good” education based on their personal constructs of what that should constitute, compromised by such things as the requirements of state examination regimes and national curricula. Administrators may characterise good education as one of safety, order and control. Industry and employers demand “good” education that provides them with a variety of educated, able, skilled workers and students want a “good” education in order to get one of these jobs and, quoting my son, so that they know “what to do and everything” These disparate groups have from their individual perspectives perfectly valid expectations of education and all are constituent parts of an extremely complex system, with the associated variety management, that is education.
If we as a society continue to fund state education through central taxation and do not adopt the illichian ideal of de-schooling society then our education system will remain one characterised by compromise