Tuesday, February 19, 2013

On the Purpose of Education

First, let me begin with the obvious: I fully recognize that the purpose of education is not going to be summed up in a single blog. Instead, what follows is a broad approximation.

When I approached this topic, my first question was: Why is it that we educate? I think we can all agree that the reason we do education is to know things - the presumption being that knowing things is useful. What things then should we know? I think as simple as this question is, it seems to be that it is answering this question incorrectly that causes a good deal of problems. From our prior logic, it might be implied that it is best to learn useful things. This however is an ambiguous guideline because utility itself is ambiguous. Often utility is determined by context, and even more often than that, context can be far from a constructive influence. Such is the case with programs like Race to the Top which prioritizes math and science education at the expense of other subjects. The rationale for that favoritism is solely pragmatic; math and science are more useful to our nation. But is this what is best for our education? That is, should we allow utility to be determined by capitalistic needs rather than humanistic needs (or any other competing philosophy for that matter)? I would argue that this is not the best goal of education, which brings us back to the question: What things should we know, or what things are useful to know?

In an attempt to cast the widest net possible I tentatively define education as: the foundational tools needed to acquire and structure new knowledge. In this way, education is not learning that Crispus Attucks was the first person shot in the Boston Massacre (a fact that has been drilled into my brain by every history course I took in school), but rather at some level recognizing the historical significance of an African American death being the first, and maybe at a later level critically assessing the motives behind reiterating his story in a way that portrays the conception of a nation in a light that is not entirely accurate. Those tools, recognizing context and critically assessing validity (among countless others), are what education ought to be. Instead, through the fear of falling behind our international competition, we have reverted back to rote memorization and recall as a measurement of success - satisfied simply that we know that some person named Crispus Attucks died first during something or another. I say this recognizing that I am committing the same crime as Race to the Top in assuming that what I think is useful is truly useful, but with the intention of freeing up the decision of what is useful to those who are being educated.

But let's ask someone who has just a little better credentials than I do, Noam Chomsky, what he thinks the purpose of education is:

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