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What is the purpose of Education?

by Ralph A Tebbutt

Picture: Sean MacEntee. Source: flickr Creative Commons

For a while now I have been pondering over the question as to "Why do we educate people? What is the purpose of education?"

There is a lot of discussion in the news and in the media about education. This is usually in terms of examination, performance, the position of Britain on some international scale of achievement, the type of school, school structures, curriculum. Rarely asked is what does schooling mean for pupils and students? I decided to investigate this question. I began by studying the history of Western Education and followed this up by looking at British educational documents from 1816. I have got as far as 1944.

What I have discovered is that there have been two different approaches to education. One for the ruling class with a recognised aim of providing leaders of the state and in earlier times of the church which was then much more powerful than it is today. The other approach is towards those who are ruled, that is the majority of people. With regard to this latter approach - there has been controversy. There has been a strong feeling that ordinary people should not be educated at all, that this could be damaging to the state, leading to people no longer being satisfied in doing the jobs they were required to undertake.

In spite of this class difference, I did find a common theme between these two approaches. Both for the rulers and the ruled, the main aim of education has been to fit the individuals involved for the role they were to play within the nation, the church or in more recent times, industry and commerce. I refined my interest by looking more specifically at the education of the working class. What I found was an increasing recognition that the demands of industry and commerce required a better informed and more knowledgeable workforce. This was only accepted grudgingly by our rulers. It was accepted that the economy needed educated managers, foremen, and workers, but the level of education needed was different. This eventually led to the tripartite system of Grammar, Technical and Modern schools.

What I find missing in all of this is an understanding or acceptance of the value that education can bring to each one of us in developing our own personality, interests and enjoyment of life. That intimate personal experience of mental development which is as important, if not more so, than physical development. It is only by allowing people to develop their full capacities that they are able to make their contribution towards the development of society in all its aspects.

It is this failure or unwillingness - to accept the individual personal needs of children and young people, and the corollary that education is all about fitting pupils and students into a fixed role in society - that causes so much damage to our young people. It is little wonder that so many young people suffer from mental illness. In a society that has moved on so rapidly in technological terms, we have failed to move on in terms of economic and social relationships. We are locked into a nineteenth century mentality which saw the industrial revolution and the rise of capitalism as the panacea. In all of this we have lost the sense of human values and of our common humanity. How can a civilised society accept food banks and people sleeping rough as normal aspects of society? It is amongst our young people that these considerations (or lack of consideration) are having a deep effect. They complain bitterly that they are not listened to. We are too ready to condemn young people without questioning why they react as they do.

The nature of society is set by the rulers of that society. As Karl Marx said, the dominant ideas of a society are the ideas of the dominant class in society. In our modern society it is the young people, with their school strikes against climate change and XR calling for system change - who are challenging the status quo. We should be listening to young people. We should also be asking why, with our present stage of knowledge and technical progress, education is not fulfilling its function? That is of producing individuals whose minds are attuned to bring them happiness, joy and contentment in a civilised society which is creative and regenerative and forward looking to a world that replenishes itself, full of hope for an even better future.

Ralph A Tebbutt is a retired schoolteacher, and a lifelong socialist.

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