The Purpose of Education (Part 1 of 3)

Ac_editor/ August 2, 2021/ Education

Everything we do is driven by our intention, our purpose. As we are all involved directly or indirectly with education, inquiring in the purpose of education might be a useful task. A few years ago, I wrote a critical essay on the purpose of education. Even though some parts need some updates I wanted to share with you the original reflection and hope that it will foster interest in the topic. May that interest leads you to more clarity and kindness in your day to day relationship with education.

“Everything experienced depends entirely on one’s intention.” 

Buddha in the Ratnakutasutra.

Purposes, either conscious or unconscious, big or small, drive all educational endeavours, therefore every person invested in education needs to examine their intention as deeply as possible (Krishnamurti, 1956). This inquiry will help one’s teaching practice become more congruent with one’s personal intention and not merely fall into repeating blindly teaching content or imitating passively pedagogical approaches learnt. When this congruence is missing in teachers, they might start to feel that the pressure to conform outweighs their personal judgment, contributing to demoralisation (Santoro, 2018). This aspect is something that was in the forefront of my mind as I left the teaching profession fifteen years ago; I felt nothing could offer this congruence.

The initial question is therefore: how can I define a purpose that is not mere words or ideas but has a practical and congruent expression of education at all levels?

Inquiring about the purpose of education is like searching for a treasure. The adventure to look for it, gives to the potential treasure more clarity, more beauty, more personal relevance. This inquiry will be done in two steps. The first part will investigate whether or not the purpose of education can be found in the student, the education system and/or in the educator. Secondly, a conclusion will be made from the outcome of the search.

If the education process is boiled down to the strict minimum, what is needed is a person who is being educated, the student. Etymologically, education means being brought up. The latter could well manifest in the absence of educators and education system. This has been proven in the historical story of the ‘Victor of Aveyron’ in France, who grew up alone in nature and acquired sufficient skills and knowledge to live his life until he was found at 12 years old (Simpson, 2007). Can we therefore leave the student to define the aim of education, assuming that they know what is best for their own growth? In order to answer this question it is useful to look at the various educational approaches that are based on this paradigm. Rousseau (1979) and Locke (1712) both revolutionised education by saying that society, education authorities and structures corrupt the educated. They both believed that education finds its perfection in the natural process of life, unaltered by an educators wish to teach, to civilise, or even as we have seen in Australia, to normalise through colonisation (Simpson, 2007; Rudolph & Brown, 2017). They suggest that every individual has the potential and intelligence to learn all the necessities of life naturally by contact with the world, in the same way that everyone has learnt how to speak and walk. In today’s educational world, the democratic school movement has matured this philosophy and offer places where people are brought up in the absence of curriculum and educators. They simply go on with their days doing what they like, while cooperating in the well being of each other and the school (Greenberg, 1995; Farhangi, 2018). At a lesser degree, Self-Directed Learning [SDL] tends to come close to this philosophy of education based on the trust students are given in their own educational journeys. In these terms the purpose of education is to provide a space within which the student is free to fulfill their own potential to the best of their abilities. 

Research has shown that SDL is both a prerequisite and a fuel for life long learning, which is one of the main goals of the Melbourne Declaration (2008) (Loyens, Magda & Rikers, 2008). Various researches have demonstrated that SDL nurtures countless benefits in the individual, including being more motivated, developing social skills as well as learning leadership skills more efficiently (Abdullah, 2001). On a side note, the aspect that Biesta (2015) calls subjectification is somehow close to this aim to help the students develop their own maturity, their own individuality. This way of seeing education is becoming more and more prominent in our modern world.

There are however aspects of this consideration which require attention. As Bandura and Knowles have shown it, education is formed in the midst of imitation and social interaction (Gonzalez-DeHass & Willems, 2013; Knowles, 1975). Therefore, even in the absence of an educator and curriculum, most of what the student learns will be through the interaction with her/his environment. In other words, conditioning happens no matter what, whether it is done by an educator or through the environment. In an age where media manipulation is growing, are we ready to take such risk? Would there be a need to make sure people learn critical media literacy (Marwick & Lewis, 2017; Kellner & Share, 2007)? Additionally wisdom and compassion are other aspects of our human experience that are very important to learn (Stenberg, 2009; Peterson, 2017). Are they something that can be left to the student to discover, or does the experience of elders aid this learning process? These questions open up a vast debate in the educational world regarding what is necessary to be taught, and what is not, what is the place of more knowledgeable others such as teachers in education?

Even though I see great benefits in placing the purpose of education in the hands of the students themselves, it seems that there is a contradiction between the purpose and its practical application due to the fact that learning is an interactive process with others. Knowing that educational systems over the years have extensively explored the purpose of education, the next step is to inquire as to the efficacy of relying on these systems to define purpose.

Go to Part 2

Go to Part 3

Reference List

Abdullah, M. H. (2001). Self-Directed Learning. ERIC Digest.

Biesta, G. (2015). What is Education For? On Good Education, Teacher Judgement, and Educational Professionalism. European Journal of Education, 50(1), 75–87.

Farhangi, R. (2018). Why did I create a school in which children do whatever they like. Actes Sud.

Gonzalez-DeHass, A., & Willems, P. (2013). Theories in Educational Psychology : Concise Guide to Meaning and Practice. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Education.

Greenberg, D. (1995). Free at last: The Sudbury valley school. The Sudbury Valley School.

Kellner, D., & Share, J. (2007). Critical media literacy, democracy, and the reconstruction of education. Media literacy: A reader, 3-23.

Knowles, M. S. (1975). Self-directed learning: A guide for learners and teachers. New York: Association Press.

Krishnamurti, J. (1956). Education and the significance of life. New-York: Haper Collins publishers

Loyens, S. M., Magda, J., & Rikers, R. M. (2008). Self-directed learning in problem-based learning and its relationships with self-regulated learning. Educational Psychology Review, 20(4), 411-427.

Locke, J. (1712). Some Thoughts concerning Education. A. & J. Churchill.

Marwick, A., & Lewis, R. (2017). Media manipulation and disinformation online. New York: Data & Society Research Institute.

Melbourne Declaration. (2008). Melbourne declaration on educational goals for young Australians. Melbourne: Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs.

Peterson, A. (2017). Compassion and Education Cultivating Compassionate Children, Schools and Communities. Springer eBooks.

Rousseau, J. J. (1979). Emile or on education. New York: Basic.

Rudolph, S; Brown, L. (2017). Understanding Techniques of Colonialism: Indigenous Educational Justice. In Powers of curriculum : sociological perspectives on education, Gobby, B., & Walker, B. South Melbourne, Victoria: Oxford University Press.

Santoro, D.A., (2018). Is It Burnout? Or Demoralization? Educational Leadership Journal. Retrieved from:¢-Or-Demoralization¢

Simpson, M. K. (2007). From savage to citizen: Education, colonialism and idiocy. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 28(5), 561-574.

Sternberg, R. J. (2009). Assessing what matters. Challenging the Whole Child: Reflections on Best Practices in Learning, Teaching, and Leadership, 207.

Share this Post