Lately I’ve been doing extensive reading, thinking, and writing about the purpose of education. Why do we have schools? What are they for? What should they be for?
I alluded to the plethora of research and opinions on precisely this question in my last post on education and I’d like to take the opportunity to explore this idea further. This post is the result of my reflections on research that rang true to me.
In a student paper for the Morehouse College newspaper in 1948, Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, “The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. But education which stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society. The most dangerous criminal may be the man gifted with reason but no morals. . . . We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education.” (emphasis added)
King is by no means the only one to claim that teaching intensive, critical thinking is an essential aspect of education. He does, however, highlight an equally important point about why education must go further. Developing humans involves so much more than efficiency and intelligence. King clearly recognized this with the addition of character. Education must be about more than intelligence; it must also encompass humanity.
In this article, Jonathan Cohen, cofounder and president of the National School Climate Center, answers precisely the question I posed at the start of this post. He says, “I think that my view, and most people’s view, is that the purpose of education is to support children in developing the skills, the knowledge, and the dispositions that will allow them to be responsible, contributing members of their community—their democratically-informed community. Meaning, to be a good friend, to be a good mate, to be able to work, and to contribute to the well-being of the community.” (emphasis added)
As the article suggests, there is a disconnect between what we claim we want out of education and the values that exist in today’s society. If we want our students to become good friends and good mates we need to do more than tie curriculum, teacher evaluation, and school funding to standardized tests.
Cohen’s explanation includes the necessity of “soft skills” that are not measurable. If we want to create communities, societies, and environments that are democratically informed, we need to include civics in our schools. Teaching and learning civics involves real-world situations in which students interact with people who are different from them, engage in real projects in their communities that mirror what we hope they’ll do as adults, and participate in much-needed dialogue about how to improve neighborhoods, cities, countries, and ultimately the world.
This is not happening in schools right now.
One reason that the purpose of education is so hard to pin down is simply that there are multiple purposes. There is more than one right answer to this question, unlike many of the questions students encounter on the standardized tests that serve as our measures of what they know.
In a piece for Forbes, Kim Jones, CEO of the nonprofit online education service Curriki, captures precisely this point. “Education does not have a single purpose; it serves multiple objectives, and the relative importance of each of these objectives can be very personal. The varied emphasis is a result of the diverse economic, social, spiritual, cultural, and political realities of our individual lives. Likewise, how we deliver instruction, and how we measure success in school as a predictive indicator of our future success in society and, indeed, one could argue the metrics for society’s success as a whole, must be updated to match.” (emphasis added)
If we want our students to do more than answer closed questions with no opportunity for creative thinking, we need to emphasize concepts rather than facts in our curricula. The diversity of society provides students with wonderful opportunities to learn, grow, communicate, and be part of a larger whole.
When interacting in the real world, no one tests facts. We use Google. We do, however, rely on concepts in all areas of our thinking. In daily activities, we understand ideas like change, relationships, global interaction, identity, development, communication, connection, systems, and culture. These concepts can and should drive our teaching and learning. If this is what we expect of adults, why do we approach students and schooling any differently?
To return to Cohen’s point, does our society encourage such thinking? If not, as Jones suggests, society needs to definitively decide what we want. If we want informed, participatory citizens whose knowledge and experiences are based in the diversity of our daily lives, is that what we are creating in schools?
What we say we want and what we are doing do not match up. Therefore, education reform is necessary to align real life goals and success.
In an article for the Washington Post, Arthur H. Camins, director of the Center for Innovation in Engineering and Science Education at the Stevens Institute of Technology, writes, “Education should prepare young people for life, work and citizenship. Knowledge of the natural and engineered environments and how people live in the world is critical to all three purposes of education. Critical thinking, creativity, interpersonal skills and a sense of social responsibility all influence success in life, work and citizenship.” (bolded emphasis added)
Success in life, work, and citizenship clearly requires more than what we currently allow for students.
At this point, it seems clear that these stated purposes of education do not reflect the reality of our current educational system. We might claim, holistically, that we want community-minded citizens who interact with one another in a variety of contexts to work towards developing societies that are better than we what have today. However, the inflexibility of the school day, lack of teacher input in curriculum, lack of teacher and student collaboration, minimal room for dialogue, and prescriptive testing do not allow us to develop those citizens.
I argue further, however, that it is not enough to develop better societies. I will explore the word “better” so that we have a clearly defined idea in mind.
To me, better means more peaceful. I desperately want to educate well-rounded, community-oriented citizens who are productive members of societies that work together to create a more peaceful world. That peaceful world is inherently better than the world we have today.
Red tape and government aside, what do we do? How do we develop the people who are necessary to create this peaceful world?
I came across the closest thing to an answer that I could find in a wonderful article in Psychology Today, a publication that I sometimes use in my psychology teaching.
In the article, Buddhist physician Alex Lickerman explains, “To achieve world peace—to create a world in which war ceases to break out—seems impossible because of the sheer number of people who haven’t yet mastered themselves, who haven’t tamed their ambition to raise themselves up at the expense of others, and who haven’t learned to start from today onward, letting past wrongs committed by both sides remain in the past. In short, it seems an impossible dream because we’re in desperately short supply of human beings who are experts at living.”
Yes, the bolded emphasis is mine and yes, I am aware that I bolded the whole thing. If you’re only going to read one of the articles I’ve linked, I vote for this one.
When I read Alex Lickerman’s words, for the first time, I had one thought in my head: Of course this is what we want. Of course.
The concept of using education to develop human beings who are experts at living seems like the obvious solution to all of our problems. Experts are people who have been trained in some sort of specialized skill or knowledge area. Using their training, they yield results in their fields. They are the people we turn to with our questions. We rely on them, trust them, and sometimes even admire them.
By definition, experts at living will be successful, which we have already determined is one stated purposes of education. Furthermore, they will be intensive and critical thinkers, creative, and uphold a sense of social responsibility towards others in order to make the world a better, more peaceful place.
Developing experts at living obviously requires much, much more than we are currently doing in our schools.
In the Forbes piece, Jones suggests a practical model for exposing students to the real-world problems that they will later face as experts. She explains, “The children should be making things. The children should be writing computer programs. They should be learning by doing. The thing is not to learn excel or such programs, it is to learn to learn.” (bolded emphasis added)
Giving our students access to complex problems and gradually increasing that complexity over time has the added benefit of bringing very real moral, ethical, and global issues into our classrooms and conversations. This will help create human being of intelligence and character, as King mentioned, who are responsible members of communities.
Altruism, empathy, caring, and compassion must all play a role in creating these experts at living.
In this vein, Lickerman further specifies his vision for how to build peace. He writes, “An expert at living isn’t a person who never experiences greed, anger, or stupidity but rather one who remains in firm control of those negative parts (which can never be entirely eliminated), who’s able to surmount his or her darkest negativity, and displays a peerless ability to resolve conflict peacefully.” (bolded emphasis added)
We need to be teaching our students how to get along in the world. How to live in the world, how to be part of the world, how to care about the world and its people, and how to improve the world. Again, this means peace.
My ninth and tenth grade students write and share analyses of current events every two weeks in class. Predictably, war comes up ore often than not. They write about being so tired of war and I ask about how we can build peace. My students have seemingly endless ideas about waging war, but rarely consider the alternative – building peace. More importantly, they’re very skeptical about the viability peace processes. This indicates that we are not doing enough to bring peace to the forefront of our classrooms, our communities, our societies, and our world. We expect the next generation to fix the problems of today, but we first need to decide as a society that we are going to give them the tools to do that.
We don’t have to focus exclusively on how and why we have war. We can choose to create experts at living instead, and we can train those experts at living to build peace.
As a society, we have an education system in which we claim to want critical, democratic, participatory, inclusive thinkers and citizens, but that is not what we are building. Instead, we have an overemphasis on numbers, scores, tests, and measuring. There is dissonance in what we say we want and what we are currently doing.
That can change.
It needs to change.
But how? I’m in the midst of working on a project with a friend to articulate what education should actually look like in terms of developing experts at living who work for peace. There will be more thoughts on this in the future.
In the meantime, I’d love to know what you think! The comments section is your section and it’s open to ideas. Hope to hear from you!
Peace does not mean an absence of conflicts; differences will always be there. Peace means solving these differences through peaceful means; through dialogue, education, knowledge, and through human ways. – The Dalai Lama