The Purpose of Education

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Some starting places?

The education select committee started, in 2015, an inquiry into the "purpose of education", a little late you might think given that it was almost 150 years ago in 1870 that elementary (primary) education was introduced for all. An open call was made to offer submissions for this commission and some of the core ideas that were offered, in no particular order of priority) were:

  • to prepare children for the next stage of their life (be that continuing education or work),
  • to prepare children for gainful employment,
  • to excite and motive,
  • to learn how to learn,
  • to prepare children to become economically productive,
  • to give them required skills and knowledge,
  • to gain academic qualifications,
  • to make children responsible citizens,
  • to make children resilient,
  • to give children C21st skills (e.g. problem solving, creativity ...)

Colleagues at the University of Hull were asked and gave the following responses:

'To enable every student to reach THEIR potential'

'To give young people the knowledge and skills they need to flourish throughout their lives'

'To promote the power and pleasure of knowledge and understanding'

'To prepare anyone to lead the best and most fulfilling life, personally and in relation to others'

'Enlightenment, progress and empowerment'

'To provide the learner with confidence in their existing skills and knowledge and an opportunity to develop and master them'

''The purpose of education is to motivate, innovate and liberate the mind!''

Has anything changed over time?

We could think of the development of educational need in four stages:

1. Tribal: The tribe inducted its members into the knowledge and skills needed for survival
2. Community: The community specialised its tasks and apprenticed for future skills
3. Industrial: The nation processed its youth with standardised skills for the future
4. Post-industrial: The individual prepares themselves for their lives

The concept that all people should be formally educated (or schooled) has only been around for about 150 years (in the UK) with the introduction of elementary education for all over time this has developed and extended to secondary education and then to the age to 18 (in education or training) and with the expansion of university education over the last 20 years. However the idea of educating the young has been around for much longer. John Dewey in "individual psychology and education" (1934:12) said;

“The purpose of education has always been to every one, in essence, the same—to give the young the things they need in order to develop in an orderly, sequential way into members of society. This was the purpose of the education given to a little aboriginal in the Australian bush before the coming of the white man. It was the purpose of the education of youth in the golden age of Athens. It is the purpose of education today, whether this education goes on in a one-room school in the mountains of Tennessee or in the most advanced, progressive school in a radical community. But to develop into a member of society in the Australian bush had nothing in common with developing into a member of society in ancient Greece, and still less with what is needed today. Any education is, in its forms and methods, an outgrowth of the needs of the society in which it exists.”

George Counts, a leading progressive educator in the 1930s, critiqued Dewey’s philosophy stating, “the weakness of progressive education thus lies in the fact that it has elaborated no theory of social welfare, unless it be that of anarchy or extreme individualism” (1978, p. 5). To Counts, the purpose of school was less about preparing individuals to live independently and more about preparing individuals to live as members of a society. In other words, Counts felt the role of schooling was to equip individuals with the skills necessary to participate in the social life of their community and to change the nature of the social order as needed or desired.

People have also been considering the balance between the transmission of knowledge and the transmission of ethics or morals and the roles of formal (and informal) education in these, Martin Luther King in a speech at Morehouse College in 1948;

“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.”

and the ASCD committee in 1957;

“The main purpose of the American school is to provide for the fullest possible development of each learner for living morally, creatively, and productively in a democratic society.”

Historically education was seen by government as important to up-skills workers for changing economic situations so the industrialization of society in the 1800s meant the need for more literate workers as there was a shift from the agricultural to the industrials society, we can see this again in the post-industrial societies of the developed world with both the mechanization and movement of industry and the subsequent increase in education at tertiary level. This process has been thought above for a while:

“[The purpose of education] has changed from that of producing a literate society to that of producing a learning society.”

In the 1980s, the noted educator and philosopher Mortimore Adler put forth the Paideia Proposal (Adler, 1982) which integrated the ideas of Dewey and Counts, as well as his own. Specifically, Adler suggested that there are three objectives of children’s schooling (i) the development of citizenship, (ii) personal growth or self-improvement, and (iii) occupational preparation.

But is education more than this economic necessity, and more than the aquistion of knowledge and skills? Historian of education David Tyack has argued that from an historical perspective, the purpose of schooling has been tied to social and economic needs (Tyack, 1988). Expanding on the pragmatic purpose of school, deMarrais and LeCompte (1995) outlined four major purposes of schooling that include: (i) intellectual purposes such as the development of mathematical and reading skills; (ii) political purposes such as the assimilation of immigrants; (iii) economic purposes such as job preparation; and (iv) social purposes such as the development of social and moral responsibility.

“The one continuing purpose of education, since ancient times, has been to bring people to as full a realization as possible of what it is to be a human being. Other statements of educational purpose have also been widely accepted: to develop the intellect, to serve social needs, to contribute to the economy, to create an effective work force, to prepare students for a job or career, to promote a particular social or political system. These purposes offered are undesirably limited in scope, and in some instances they conflict with the broad purpose I have indicated; they imply a distorted human existence. The broader humanistic purpose includes all of them, and goes beyond them, for it seeks to encompass all the dimensions of human experience.”

Arthur W. Foshay (1991)

"The goal of education is to enrich the lives of students while producing articulate, expressive thinkers and lifelong learners, who are socially responsible, resilient, and active citizens of the world. Education is about teaching students, not subjects."

David Truss, Vice-Principal , BC, Canada, 2010 (

Is it for me or for all of us?
Personal Good ------------------------------------------------------------------- Societal Good

We could think of all of these on a spectrum. At one end is the very individualistic, the things that education does for me as an individual, this can be thought of as education for personal good; at the other is the societal the things that education does to make a better society that is good for all of us, this can be thought of as education for societal good- these are, of course, not mutually exclusive but will effect the design of our education system.

We tend in developed countries to focus on the benefits of education for the individual but Save the children report on the power of education for the transformation of society;

"Education allows children to develop the skills and confidence they need to strengthen their societies, break the cycle of poverty and build peace in their communities"

Save the Children, 2012 (

Finally, education has often been responsive to changes in society but are we changing our educational purpose in light of the technological revolution that we are currently undergoing? As David Warlick says:

"For the first time we are preparing students for a future we cannot clearly describe"

David Warlick (2002)

Reading / References
  • Purpose and quality of education in England inquiry: go to link
  • Purpose and quality of Education in England' web forum - go to link
  • What’s the purpose of education in the 21st century? Washington Post - go to link
  • What's the purpose of education? TED conversations - go to link
  • Adler, M. J. (1982). The Paidea proposal: An educational manifesto. New York: Collier Macmillan
  • Counts, G. S. (1978). Dare the schools build a new social order? Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.
  • deMarrais, K. B., & LeCompte, M. D. (1995). The way schools work: A sociological analysis of education (2nd ed.). White Plains, NY: Longman Publishers
  • Dewey, J. (1938). INnividual Psychology and Education, The Philosopher 12(1) pp1-6
  • Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and education. New York: Simon and Schuster.
  • Foshay, A (1991) “The Curriculum Matrix: Transcendence and Mathematics,” Journal of Curriculum and Supervision, 1991
  • Tyack, D. B. (1988). Ways of seeing: An essay on the history of compulsory schooling. In R. M. Jaeger (Ed.), Complementary methods for research in education (pp. 24-59). Washington, DC: American Educational Research Association
  • Warlick, D (2002) Raw Materials for the Mind (2nd Edition), Lulu: London