To cite this article: Sturt-Schmidt, James (2020). What is the purpose of Education? [Online], Available at: (this page URL)
Questions around the purpose(s) of education are as old as education itself. Ancient Greek philosophers contemplated the purpose of education, pondered the suitability of certain materials as educational content, and arguably first developed the connection between educating citizens and achieving social justice. In the UK, ‘education’ in the sense of formal training, not carried out by one’s own family, was traditionally reserved for the elite, for whom education was often about becoming ‘cultured’.
Academia, a word born from Plato’s Ἀκαδημία (Academy) in Ancient Greece, implies scholarship, in turn connoting high-level intellectual learning or the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom. Whilst Plato imagined ‘good’ education as serving a purpose for the state and for the common good, he imagined it necessary to censor and carefully control the content of education for certain citizens (notably those who would govern, his Guardians or Philosopher Kings). His aim with this was to avoid these individuals being exposed to ideas of injustice or other ideas that would corrupt their ability to be a good leader. Therefore a ‘good’ education was envisioned as having both enabling and limiting powers over the individual.
According to Dutch pedagogue Gert J. J. Biesta (2010), in the Enlightenment period, notions such as autonomy, rationality and criticality came to be considered as important parts of a ‘good’ education, particularly due to the influence of Immanuel Kant. In Kant’s eyes, education should aim to ‘invest’ in human subjectivity, to create an autonomous learner who could ultimately educate themselves. In this sense, the educator’s purpose is essentially to teach their student what they need to know to teach themselves. In other words:
“to become self-motivated and self-directing.”(Usher and Edwards, 1994: 24–25).
According to Biesta (2010) Kant’s ideas ‘inaugurated’ modern education by linking education with human freedom, and “by making a distinction between heteronomous determination and self- determination and by arguing that education ultimately had to do with the latter, not the former” (ibid,: 77). This gives education a seemingly emancipatory purpose, although we must acknowledge its underlying assumption that the use of reason and autonomous thought should be the ultimate aim for human beings, as well as the fact that this ‘education’ was aimed mainly at adults, specifically men, and did not necessarily include children.
Despite idealistic views of what a ‘good’ education was for the elite, the industrial revolution that accompanied the Enlightenment period saw thousands of children working long hours in factories with no literacy skills or education at all. Throughout the 1800s, many educational policies aimed to address this, eventually creating compulsory and free primary schools in the 1880s and establishing a secondary school system at the turn of the century (1902 Education Act). Some would argue the poor were given a certain level of ‘education’ in the interests of the rich, as educated children made better workers in the advanced society the industrial revolution had created.
Their ‘education’ was not strictly academic, not aimed at the pursuit of knowledge or the climax of human existence, but rather at the learning of basic skills of practical value for industrial work. There are two ways to view this: On the one hand, this ‘education’ allowed working-class people to access work and to earn a living. On the other hand, it arguably acted as an ideological control mechanism for the elite to control the minds of the poor. In Marxian terms, education is seen a tool for the bourgeoisie, the owners of the ‘means of production’, to control and exploit the proletariat. Sociologist Louis Althusser conceptualised the education system as part of the ‘ideological state apparatus’, and numerous thinkers have written about the idea that schools transmit a ‘hidden curriculum’ that socialises pupils to accept hierarchy and authority, thus preparing them to be docile and obedient workers.
Today, state-funded education in the West looks very similar to its industrial ancestor, although since the addition of women to the ‘labour market’, it also serves a secondary purpose as childcare, allowing parents to continue contributing to the economy. Whilst the academic element of education has clearly returned, technological advances and the diversification of work – and the skills required – have necessitated highly-skilled, more ‘educated’ workers. Therefore, it would be wrong to suggest academia’s comeback is due to the social and political importance of the pursuit of knowledge, at least where this doesn’t also provide investors with dividends and countries with growth to their GDP.
Interestingly, in the UK, recent government decisions regarding education have seen thousands of schools change into ‘academies’, bearing the very name of Plato’s philosophical school. Whatever the reasons for academia’s renewed importance, the question of its intended direction for students, its importance in society, and its existence alongside other educational ‘routes’ remain. The contemporary micro-management of the ‘quality’ of education has become “confined to processes and procedures, rather than relating to content and aims” (Biesta, 2010: 69).
As Biesta (2010) explains, “in many cases the question of good education has been replaced by other discourses […] about the quality of education—think, for example, of discussions about the effectiveness of education or on accountability in education—but in fact never address the question of good education itself.” (p. 2). We have created thousands of questions around every intricacy of education, micro-managing everything from the colour pen we use for marking and whether the classroom door should stay open or closed to the way teachers should manage stress to cope with the planning, marking and constant scrutiny of their work with which they share their existence.
Could it be that whilst we thrash around frantically amongst the deluge of micro-questions, trying to keep our head above the water, we have lost sight completely of the big questions? What is education for? Biesta (2010) states, “Nowadays there is simply too much talk about learning and too little talk about what learning is supposed to be for” (p. 127). Imagine you are an alien visitor to this planet, a sort of extra-terrestrial anthropologist, and you stumble across a school. You might ask yourself, what is this? What does it do? What is it for? You might try to see how it operates as part of a whole, that is, as a part of society. Or perhaps how it is used as a form of hierarchical control, to maintain the existing power balance. The analysis would not only concentrate on the function of education, but also on its purpose. We cannot allow ourselves to lose sight of these ‘big questions’ or to think of the dominant answers to these questions as a sort of Gramscian common sense.
We find ourselves in a paradigm where educators are under more scrutiny than ever before, with Ofsted now wanting to know what is being taught, how it is being sequenced, and why certain things are being taught at certain times. There has long been a focus on educational ‘outcomes’ and on the efficacy of teaching. The new focus is curriculum. But who should decide what is useful, what is important? And what, or whom, should the curriculum be useful and important for?
It would seem that a focus on employability has endured, although at the same time we are educating a generation of children who may work in roles that have not yet been created, working with technology that has not yet been invented, and facing challenges we are only beginning to imagine. We are educating a generation of children whose future is likely to contain countless climate-change related disasters, shortages of basic resources, mass human migration and quite possibly widespread antibiotic-resistant disease, amongst other challenges that accompany a global human population set to reach 8 billion in 2023, 9 billion by 2037, and 10 billion by 2057.
One conclusion one could take away from this is that teaching children to learn, to think and to problem solve could be a key purpose of education; giving them the tools to face the challenges to come. This would echo the Commission of the European Communities’ (1998) statement that, “in a high-technology knowledge society, […] learners must become proactive and more autonomous, prepared to renew their knowledge continuously and to respond constructively to changing constellations of problems and contexts.” In other words, teaching becomes less important, and learning becomes paramount. Students need to become independent from their teachers, able to educate themselves as and when new skills or knowledge become necessary.
On curriculum content, Biesta (2010) highlights “the fundamental impossibility of an all-inclusive curriculum”, claiming, “we have to concede that a given curriculum is always only a particular selection of what might be possible”. This raises familiar questions, such as who decides what is in the curriculum. Another problem Biesta (2010) highlights in contemporary times is the ‘empty’ use of the word learning. For example, one often encounters ideas such as “teachers should promote students’ learning” or even “love of learning”, without any exploration of what learning actually is. The questions to consider are: what should students learn? And for what purpose should they learn this? This exploration of learning can feed our analysis of education, since the former is generally accepted to be an essential element of the latter.
With the technology available today, education is largely free and available to anyone with an internet connection and a computer, tablet or smartphone. YouTube, TED Ed., podcasts, mobile platforms like Khan Academy, Duolingo, and the millions of educational platforms on the internet have democratised education in a way never done before. With so much educational content available, perhaps the best gifts that traditional educators can give to their students are the curiosity, the thirst for knowledge, the critical thinking ability, and the pragmatic skills necessary to harness the potential of these resources and take command of their own journeys of life-long learning.
As Biesta (2010) puts it, “There are even emancipatory possibilities in the new language of learning to the extent to which it can empower individuals to take control of their own educational agendas” (p. 18). However, this outlook is not without its problems, as it promotes a highly individualistic conception of education that follows neoliberal economic dominance in placing greater responsibility on the individual. In so doing, it also does little to address the continuing issue of class divide in education and the social inequality it breeds.
Biesta (2010) also contemplates whether “those who share a concern for education— teachers, students, parents, society at large—are actually in a position where they are allowed to engage in deliberation and judgment about the purposes of education.” (p. 4). Indeed, as a trainee teacher I have often come across content and wondered just why it is being taught, either at that moment to that year group, or just why it is being taught at all. Coming from a background in Sociology, I have also found myself in a position where I cannot help but see things like the promotion of ‘British Values’ through the concept of the ‘ideological state apparatus’.
Undoubtedly, many teachers take guidance from the National Curriculum, or from exam board criteria, or simply follow the journey mapped out by the latest textbook. The average teacher simply doesn’t have the time to ponder the general purpose of education; they’ve got lessons to plan. But now, with Ofsted’s new focus on meaningful curriculums, perhaps the space is being made for teachers to ask these sorts of questions or to collectively re-shape the direction of education. It does also raise, however, another important question: on what basis do Ofsted judge content to be meaningful, and a curriculum ‘broad and balanced’?
Biesta (2010) states, “It is important to see that the new language of learning is not the outcome of one particular process or the expression of a single underlying agenda. It rather is the result of a combination of different, partly even contradictory trends and developments”, which are summarised as:
- The rise of new theories of learning that have put emphasis on the active role of students in the construction of knowledge and understanding and the more facilitating role of teachers in this.
- The postmodern critique of the idea that educational processes can be controlled by teachers and ought to be controlled by them.
- The so-called silent explosion of learning (Field 2000) as evidenced in the huge rise of informal learning throughout people’s lives.
- The erosion of the welfare state and the subsequent rise of neoliberal policies in which individuals are positioned as responsible for their own (lifelong) learning.
Biesta (2010) states, “starting a discussion about good education requires asking just one simple question: What is education for? Answering this question is, of course, not easy, but if the question never gets asked, then we can be sure that education will proceed in a directionless manner— or at least in a manner where the direction of education is not the result of deliberations about which direction is the most desirable one” (p. 127).
According to Biesta, The purposes of education are:
- Qualification: “providing them with the knowledge, skills and understandings and often also with the dispositions and forms of judgment that allow them to “do something”.
- Socialisation: “transmission of particular norms and values, in relation to the continuation of particular cultural or religious traditions, or for the purpose of professional socialization”.
- Subjectification: “allow[ing] those educated to become more autonomous and independent in their thinking and acting”. This raises important questions about “the kind of subjectivity—or kinds of subjectivity— that are made possible as a result of particular educational arrangements and configurations.”
On the three purposes identified above, Biesta (2010) suggests they should be understood “as a way to articulate programmatically and positively what we want education to achieve” (p. 128). Regarding subjectification, which he identifies as essential to the democratisation of education, he states, “education should always also engage with the ways in which it impact on the subjectivity of “newcomers” and that it should do so in a way that ultimately can contribute to a way of being a subject that is not simply about the insertion of “newcomers” into existing orders” (p. 128-9). In brief, he says, “education should always entail an orientation toward freedom” (ibid.). Biesta (2010) thus situates himself in an educational and political tradition originating in the Enlightenment period, agreeing with its ambitions but questioning its means of achieving enlightenment. He raises the question whether “there is actually an intrinsic relationship between education and freedom, to the extent to which we might even see education as the science and practice of freedom” (p. 130). He suggests that most educators can consider this true of education, since “teachers never aim for their students to remain dependent upon their input and effort but always have an orientation toward their students’ independence and emancipation” (ibid.). So the liberating, emancipatory, empowering and subjectivising purpose of education becomes clear, though the question of how this orientation can be articulated, justified and practiced remains.
Finding an answer to such as enormous question as ‘what is the purpose of education?’ (or, as the question is really posed, what should be its purpose?) is unlikely to come from a single enlightened individual. It is possible that, given the many diverse forms of modern society and the vast diversification of people’s occupations and lifestyles, there will be no one-size-fits-all answer to the question. Biesta certainly takes a compelling shot at suggesting education should be emancipatory, giving individuals power and agency over their lives in a way which also benefits society and democracy. If we take that as our goal, then addressing the questions of what such an education would look like and how it would be delivered needs to be a collective and highly reflexive mission.
- European Communities (1998) Education and Active Citizenship in the European Union. Luxembourg: Office for Official Publication of the European Communities.
- Field, J. (2000) Lifelong Learning and the New Educational Order. Stoke on Trent, UK: Trentham.
- Gert J. J. Biesta (2010) Good Education in an Age of Measurement. New York: Taylor and Francis
- Usher, R., and R. Edwards (1994) Postmodernism and Education. London: Routledge.