With the presidential election of 2012 bringing new focus to higher education, it's worth stopping for a moment to consider this question: What is the purpose of education? Only having a sense of the purpose of education can guide you to a decision about which policies are appropriate. Almost everybody agrees that education is a good thing. But what they think it is good for may vary. With frontrunners President Obama and Mitt Romney discussing education frequently, let's review some of the important takes on the purpose of education.

Schools Are a Training Ground for Democracy

The United States is founded upon the idea that citizens who are of age will vote (or at least, a large number of them will). But in order to be able to vote intelligently you need to be able to read, to follow and critique arguments, to be aware of our countries history and the current issues, and to know where you fit into society and what policies and programs are in your interest. You need imagination to understand how proposals will play out, judgment to tell when a candidate is trying to play you, and an understanding of how economics and government work to see how one thing affects others. It's possible to conceive of schools as the cultivators of citizenship.

Schools Are a Training Ground for Jobs

Besides growing up to vote, young people, for the most part, grow up to work, and some view schools as training grounds for employment. To some degree, the efficacy of education for this purpose will depend on what kind of work a student plans to do. Some careers depend on apprenticeships and on-the-job training that—if they can be carried out in school—require specialized schools for training. Other jobs may depend more on interior dispositions or talent than the types of things that can be taught in school.

On the other hand, things like working on teams with others, communicating clearly, meeting deadlines, knowing what a good job is, knowing how to find out what you don't already know are all useful in many jobs, and are often acquired through schooling, as are the need to meet various teachers' requirements for work, deportment, and what kinds of things one spends time on.

 Schools Are Where You Learn How to Learn

Some believe that knowledge is less important than learning how to learn. If you know how to learn, they may argue, you can find anything you need to know. This is especially potent with the availability of search engines and the Internet. Many things can be discovered this way.

This argument does have at least one hole, however. If a person has no exceptional store of knowledge, trying to put together a plan, an argument, or a design is much more challenging and may never reach the level of development or complexity of someone who already knows the basics and starts the plan or design or development at the "how-to-learn" person's tier 2 or 5 or 19. Learning isn't just about finding out individual facts: it relies on building connections and contrasts between and among facts, about networking them, evaluating and revising them. If they are all "out there," it's much more of a challenge, if not impossible, to work with them in these ways.

Schools Are for Developing Men and Women of Character

Still others focus on schools as building character as well as developing skills and strategies in other areas. Going from year to year with a cohort that brings the student into contact with people with different characteristics, tendencies, skills, talents, aptitudes, and attitudes, the student is faced with a variety of ethical dilemmas that can help decide who s/he will grow up to be, if the student is encouraged to consider them:
  • Is it fair that X is always picked last for teams? If not, what can I / will I do about it?
  • I know that X cheated on the spelling test. What are the consequences of my various choices?
  • I did poorly on the spelling test. How does that reflect on my choices of how to spend my time?
School Is for Self Discovery

Another possibility is that school allows students to discover things about themselves. One discovers that he likes the rigors of Latin, while another discovers a talent for playing the oboe. One discovers that, much as she loves to watch basketball, she doesn't like to play it, and another discovers that as much as he didn't like "social studies," he loves "history."

It is possible, of course, that all of these are true—that school has many facets. Bu tin any case, the next time you read someone's proposal for how schools should be run or education should or should not be funded, rather than just thinking about political parties, maybe your thoughts about the purpose of education can inform your thinking.

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