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Tag Archive for: Public Education

March 17, 2020
17 Mar 2020

What is the purpose of Education?

In our previous article, “Schooling vs. Education – What is Education For?” we discussed the difference between schooling and education, examined the emergence of public education in the U.S, and briefly reviewed an article that said that the lingering 19th and early 20th “factory model” of education is out of date and needs to be replaced. Here, we’d like to briefly explore the underlying question: “What is education’s purpose?”

In classical Greece, Plato believed that a fundamental task of education is to help students to value reason and to become reasonable people (i.e., people guided by reason.) He envisioned a segregated education in which different groups of students would receive different sorts of education, depending on their abilities, interests, and social stations. Plato’s student Aristotle thought that the highest aim of education is to foster good judgment or wisdom. Aristotle was more optimistic than Plato about the ability of the typical student to achieve judgement and wisdom. Centuries later, writing in the period leading up to the French Revolution, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–78) said that formal education, like society itself, is inevitably corrupting, and argued that a genuine education should enable the “natural” and “free” development of children – a view that eventually led to the modern movement known as “open education.” Rousseau’s views of education, although based in an idea of the romanticized innocence of youth, informed John Dewey’s later progressive movement in education during the early 20th century. Dewey believed that education should be based largely on experience (later formulated as “experiential education”) and that it should lead to students’ “growth” (a somewhat ill-defined and indeterminate concept.) Dewey further believed in the central importance of education for the health of democratic social and political institutions. Over the centuries, philosophers have held a variety of views about the purposes of education. Harvey Siegel catalogues the following list:

  • the cultivation of curiosity and the disposition to inquire;
  • the fostering of creativity;
  • the production of knowledge and of knowledgeable students;
  • the enhancement of understanding;
  • the promotion of moral thinking, feeling, and action;
  • the enlargement of the imagination;
  • the fostering of growth, development, and self-realization;
  • the fulfillment of potential;
  • the cultivation of “liberally educated” persons;
  • the overcoming of provincialism and close-mindedness;
  • the development of sound judgment;
  • the cultivation of docility and obedience to authority;
  • the fostering of autonomy;
  • the maximization of freedom, happiness, or self-esteem;
  • the development of care, concern, and related attitudes and dispositions;
  • the fostering of feelings of community, social solidarity, citizenship, and civic-mindedness;
  • the production of good citizens;
  • the “civilizing” of students;
  • the protection of students from the deleterious effects of civilization;
  • the development of piety, religious faith, and spiritual fulfillment;
  • the fostering of ideological purity;
  • the cultivation of political awareness and action;
  • the integration or balancing of the needs and interests of the individual student and the larger society; and
  • the fostering of skills and dispositions constitutive of rationality or critical thinking.

Needless to say, the extent and diversity of this list suggests that the purposes of education are manifold, and that in different historical periods, and under various historical circumstances, people have looked to education to accomplish a wide variety of ends – from the instillment of reason, to the tasks of self-development and vocational/career preparation. The sometimes incompatible goals of education may inform some of the challenges – both philosophical and practical – that U.S. schools have experienced during the last few centuries, and that persist today. (See “Confusion Over Purpose of U.S. Education System” Lauren Camera, August 29, 2016, U.S. News and World Report.)



Harvey Siegel, “Philosophy of education,” Encyclopedia Britannica

“What is Education for?” Video. School of Life

“Education in Society” Video. Crash Course

“What Is the Purpose of Education?” Alan Singer, Huffpost, February 8, 2016

“Purpose of School” Steven Stemler, Wesleyan University

A List of Quotes about the Purposes of Education

“Confusion Over Purpose of U.S. Education System” Lauren Camera, August 29, 2016 U.S. News and World Report

“What Is Education For?” Danielle Allen, Boston Review, May 9, 2016

March 3, 2020
03 Mar 2020

Schooling vs. Education – What is Education For?

When Mark Twain said, “I never let my schooling get in the way of my education” he was distinguishing between the effects of the conventional, institutional practices associated with schools, and the individual human endeavor—a life-long exercise—to become an educated person. But what does education consist of?

Schooling vs. Education

At its core, “education” is the accumulation of knowledge and skills, and of course, moral/ethical values. (See Education) In complex societies—those in which person-to-person informal, intergenerational transmission of skills and knowledge is insufficient to ensure that successive generations acquire such assets—formal, structured schooling has been the form that education has taken. Throughout the history of Western society, much education has been conducted in private settings (e.g., tutors, private schools, monasteries, etc.) In ancient Greece, for example, private schools and academies were tasked with educating the young free-born Athenian. During the Middle Ages, most schools were founded upon religious principles with the primary purpose of training clergy. Following the Reformation in northern Europe, clerical education was largely superseded by forms of elementary schooling for larger portions of the population. The Reformation was associated with the broadening of literacy, primarily aimed at equipping people to read the Bible and experience its teachings directly. It wasn’t until the 19th century, however, that the idea of educating the mass of a nation’s population via universal, non-sectarian public education emerged in Europe and the U.S.

In 1821, Boston started the first public high school in the United States. By 1870 all of the US states had some form of publicly subsidized formal education. By the close of the 19th century, public secondary schools began to outnumber private ones. Access to schooling has been a perennial challenge, with women slowly gaining access throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, and African Americans largely excluded from schooling or relegated to sub-standard schooling. By 1900, 34 states had compulsory schooling laws and thirty states with compulsory schooling laws required attendance until age 14 (or higher). By 1910, 72 percent of American children attended school, and half the nation’s children attended one-room schools. It was not until 1918, a little over a century ago, that every state required students to complete even elementary school.

Throughout its history, schooling has served many purposes. From the beginning of American public schooling, its purposes and goals have been fiercely contested. Some viewed schools as civic and moral preparatory institutions, while others saw schools as essential to forging and consolidating a distinct US national identity. Many saw schools as critical socializing processes which were designed less for the intellectual development of individuals, and more for equipping an increasingly industrializing workforce with the habits of, and tolerance for, factory work.

Factory Schools

In a recent article “The Modern Education System Was Made to Foster “Punctual, Docile, and Sober” Factory Workers Perhaps it’s time for a change.” Allison Schrager argues that 19th century American education was designed to produce disciplined, dependable, and compliant workers for an expanding industrial economy. Industrialists (often in alliance with other social sectors, like the Protestant clergy and later social reformers) believed that young people (many of them traditionally involved in agriculture, many the offspring of immigrants to the US) needed to be readied for factory life—which demanded punctuality, regular attendance, narrow task orientation, self-control, and respect for authority. These characteristics, although instrumental for an industrializing economy, were hardly geared toward the development of autonomous, self-directed individuals, and active democratic citizens. The “factory model” of schooling was functional, but by many accounts, stunting. This factory model, Schrager argues, remains widely prevalent in contemporary US schools. (For a critique of the reign of factory model of schooling see, Valerie Strauss, “American schools are modeled after factories and treat students like widgets. Right? Wrong.” Washington Post, Oct. 10, 2015 ) Schrager argues that the factory model is anachronistic and increasingly dysfunctional.

As mentioned, education is always a “contested terrain.” Various social, economic, political, and religious forces are interested in ensuring that schools teach what representatives of these forces value. Consequently, the content, and in some cases, the form, that schooling takes is the product of the struggle among these forces. (See for example our earlier article, “The Implications of Public School Privatization” Part 1 and Part 2 )

Underlying all forms of schooling, public and private, are the implicit questions, “What is education?” and “What is education’s purpose?” In a forthcoming article, we’ll explore these central questions.



History of Education

Classical education

History of Education in the U.S.

Valerie Strauss, “American schools are modeled after factories and treat students like widgets. Right? Wrong.” Washington Post, Oct. 10, 2015

Allison Schrager, “The Modern Education System Was Made to Foster “Punctual, Docile, and Sober” Factory Workers Perhaps it’s time for a change.”

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