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What actually is the point of education?

By Sam Di Sano on 3 July 2019NSWstaffroomLeadership

A recent online article published in The Conversation (17 June 2019), provided some food for thought on this vexing topic. The author begins by stating that for much of human history, education has prepared us for the workforce, providing the means by which we can survive.

It stirred some thoughts in me about exactly the same question and whether or not the goalposts have moved in the 21st century. I often quote the modern day option for the four Cs - ensuring our children are provided the essential skills to survive in this millennium, and into the next, with critical thinking, creativity, collaboration and communication. Fair enough, but what frustrates me is the phrase that usually follows, often uttered by politicians - “to adequately prepare them for the workforce”. Really? Is that the end point? Is that what I and so many others have committed a professional lifetime to? I do not believe so.

The author of the article correctly points to the fact that we have moved a long way from the ancient Greek or Roman model where education was essentially only available to young males designed for developing statesmen or soldiers. Young males essentially followed one of two paths, that of an artisan’s apprentice requiring physical labour or the intellectual pursuits of a citizen, fostering their knowledge of the arts and sciences, usually after a military career.

As this education was essentially limited to young males, effectively 90% of the population (including women and slaves) missed out.

Skipping forward over two thousand years, the purpose, nature and availability of education has moved on from the classical world. It is true to say that we now largely view education as giving us the knowledge of our place in the world, and the skills to live and work in it. We have the pragmatists and philosophers of the modern world such as Peirce and Dewey to thank for that, but surely there is more to our need for education than the pragmatic purpose of economic livelihood?

Dewey actually moved the debate a fair way along from Peirce’s original pragmatic thought by suggesting education also and probably more-so served a far more intrinsic purpose - taking one’s place as a fully developed and mature participant in society.

Dewey’s view was fairly counter-cultural at the time too. He believed there was more to learning than just books and school, citing personal interactions as just as important to social and intellectual development.

So where are we with this question in 2019?

Interestingly and pleasingly, of late the 2008 Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians has been taken down from the top shelf and dusted off. One of its primary goals was that all young Australians become successful learners, confident and creative individuals, and active and informed citizens. In other words, we want our kids to not only work for economic livelihood, but to also be fulfilled and informed citizens.

The Melbourne Declaration, in brief, stated that education equips young people with the knowledge, understanding, skills and values to take advantage of opportunity and to face the challenges of this era with confidence. Schools play a vital role in promoting the development and wellbeing of young Australians in many different spheres including intellectual, physical, social, emotional and spiritual, and in homage to the early pragmatists - ensuring the nation’s ongoing economic prosperity and social cohesion. This responsibility is shared, as Dewey noted, with families and the wider community. Looks like Mr Dewey had a point.

Perhaps the greatest change in our twenty first century context is that we now see ourselves as global citizens - climate change debate has seen to that, with concern for our environment requiring a greater emphasis on international cooperation than trade and politics has perhaps at any previous time in world history.

Let’s not forget too, that there are other reasons we learn. At the end of the day I want my children to be good people; just, fair, reasoned and caring. Of course I want them to leave school with the skills and competencies required to take their place in the world, but more emphatically, I want them to have a conscience; to be compassionate, caring and considerate of others not as well off as them. I want them to have not only a union of like minds with others but also a unity of their own heart and mind and to take their place as a leader of industry, business, politics or education and become an agent of social change for a world that desperately needs them.


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