The Unfundamental Conversion

What Is The Purpose of Public Education?

May 18th, 2013 | Posted by Lana Hope in Philosophy

I decided to join the forward thinking dialogue with my thoughts on public education. This week the prompt asks, “what is the purpose of public education?”

The question is loaded. First, “what purpose” begs the question, “whose purpose?”

Many people have pointed out links between school and the work industry. Henry Ford built and funded schools that in return trained students in building cars. Was this investment to help children read and write, or was this charitable contribution about making his corporation larger, or was it both? These are the questions Marx critics later came along and asked. Louis Althusser, a Marx theorist who wrote Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses, wrote about how schools shape the “attitude and disposition” of students until children are content to become factory workers.

It takes children from every class at infant-school age, and then for years, the years in which the child is most ‘vulnerable’, squeezed between the Family State Apparatus and the Educational State Apparatus, it drums into them, whether it uses new or old methods, a certain amount of ‘know-how’ wrapped in the ruling ideology (French, arithmetic, natural history, the sciences, literature) or simply the ruling ideology in its pure state (ethics, civic instruction, philosophy). Somewhere around the age of sixteen, a huge mass of children are ejected ‘into production’: these are the workers or small peasants. Another portion of scholastically adapted youth carries on: and, for better or worse, it goes somewhat further, until it falls by the wayside and fills the posts of small and middle technicians, white-collar workers, small and middle executives, petty bourgeois of all kinds. A last portion reaches the summit, either to fall into intellectual semi-employment, or to provide, as well as the ‘intellectuals of the collective labourer’, the agents of exploitation (capitalists, managers), the agents of repression (soldiers, policemen, politicians, administrators, etc.) and the professional ideologists (priests of all sorts, most of whom are convinced ‘laymen’).

Many secular homeschoolers, beginning with John Holt, have made this same connection. And I understand why. I so often hear parents tell their kids, “you need to get an education” followed by “so you can grow up and get a job.” I find that ridiculous; we should teach kids to learn for the sake of learning. Here’s two pictures, taken on different continents, that illustrate my point.

I took this picture on the side of the building in Prague, Czech Republic.1099

Prague, of course, is recovering from the cold war, and so education is key to its growth – on a pure economic standpoint, this poster rings true. But this still asks the question, for us as individuals, ‘is school important for the sake of personal development, or is it important for our future pocket-book, or is both true?” I hope this poster means the latter.

I took this picture at the airport in Phoenix, Arizona, USA.

GE DIGITAL CAMERA is an organization devoted to educational development and job opportunities. But still, this picture is mind-boggling because this organization uses an infant to make the point that education is a race against time. Maybe Althusser wasn’t exaggerating when he brought up infant education. If kids can’t be just kids, then what the heck is going on in our economy?

So I regress to my second, and more important, question.

We need to ask, “what should be the purpose of public education?”

From an economic standpoint, education is about preparing people for a job market. Its part of self-survival, but it’s also for the good of the people. People need jobs. Yet I do believe that public schools should first and foremost be about personal development and intellectual growth. It should be about a love of learning, and stimulating the brain through high arts. It should be about social growth, and  extracurricular activities, including sports. And it should teach students to think (something America is lacking in).

It should also be about equality. Perhaps Matthew Arnold, of the 19th century, explained educational equality most clearly through his belief that a liberal arts education was important for the poor and middle class. Arnold believed it was the arts that helped us understand the world and ourselves, and he believed it was the humanities, more than math and science, that would create a moral and democratic society. All literature, Arnold writes in Culture and Anarchy, “must inevitably, from the very nature of things, be but contributions to human thought and human development, which extend wider than they do.” Being a poet, of course, he was bias towards the arts, but still, Arnold’s work strikes a chord in me because he recognized that higher thinking first and foremost develops the soul, not the whatever-kind of future job. Education is about getting in touch with human life itself. As important that skills were to Arnold, a moral and humanistic education was of greater importance. It was that kind of education that would allow people to truly live and choose their own destinies. Where Althusser feared that public education divided the classes, Arnold felt it could unite them.

In the end, I see the purpose of education as three-fold. First, echoing Arnold, it’s about the development of the human soul. Second, it’s about equalizing the rich and poor. And finally, it’s about creating a society of human beings able to think and build a healthy government.

As Arnold did recognize, society does flourish through government education, but more important, education develops the individual. This is what education should be all about.

You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

  • “In the end, I see the purpose of education as three-fold. First, echoing Arnold, it’s about the development of the human soul. Second, it’s about equalizing the rich and poor. And finally, it’s about creating a society of human beings able to think and build a healthy government.”

    I like your post. Good job! Of course, it rasies the question as to whether home schooling can provide the desired results. Perhaps it could but, from what I have seen of home schooling, it does not come close.

    • Lana Hope

      Classical education that a lot of homeschoolers use does fall in this category.

  • “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

    Antoine de Saint-Exupery

    I would say that any sort of education should be encouraging people to enjoy learning, and to recognise when they’re doing it. As a parent, I feel my job is to be constantly educating and re-educating myself, and to be making as many possibilities and opportunities available to my children as I can. I refer to myself as a “life-long student”, and I hope my children will see themselves in the same light.
    I don’t think it matters much whether this is done in a formalised, or informal setting; but like every muscle, the less you use your brain, the less you want to use it, and the harder it becomes when you try.

    • Lana Hope

      Love this. Kindred spirits!

  • I would agree with you on the three purposes. (Doug Phillips, et al. would disagree – their view of education is more about indoctrination…)

    In response to jesuswithoutbaggage above, I would say that there are a good number of us who were home schooled who did receive an education that fulfills the three purposes. One of the good reasons to home school is to eliminate much of the busy work and test preparation that consumes much of the time in the public school system. This frees the student to pursue the arts and critical thinking, and all the other things that have largely fallen to the wayside in favor of endless testing. (I have many friends who teach, and I hear this constantly.)

  • Thanks Fiddlrts, I am glad that it works for some. I was never involved in home schooling, but I have read many stories about the difficulties of those who were home schooled. In addition, I have seen samples of ACE curriculum. These were the sources of my comments.

    I am sure that in any educational system the quality of learning is based more on the teachers and the parents than on the curriculum, but it seems that home schooling has a much greater chance of failure by depending on parents and educators who are not qualified to teach and who have dysfunctional agendas as well.

    I am not opposed to home schooling as such, but so much depends on the learning environment.

    • Lana Hope

      yea ACE? OMG its painful and just filling in dots. Nope, nope, nope, not for me. Thankfully, they are just one cirriculum out there. Fundamentalism really is anti-intellectual. In fact, it was a reaction against the 17th-18th century problems that arose in theology, questions that intellects had arose. I second what Fiddlerts says. For the Christian Patriarch of today, education isn’t about intellectual pursuit at all. Oddly there are a lot of classics recommended by vision forum, but then, a lot of it is also Calvinist literature. 😛

      I do agree that homeschooling depends upon the parents. there is no way getting around, but I do think with some accountability, we could increase the likelyhood of responsible parenets to homeschool. In my home state, there is no regulations – not even registering as homeschoolers. So there’s so much room to slip under the radar.

  • You are right. Education should be for the reasons you state but unfortunately like in the case with Henry Ford…it’s not being used for the purpose of education itself. 🙁

    • Lana Hope

      On this we can agree!

  • Or is one of the goals (perhaps forgotten) to allow for adaptability and change. I think this is one of the things that has hit America the hardest – when manufactoring jobs crashed, the educated were able to pick themselves up, make some career changes and move on with their lives, for the most part, transferring the skills from one field to another. For many on the assembly line however, learning a new field was incredibly difficult. So the most vulnerable hurt the worst.

    • Lana Hope

      Oh yes, so much so. Those who are adaptable….


Get every new post on this blog delivered to your Inbox.

Join other followers:

%d bloggers like this: