The Purpose of Education

Recent efforts by conservatives in the US have reopened (again!) the issue of the purpose of education. In keeping with the tilt toward authoritarianism and conservatism over the past 40 years the push has been towards more structured education. This is a sharp change from the development of "liberal" education started by John Dewey at the beginning of the 20th Century. I examine both schools of thought below.

There are two views as to the function of education. Let's call them "knowledge" vs "process".

Education as Knowledge

In this system of thought the role of education is to impart a large number of "truths" to the young. This collection then makes for an educated person. Behind this thinking is the unacknowledged assumption that there is a core of information which is "true" and that those making policy know what it is. Knowledge is thus based upon referencing authority. In addition to important information to be imparted students are to be taught the virtues of obedience, loyalty and tradition. This appeal has also existed outside the classroom as the popular efforts to define the world's "great books" demonstrates. This type of education was the norm until the early 20th Century and is still common in cultures which intermingle religion with governance. Educated men in the UK and the US studied the Greek and Roman classics. There was no attempt to connect such studies with a career. The industrial revolution created the rise of trade schools where one learned a trade, but not trappings of a "gentleman".

Education as Process

John Dewey is credited with starting the movement away from the teaching of a fixed body of knowledge. He emphasized learning by doing and letting students learn from experience. The goal is to create adults who "learn how to learn" and can continue to learn new things on their own throughout their lives. Dewey felt this was especially important in a democracy since only those who could evaluate new information would be able to participate properly as the issues of the day changed over time. The second principle that he espoused was that people should always question received knowledge handed down by authority. Loyalty and obedience are replaced by independence of thought and critical judgment.

Education as a Reflection of Society

Unsurprisingly these two views of the role of education parallel the two principle divisions in how society itself is to be organized. Those who favor the "knowledge" framing are generally conservative and believe in a hierarchical structure to society. In a democratic state they are conflicted. They claim to support democracy, but work against it when they promote their views over those of the majority. Many adhere to some variation of Plato's philosopher-king or wise ruler, thus deference is to be given to religious, political, business and military leaders. This same group is not opposed to using the electoral process to put their leaders in office, by fair means or foul, since the end justifies the means to them. This is the contradiction, they are willing to use the democratic process to subvert democracy.

Those who favor the "process" framing are more likely to be liberal and willing to examine all sides of an issue and debate them with their opponents. They are baffled when their opponents fail to see the point in this as to them questions are settled by referring to authority, so debate is pointless. They also get upset when attempts are made to cut short such debate in schools and base the curriculum on fixed information.

Let's take an (over)simplified example - the multiplication table.

In the knowledge setting students are give the "times tables" and told to memorize them. In the process setting students are shown how multiplication is based upon repeated addition and that one can derive the result needed using this formula. Memorizing is promoted as a shortcut which will be useful in speeding up calculations in the future, not just as something to be learned because the teacher demands it. Sometimes a disinclination to require some rote learning goes to far and we find students who never memorize the times table. This is a failure of application of the process system of education, not of the goals themselves.

Reform Motivation and Recommendations

The reform movement (especially in the US) has been a push-back against the Dewey processed-based approach and back toward the authoritarian one. The true motivation has been disguised in a variety of ways. Here are some of the "concerns" which are said to motivate the need for change.

1. Schools are "failing". Students are dropping out or graduating ill-prepared. Students from lower socio-economic classes are failing to rise above the class they grew up in.

2. Schools are teaching "secular" or "immoral" values and students are being turned out without the proper grounding.

3. Schools are too expensive because of waste and inefficiency.

The suggestions on how to remedy these problems reveals the true intent of the "reformers".

1. School "failure", according to the reformers, is due to poor accountability. The solution is programs like No Child Left Behind (NCLB), a federal program which mandates annual testing of students and evaluation of the school's performance based upon the scores. Schools are supposed to make annual progress in each area. According to proponents, it is poor teaching and not making student's accountable that is the cause. The preferred solutions are to eliminate the power of the teacher's unions, especially tenure and to open the public schools to "competition" by subsidizing private schools via vouchers and other schemes to provide tax dollars to them. The real motivation is to discredit public education by setting impossible standards (no school can improve forever) and to shift students into partisan, parochial schools which are based upon an authoritarian model.

"Failing" schools are generally found in areas where the student body is poor and has undereducated parents. The tax base is low because of low property values and the schools are underfunded. These are problems of the general society, schools cannot solve them. Rich suburban school districts have been resistant to any programs which would shift students or funds around to equalize education spending and opportunities. Blaming the schools (or the teachers and administrators) when society at large does not want to address the issues is a red herring. The vast majority of business and public leaders continue to come from homes in the higher socio-economic classes and their children go to the best public and private schools. These groups find no fault with their education, their "concern" for the failures of the lower classes is hypocritical.

2. The issues of "values" comes up most frequently in conjunction with the teaching of evolutionary biology and sex education. In both cases it is the religious right which is raising the objections. Many dogmatic religions have realized that Darwinism calls into question some of their foundational myths and this, in turn, calls into question the infallibility of their dogmas. The way to combat this, in their view, is to prevent young people from learning the science so that they won't question the stories of their elders. Similarly sex education gives the young the ability to evaluate the risks of their own behavior based upon scientific information, rather than the inflexible rules handed down by their elders. Once again authority is weakened in favor of knowledge. Those who have pushed programs such as "abstinence only" sex education are so intent on maintaining their authority that they have been willing to see the young suffer a higher degree of STD's and pregnancies rather than allowing them to be exposed to objective information. This isn't about education, it's about control.

3. The concern over cost is, once again, a misdirection which is really aimed at breaking the teacher's unions. Even though teaching (which generally requires a Master's Degree these days) is paid at a national level below average rates for such a skill level it is claimed that it is the salaries that are the reason for "high" educational spending. But high spending only exists in wealthy districts. New York spends almost $15,000 per student, Alabama, Mississippi, Utah and eleven other states all spend under $7,000. Salary and wages in New York is $9,000 while in the poorer states it is under $5,000 per student. The difference is that in the wealthier states schools are called upon to provide many other services. This includes breakfast and lunches, and even lunches during the summer for qualifying students, health service, drug and pregnancy counseling and referrals, testing for psychological and learning problems and other social services. Local governments have realized that schools are the one place for contact between the government and children and keep added tasks to the schools to perform since they have the access. Schools have become social service agencies, no wonder the cost of running them has increased.


Claims to be interested in "solving" the educational crisis are mostly being fostered by those who want to replace a generally successful public education system with one which preaches their pet ideologies. People on both sides of the political spectrum also don't want to spend the money to benefit those most in need of help, especially if this means increased social spending or having to interact with the lower classes more directly.

Universal public education was the most successful innovation that the US created. Its benefits during the rise to a world power are obvious. An educated, industrious, well-informed, citizenry was able to innovate, adapt and build upon prior successes. In addition a citizenry taught the key lessons of civic responsibility and the rights of the individual has, generally, been able to keep the US from major political failures. No other nation has had a functioning democracy for as long. The present attempts to turn out docile workers and consumers who will not question their "betters" is not the way to ensure that the US will continue to navigate through the difficult waters which lie ahead.

A society has the educational system it wants. The US, apparently, has higher priorities than improving education and social services.

Click here to see all my essays in context.

If you have any comments or for further discussions email me at
Copyright © 2008 Robert D Feinman
Feel free to use the ideas, but the words are mine.