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What is education for?

— August 11, 2016

Education has been a hot-button issue lately, mostly because of the varying demands placed upon the educational system by different factions. Should schooling be about acquiring job skills needed in an increasingly technology-based economy? Or is education more about becoming a more well-rounded individual who is able to draw upon a greater base of knowledge from many disciplines, not all of which have a profit motive? Is advanced schooling necessary, or is it even worth discarding altogether in favor of less traditional methods of gaining the skills needed to navigate life’s path? With so many different opinions vying for prominence in the court of public opinion and, more crucially, in public policy, the best way to allocate our resources might be to first answer the question, what is education for?

At the base of Maslow’s famous hierarchy lie the needs of the body: food, shelter, safety. If we do not have these things, it’s much harder to live our higher values, connect to others, and make the world a better place. School is, first, a place where one learns skills for living, and nowadays, living usually means getting, and keeping, a job. To this end, “No Child Left Behind” was meant to provide a minimal level of proficiency in basic skills to all students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds. However, ensuring that every single student meets these requirements (or the school would forfeit Title I funds) eventually proved impossible, while teaching to the test meant that other important topics were dropped altogether, to the detriment of actual education.

To better prepare the vast majority of students with useful job skills, we may do well to emulate some educational successes from around the world. A school in Georgia is currently adapting a German program whereby students, starting at 15 years old, are apprenticed at local businesses. It is hoped that training these kids will provide a long-term pipeline of talent to fill jobs at these and similar businesses. One criticism of using our public education system as a job-training system, however, is that it externalizes one of the costs of doing business (training workers) onto the public sector, to be paid for by the taxpayer or by the students themselves. Is business, which often profits by the short-term strategy of externalizing as many costs as possible onto as many other entities as practical, really so helpless as to need to be coddled and subsidized this way?

Also, isn’t there more to life than simply learning to be a cog in the machine? There are an endless array of skills and learning that can improve the quality of life and make people better, more informed citizens, but which do not lead directly to a profitable job. If we value independent thinking, ecological awareness, emotional intelligence, and lives that add up to more than just a directive to produce, consume, and obey, these goals should be reflected in the education we provide to our young people. Why don’t we? There are many possible answers, but one big possibility is that a cog-based education is required to avoid social unrest. If we teach impressionable children that there is more to life than simply getting a job to survive, that they have a right to expect more than that from the world we’re leaving to them, yet if there is no place in the world for people who don’t fit into cog-shaped holes in the machine, we’ve then created a generation of miserable, disillusioned individuals. Is this ethical? If you’ve ever thought that there must be more to life, that you were meant for something greater than working your 9-to-5 in order to keep body and soul together for another day, lather, rinse, repeat, but instead you look into your future and you see nothing more than countless freeway commutes to a job where your greatest value is the ability to fill in forms accurately until one day they ship your job to a third-world country or you age out of a position that younger people are able to fill more cheaply, then you will understand the existential emptiness of being a fully actuated human being in a world that expects you only to warm a cubicle and please The Man.

Unattributed meme of the sort widely found on the Internet. This example courtesy of
Unattributed meme of the sort widely found on the Internet. This example courtesy of

Finally, with so many reasons to attend school and obtain a post-secondary education, whether it is to ready oneself for the workforce with a bachelor’s degree that is the modern equivalent of the high school diploma, or to learn the beauty of the humanities, so many people want to attend college that it started to become rationed by price. College became expensive, perhaps too expensive for many young people to attend. This drove support for Bernie Sanders’ plan to make college “free” – that is, to decide that college is important enough to collectively fund through taxation. This plan did not necessarily explain how it would create more college classrooms or teachers to accommodate the new students that had previously been priced out of the education market, though, nor did it account for the increase in price that would likely arise when suddenly, every student’s tuition would be covered by the rest of us. Would price be no object, especially if a student’s educational path led to questionable usefulness either as a worker or a citizen? On the other hand, continually pricing apt yet needy students out of education means creating a class divide, with an “aristocracy” able to afford education on one side, and on the other side, a larger underclass depending on alternative sources of education, such as free videos on YouTube or informal community “skools” to learn skills for jobs that may or may not exist when they need them.

What is education for? It depends who you ask. The more complex society becomes, the more different kinds of education become necessary. With so many stakeholders asking so much from the educational system, it seems well on its way to fragmenting beyond recognition. What we decide about education in the coming years will be a big clue about the way we view our priorities as a society.


No Child Left Behind: An Overview
Program Brings German-Style Apprenticeship Training To Ga.
It’s Time to Make College Tuition Free and Debt Free
The Profound Ways that Schooling Harms Society: Incredibly, All of This Is Invisible to Our Culture
To Advance Education, We Must First Reimagine Society
Peter Thiel: We’re in a Bubble and It’s Not the Internet. It’s Higher Education.

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