The purpose of education is an endlessly fascinating and deeply puzzling question. I know it has exercised many minds recently on twitter, and indeed Jay wrote a piece on it on our Inside Learning blog. I have recently inclined towards the view that the purpose of education is economic. Education has to help you to survive in our economy. This may seem a harsh and reductionist view, but I am increasingly drawn to it because of its simplicity. Education implies an arrangement or deal whereby society makes learning available for its citizens. It seems to me that Education has a cost, wether it is in salaries and buildings, or in more philanthropic arrangements, in time, which economists will tell us has a cost as well, called “opportunity cost”. Economies all work on the basis that trade underpins all complex interactions; you do something for me, or give me goods, in return I’ll do something for you or give you something. Money is just a proxy for exchanging time, goods or services. (Think of it as a flexible way of giving something back). This potentially stark view of Education says, ” we will give you education, in return for which you must give us something back”.
If you receive a private education, then the deal is “we give you an education, you give us some greenbacks”. Is a state education different? Actually, no. This time it goes “we give you an education, you give us your economic activity”. The “economic activity” is the payment that we make for our education. In typical local authorities, Education accounts for up to 70% of the total budgets, in other words, £millions! Perhaps you would like to believe that this is all about making the learner happy and unleashing their sense of aesthetic pleasure in life, but i’m afraid you would be living in cloud-cuckoo land. No one is begrudging our young learners happiness, and developing an aesthetic sensibility is a nice side effect, but if every learner came out of education wanting to be an aesthete, merely philosophising and enjoying art, then we couldn’t pay the teachers who run the Education system.
Make no mistake, the basic purpose of education is to drive our economy so that we can live. It is true that some people pay back more or less by their working lives than others, but the system keeps working as long as the young people who emerge, on average, work and create wealth through taxes and business exports. It is only through this equation of Educated citizens in return creating wealth, some of which pays the teachers, that we can find the true purpose of education; It is to ensure we have a wealth-creating society.
I would argue that from the point of view of the individual, the purpose is “to enable that Educated person to find a place in the economy that maximises their happiness while maximising their benefit to the economy and minimising any potential damage to the economy”. Clearly it is possible to freeload in this system, by taking an expensive education, and either engaging in no economic activity, or very low value activity that doesn’t repay the cost of that Education, (not to mention simply stealing professionally, which doesn’t pay back what has been taken out of the system). I have a sense that the profession is getting back in touch with this true purpose of education as a result of the economic downturn, and the fright that that has given those of us who believe that the state simply owes us all an Education, because it doesn’t. It simply does a deal with us, and for any country which is slipping down the international league table, as we are, the deal is probably out of balance.