There is no single purpose to education – and that is something to be cherished

If we prioritise one purpose of education over another, then we lose sight of what is truly valuable about education.

We will all be familiar with something like the following scene: a family is gathered round to celebrate a child’s 2nd birthday. The parents are excited about the fancy gift that they have bought, and hand a large elaborately wrapped box to the child. As they help the child to unwrap it, expectant ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ can be heard from the observers. Eventually, they pull an enticingly designed and brightly coloured object from the box and place it on the floor. The child surveys the scene and decides that what they really want to do is just play with the cardboard box.
Of course, we laugh because it isn’t what we expect or the norm, but is it really such a silly thing to do? The fact is that there is something lovely in the way the child isn’t shackled by such expectations. Their gaze isn’t blinkered by adult values and norms. The child simply notices the possibilities.
Young children have, what G K Chesterton called, ‘transcendent common sense’. What is mundane for us is wondrous for them. A good twenty minutes can be spent simply opening and shutting a door. When it comes to how we think about education, I think we have quite a lot to learn from toddlers.
If you ask someone ‘what is the purpose of education?’ you will receive a predictable set of responses. Most test-hardened students will see it in terms of being able to get qualifications so they can get a decent job, more idealistic teachers might talk about imparting knowledge. The rather boring truth is, however, that education has thousands of purposes: it provides child care; protects children from exploitation; children learn to make friends; they learn to lose friends; they learn to organise themselves; they learn sports, instruments, facts, what excites them, what bores them, how they like to be thought of and how they don’t. The list goes on. Asking what the purpose of education is, is rather like asking what the purpose of society is: there are as many answers as there are people.
A useful distinction here is between teleology and teleonomy. Something is teleological when it has been created with a particular purpose in mind. Something is teleonomic when it appears to have purpose but cannot be said to have been created created for it. Colin Pittendrigh coined the term in the fifties to describe the apparent end-directedness of biological systems without the need to invoke a designer or foresight. I think that we could fairly safely describe education as being teleonomic rather than teleological. The concept of education is not something that was designed with a purpose in mind, but something that has grown as a result of myriad forces. And along with that growth, new expectations have emerged organically.
I can see why many people would balk at this description of education. If education doesn’t have a clearly defined purpose, then how do we establish whether or not we are doing it well? How do we know whether the students are being successfully educated? How do we choose between all the competing purposes? But I would suggest that to ask these questions is to miss a crucial aspect of the nature of purpose.
Most goals or ends are means to achieve other goals, but what is the purpose of a final goal? We might decide that being educated at school is about getting GCSEs and that getting GCSEs is about being allowed to do A Levels, and that doing A Levels is about getting to do a degree, and that doing a degree, is about getting a decent job, and that doing a decent job is about getting money, and that getting money is about living-well and that living-well is about… what? Well living-well is about living-well. It is an end-in-itself. We don’t need to ask what the purpose of living-well is… it is entirely purposeless. When we achieve our goals, it is foolish and depressing to then wonder what the point of achieving them is, instead we should be concentrating on celebrating.
Imagine that my aim was to be on the winning team in the World Cup. If, at the point at which I held the trophy aloft, with the fireworks, fans, and music blaring, instead of dancing and cheering, I suddenly began to wonder what the point of it all was, I probably wouldn’t enjoy the moment as much as I should do. I might decide that, actually, the purpose of winning the World Cup was to get a better advertising deal, and so I would spend my time ensuring that I was looking cool and marketable for the cameras. I might forget to take it all in, to enjoy the moment.
So it is with education. The fact that education has no single purpose is not a cause for concern, but for celebration. When we attempt to judge education according to some external standards, we lose sight of that celebration. Our attention is focussed, not on simply taking it all in, but on what we can use it for.
Simone Weil writes of the purpose of schooling as learning to pay attention. She doesn’t mean sitting up straight and silently listening to the teacher, she means ‘suspending our thought, leaving it detached and empty’. Paying attention is a ‘negative effort’. When we learn to pay attention, we learn not to impose our concerns and judgements on what we perceive. The truth is that when we are only able to see something in terms of how we might be able to use it, we barely see it at all. Our judgement clouds our perception like a colour-filter that we have placed over the world. Of course, our filters might simplify the world, make it easier to digest and understand, but they also significantly reduce its majesty.
The purpose of education is not to search but to notice; it is not an instrument, it is the music. It is not a step on the way to the goal, it is the celebration at the finish line. Of course, I accept that many of my students might worry about their grades, and of course I accept that I have the responsibility to help them to achieve what they want to achieve. But I do so, not because I believe that is what education is for, but because I accept that we are all flawed and we all often fail to see the true wonder of what we’ve got; we are all pitiable in that respect. We are all like the onlookers who laugh at the child for recognising the joy of playing with a cardboard box.

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