Modern Education is Rubbish Part 2: What Should We Be Trying To Do?

November 4, 2006

… If a healthy body is a good in itself, why is not a healthy intellect? and if a College of Physicians is a useful institution, because it contemplates bodily health, why is not an Academical Body, though it were simply and solely engaged in imparting vigour and beauty and grasp to the intellectual portion of our nature?

Newman (1873)

Most public services have a clear aim in mind. The police are meant to deal with crime and protect the public. The health service is meant to treat the ill and improve public health. The fire brigade are meant to put out fires. However the education system lacks a clearly defined aim. Yes, we know we are meant to educate the young, but there isn’t a consensus on what “educating” is and how we can tell when it’s been done. In particular the purpose of education is disputed. According to Brouillette (1996) there are four main schools of thought as to the purpose of education:

  1. Humanist. From this point of view the ends of education are cultural and education is a process by which we gain the skills and knowledge to be informed and rational citizens of our culture.
  2. Social Efficiency. This is where education equips us for gainful employment and therefore serves the economic interests of society.
  3. Developmentalist. Here, education develops our potential as individuals, those attributes that are desirable to possess regardless of culture and employment prospects. The ends of education are therefore largely personal.
  4. Social Meliorist. This approach highlights the social benefits of education. A Social Meliorist seeks to improve society, in particular to make it more just, through education.

What these approaches require in practice allows for a remarkable amount of overlap. I would argue that it is possible to define aims for learning that go a long way to meeting several of these purposes at once. A literate, numerate individual capable of self-control is required for both the Humanist and Social Efficiency approach. Any likely dispute between those two approaches is going to be over the point at which the skills and knowledge a student learns are to be specifically vocational rather than academic.

If students from the most deprived backgrounds are to be included among those educated to the point of being literate, numerate individuals capable of self control then many Social Meliorist aims would also be met. After all there are clear links between poverty and educational failure. However, while I am happy to see social improvement as being about ending poverty and the existence of an underclass plenty of people involved in education don’t. Philosophically, I’m a “Rawlsian” here and see social justice in the sense used by Rawls (1973) as improving the condition of the worst off (”levelling up”). A lot of the people with influence over education have a “levelling down” view of social justice where it is not enough to improve the lot of the worst off but it is also necessary to worsen the conditions of the better off, often by closing any school seen as offering an “unfair advantage”. However, I would argue that it is not the purpose of education to make any social group less advantaged in terms of learning anymore than it should be the purpose of the health service to make any social group less healthy.

That leaves the Developmentalist approach. Of course it could be argued that the aim of creating literate, numerate individuals capable of self-control meets the aim of helping individuals reach their potential. In practice most Developmentalist approaches would go further – defining potential by reference to a particular ideological view of human development. Some of these viewpoints can, like the more extreme Social Meliorist approaches, be dismissed as inappropriate for an education system aiming to serve all sectors of society including those that don’t share a particular ideology. However, there is still a large amount of room for debating the finer points of the question “what type of human being should education produce?”

I suggested before that if students were to leave school literate, numerate and capable of self-control then much of the purposes of education would be met. The question regarding what academic and vocational knowledge is required remain unanswered, as does the question of what other attributes we would want from the educated. However, if we look at the tough schools I have been talking about in in this blog we shouldn’t have to concern ourselves with these issues, because the schools are failing to meet even the minimum standards. We don’t need to consider whether French is more important than Latin, or whether biology is better for children than history for it to be possible to identify a failure in education where large number of those leaving the system are unable to read, write or behave like civilised human beings. It is from that point of view that I suggest our current education system is a failure, and discuss why that should be so and what can be done about it.


Brouillette, Liane. A Geology of School Reform, SUNY, 1996
Newman, John Henry, The Idea of a University, University of Notre Dame, 1982 (1873)
Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice, Oxford, 1973



  1. “It is from that point of view that I would suggest our current education system is a failure and will seek to discuss why that should be so and what can be done about it.”

    It is often argued that the education system serves as a political ‘fig-leaf’ to make leaders look good, and that in terms of what it actually does it is very questionable. The point of education seems not to be developmental, but merely as some tiresome necessity that everyone wants over with as quickly as possible. Do the work, it’s really easy and broken down for you, get the grade, go to university and mess around. That appears to be the assumptions regarding education and lifestyle my students make (I work in a 6th form college), and in terms of what they think education is for, they rarely think beyond summative assessment. But, of course, education is not about learning stuff to be assessed, in order that the resulting grades can filter everyone into a Good Uni or an Ex-Polytechnic, with the whole system serving as a sieve that lets some through to succeed. (I must add, with odd pride, I went to Wolverhampton University myself).

    It’s worse than not just being able to define education, too. I don’t think we have anywhere near an adequate grasp of what learning is, and how teaching should be conducted in order to produce or maintain or manage or in any way affect learning. In fact, studies and researchers in the psychology of education can’t agree on whether teaching has that much effect. In the current system, I’d argue, everyone knows so painfully exactly what exams require that there is no particularly clever way of teaching anything. You can make it ‘fun’, but too much fun means less concentration on exam skills. You can make it ‘interesting’, but learn too much interesting stuff and you ignore the duller content the exam requires. To be pessimistic, we’re all plodding along down the well-worn roads, shackled to the curriculum.

    The blog I write on often discusses educational themes from a psychological and philosophical standpoints, and the perspective of me as a teacher. Even if you don’t read it, I’ll still be reading this – keep it up!

  2. Self control, reading and writing… hmmmmm

    The most important aspect of ‘learning’ for me, is to know if I want to know; and if so then whether I indeed know or need to make an effort to understand.

    Pretence of knowing is a crime, perpetrated daily in our schools, fed by the habit of ignoring what people want to know.

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