The Return Of The Most Annoying Question In EducationDecember 5, 2015
The Education Committee of the House Of Commons has announced its latest inquiry this week. It will be an inquiry into “The purpose and quality of education in England”. You can make a submission here or even contribute to an online forum here.
Neil Carmichael, the chair of the committee, is quoted as saying:
“In this inquiry we want to ask the question, what is education for? What is the purpose of our educational system? Is it, for example, to prepare our young people for the world of work? Is it to ready our children for adulthood and provide them with the skills to lead fulfilling lives? Is it to provide them all with broad academic knowledge, based on a shared culture and values? We can expect to hear diverse answers to this question but it’s important we get an agreed sense of what education is so we can then ask the right questions about how we evaluate the quality of our education and how well it is performing against those measures.”
Now I don’t have a problem with the quality part of the inquiry. Select committees are there to scrutinise government, and looking at the quality of education is part of that. Looking into the purpose of education is the bit I have a problem with. Actually, I have had a problem with this for years, so I apologise if you have heard all this before, but I’m going to say it again.
I consider “what is the purpose of education?” to be the most annoying question in education. The answer is the one I added to their online forum:
The purpose of education is to make children cleverer.
The purpose of education should be no more contentious than the purpose of medicine. The purpose of the former is to make people smarter, the purpose of the latter is to make them well. Yet the health select committee will not be holding an inquiry into the purpose of medicine any time soon, because treating people’s illnesses is seen as a good thing in its own right. As John Henry Newman asked in 1873:
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?
Unfortunately, the legacy of progressive education, particularly over the last 100 years, has been to cast doubt on the value of the intellect. Firstly, we have had attempts to turn schools into what R.S.Peters called “orphanages for children with parents”: institutions for the socialising and supervision of the young, rather than their intellectual development. Secondly, people have confused the economic advantages of a sound intellect, for the purpose of the intellect, and there have been repeated efforts to create an education system based on the workplace, or worse, some imaginary workplace of the future. Thirdly, we have had faux-egalitarian attempts to ignore, rather than remedy, intellectual differences between people. Even admitting that ignorance is a deficit, to be remedied, can be controversial.
These three points could all be applied to medicine with equal validity. One could argue that hospitals are there to look after patients, rather than to treat them. One could argue that doctors should be judged only on whether their patients are able to rejoin the labour market. One could argue that there is a stigma in identifying the ill or injured and that to do so is to sign up to a “deficit model” of health that fails to appreciate we are equal. The only reason we don’t often make these errors when talking about the health service, but make them all the time when talking about the education system, is because we have no problem appreciating good health as a blessing, but as a society we have increasingly ceased to value the intellect.
Now I accept that saying education is to make people smarter does not end all discussion. We still have to debate what a healthy intellect looks like. There is still room for debate over the role of knowledge, of the best types of thought, or the usefulness of exams. But these discussions elaborate the purpose of education, they don’t define it. The purpose of education is clear as soon as we identify that there is an intellectual realm within our culture. We might also find particular aspects of life that are enhanced by the development of the intellect. We may see intellectual development as increasing our humanity, autonomy, creativity, happiness or prosperity. But these should still be seen as the fruits of education, not the purpose.
The purpose of education is simple and clear and we have every reason to fear that as soon as somebody starts a debate about the purpose of education then the value of the intellectual side of life will be lost. A hobby of mine has been to collect the aims and purposes sections of progressive curriculums and tracts. Typically they have two dozen or more aims, most of which are actually about the aims of society, not the aims of education, and which only briefly touch on anything one could consider academic. This is then used to promote a dumbed-down, knowledge-lite curriculum. The only question that anyone needs to be asked about the purpose of education is: “Don’t you think you should already know it?” An inquiry into the purpose of education is unnecessary; if you have to ask what the purpose of education is, then you don’t really know what education is.