The aims of education?

Sometimes (well, often) when we engage in debates about education, we take for granted the ways in which underlying concepts provide a basis for assumptions about education’s purpose – and thus a framing for the discussion. In this post I discussed the critiques of education that we often see in media coverage and political argumentation, and how education is perpetually “failing” because it’s assigned a task that can never be complete. Here is a link to the original post from November 18, 2011: The aims of education?

Something that characterises education, as a practice and as a discipline, is the constant stream of public critiques levelled at education systems, educators, administrators, parents, researchers, and on and on — by each other and also by those not immediately involved in education. This kind of sustained contentiousness is not the same as the assumed trajectory of “progress” in which one theory or practice trumps another after a time, such as generally happens in other academic and professional fields. Education is distinctive not only because the critiques come from many different groups and are very highly politicised, fracturing and emotionally fraught, but also because the same kinds of theories, remedies, assumptions and attacks seem to be repeated over time in an almost cyclical fashion, which is both fascinating and deeply troubling.

I’ve been considering this again recently, after I began reading Kieran Egan’s book The Future of Education. Egan describes a version of the long-term conflict over education in chapter 2 of the book, where he argues that over time the same few strands of argument have underpinned most debates about education, its theory and its practice. Because the existing arguments assume contradictory purposes for education, there are perpetual problems with reconciling the many demands being placed on education systems over time.

Following the path of “unpacking” education’s assumed purpose rapidly leads us to some deep and difficult questions, the answers to which reflect our most basic assumptions about who we are, how our minds work, and what kind of world we should live in. What is “knowledge”, and how do we acquire it? Do we begin life with minds that are “blank slates”, ready to be inscribed with culture, or are we biologically determined to behave the way we do? Should education be elitist, cultivating only the “best minds”, or equitable, offering a fair chance to everyone? Should educational methods employ rational discipline, or give students total freedom? Should learning be about memorising facts, or understanding broader ideas and theories; should it be standardised, or individualised?

Education in the present is perpetually concerned with the future, which may explain the comparative lack of emphasis on the study of education history. There is another cause for conflict here, because our assumptions about education involve the fundamental dream of shaping and controlling the future, of providing a form of certainty in an uncertain world. Education becomes a means of realising desires for the future, for individuals as well as for states and societies. This is why education is so vehemently contested; because they who can make a claim to control the future, to show that their version of the future will be better, can make a claim to power. The close relationship between education and governance lies here, where prediction lays claim to political authority.

Perversely, education’s full effects are unseen until the future, which is why the “impact” of education is so hard to measure. And yet we continue to try to do so, because of the idea that the (potential of the) future should somehow be demonstrable in particular ways, in the present. This is a heavy demand; not only is learning simultaneously an individual/subjective and a social phenomenon, but its effects are not “complete”, nor fully visible in the present. The time of learning continues even when the time of assessment is over. For this reason the measurement of learning is one of the biggest stumbling blocks in education governance, even as governmental and public desire for certainty — validated by numbers — increases.

The task of education is never complete. Criticisms continue in perpetuity because education never achieves the aims and goals set out for it, which appear to be a series of moving targets that multiply as oppositional viewpoints battle it out in the spheres of policy and public debate. Education has never “succeeded” because we have not yet had a utopia by anyone’s definition, and because there are some problems that simply defy the remedy supposedly provided (the mitigation of capitalism’s negative effects by literate democracy is one that comes to mind). All this is not to say that we should be losing hope or giving up on some idea of education as a good thing, as important. My view is not one of cynicism. Rather, I’m keen to know and understand the past and in what ways we may be unconsciously reiterating historical problems in the present; my hope is that we can somehow avoid perpetuating what we continue to critique.