(this post is part of the international Purpose/Ed campaign which I heard about from David Kernohan on Twitter).

I was very affected by John Dewey’s Experience & Education. In it, he basically posits education as the transmission of culture. Education is what allows us to continue to progress as a species because each new human is able to draw from a collective memory bank that gives us stories, tools, and customs to live by. Without it, you’ve got the Lord of the Flies.

This definition gets us down to first principles, but it is incomplete. It’s fundamentally conservative and only looks at the positive things that can be transmitted from the past through the order and structures of the present. It ignores the negative hangovers from the past, as well as the positive contributions of the future.

Yet right now there’s all kinds of reasons to question the past. We’re living in a time when the basic principles of Western civilization are under severe scrutiny: how we get our energy, how we make things, move around and feed ourselves, is very likely threatening our future as a species. When the ground under our feet is collapsing in that way, it’s no surprise we’re spotting serious flaws and cracks in the foundation at the level of politics, economics and social institutions. Education, of course, is among those institutions. So what we desperately need is a practice of education that allows us to draw on the past in a critical way, swiftly cast aside the parts of the past that don’t serve us, and at the same time to embrace the best of the future. Let me cite a small example and tell you that the spanish clep test practice isn’t being carried out like it used to be a decade ago. I’ve been to some schools in my locality and can testify to that.

The more I think about it, the more I think that what’s key in that equation is the student voice. While educators continue to unearth and transmit the best of the past and current knowledge, students individually and collectively need to be empowered to question the structures in place and to be free to pursue their own passions. No decision of curriculum, grade, or whatever should be imposed from above without students taking responsibility for their own learning. This would drive diversity within the system as it adapts to a multiplicity of needs, freeing everyone from the yoke of standardization. And it would drive the system toward the future. I see this as more of a gut renovation than a demolition project.

What would the course book look like at your university if the freshmen wrote it?

7 Responses to “What’s the Purpose of Education?”

  1. Bryce says:

    Formal education: We tell them the wrong things, and if we’re lucky they ignore us.

  2. dkernohan says:

    I feel flushed with power, Anya. Flushed.

    Nice post – having seen you speak in a DIYU fashion a couple of times I was wondering if you’d mention career and employment in a positive way (you’d have been the first, and would have added a welcome balance to the prevailing ethos of purpos/ed so far – despite what us EduTechLiberals say it is the purpose of education for a lot of people). But then I get this:

    “We’re living in a time when the basic principles of Western civilization are under severe scrutiny: how we get our energy, how we make things, move around and feed ourselves, is very likely threatening our future as a species. When the ground under our feet is collapsing in that way, it’s no surprise we’re spotting serious flaws and cracks in the foundation at the level of politics, economics and social institutions.”

    Which makes me think of @dougald at Dark Mountain and makes me very happy indeed. It’s the stuff on the margin between business as usual and Dark-Mountain-World that interests me (hence my “roll your own” stuff about degree awarding powers). Glad to see you here too! I look forward to various levels of disagreement between us in the coming year.

    Thanks again.

  3. Doug Belshaw says:

    Great stuff about student empowerment and not just accepting the existing top-down grading, structure, etc.

    Thanks Anya, we appreciate your getting involved in Purpos/ed – we hope you and your readers will get involved by heading over to http://purposed.org.uk and, at the very least, subscribing to out weekly newsletter! :-)

  4. Ben Pryor says:

    I’m hoping I’ll have an answer to your last question this time next year! Nice connection between diversity in the system and student empowerment. How many institutions are struggling with how to “handle” diversity when the answer is sitting right in front of them?

  5. JohnH says:

    Bit pie in the sky and totally divorced from the realities of teaching in inner city schools. If they followed their passions it would

  6. Will Farris says:

    There are two kinds of knowledge human beings historically have sought to acquire for themselves along with two fundamental motivations for such attainment. The first kind of knowledge facilitates the “doing” of something. By way of some form of skilled action this kind of knowledge is brought to bear upon humanity’s efforts to subdue nature in order to promote a better existence upon this earth. This kind of knowledge entails techniques, machines, procedures, and so forth, that is somewhat arbitrary and changes with time. For example, the world of computers is replete with protocols, algorithms, and industry standards that allow for universal compatibility among a plethora of alternatives. However, any significant investment of study into the complexities and uses of these things will more than likely become obsolete and useless with time. Technological obsolescence applies to both the pot and the potter and seems to be a continuous concern among professions and career counselors that it scarcely warrants mentioning. The point is that while diligence in one’s studies of technology may pay near term dividends from a practical perspective, given its invented properties by humans, it stands to be supplanted by newer forms of technology and one should take care in embarking on a protracted effort to master something that may disappear in short order.

    Which brings us to the motivations for the attainment of such knowledge. One, of course, is the more practical of the two, namely a means to earn a living. Investments of time, money, and exertion produce a profitable return. The other motivation is more ontological, as it transforms one’s being into a definable entity for all society to behold. I am a doctor. You are a plumber. This comes with the inevitable stratification of social class, but so what? That is forever the way reality is, and the sooner one learns this the sooner one can make decisions (based on motivation) about those things that contribute to one’s status in society.

    The second kind of knowledge speaks to those ideas and facts and skills having an enduring importance and application for anyone anywhere at any time. Education viewed from a long position focuses on universally recurrent insights and experiences regarding the nature of reality, humanity, or consciousness that ultimately becomes independent of culture or epoch. Put another way, through history some things are inductively learned through experience and then abstracted, or deduced, into more general knowledge that attains a status of truth having widespread applicability. Without this process, how could anyone define any notion of human progress or hope let alone obtain it?

    Since we are all humans presumably embarked on a journey of improvement for ourselves and society it would follow that the most important topics to learn are those that develop the mind. One should teach first about humans, not about devices or technology since these things constantly change. There are first principles and reasoning skills underlying all else that precede facts and arbitrarily-established standards. I will confess that perhaps certain choices among many possible standards render them less arbitrary, but that can only further show my larger point that reasoning comes first.

    All this to say that a classical, trivium-based education has proven time and again to be superior to the Dewey-based pragmatism as a foundation for secondary and tertiary activities (read: trade and professional training) for most intelligent people. Learn the tools of grammar, logic, and rhetoric first then go after more formal or DIY education. Only then can you learn to discern the ubiquitous moonshine from the truth, the sophism of politicians and lawyers from the street view and wisdom of the ages. How can anything be more pragmatic than honing your intuitive senses and reasoning faculties to make better use of limited and ephemeral resources that may come one’s way?

  7. Lisa Schwartz says:

    I really liked reading Will Farris. Your intellect manages to hold two diverging thoughts simultaneously — there is something valuable in the status quo and that the status quo needs to be changed (i.e., DIU-U), if I understand you correctly.

    Who and what are you? I work at an institution of higher education. I have some uncomfortable insights about it, and am really enjoying reading Anya’s blog and those who participate in this discussion. Thanks.

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