What is the purpose of education?

Toy train Gaylord Texan 120What does a railroad have to do with the purpose of education?  It has more to do with what it should not be.

So what exactly is the purpose of obtaining an education? If you answer “to learn” that is obvious, but that answer also side steps the question. It says nothing about what you are learning or why.  About 15 years ago as I sat at a university commencement,  the keynote speaker said the purpose of education was to make students “change agents.” This was the lingo of the time to say education was given the lofty goal of changing the world to make it a better place.

Roll forward a few years and post secondary educators are challenged to figure out if their graduates are going to know what they need to get a decent job. I have seen numerous articles directing students into majors that will actually results in careers based and allow them to pay back their student loans. Recently my daughter had a discussion with a philosophy major at a state university. He was one of only two philosophy majors,  and after their discussion, it seemed like he was bailing out, leaving one lone philosopher. It looks like making the world a better place will have to be put on hold for a while.

I thought it might be interesting to look back at some notable people in United States history to see what they had to say about the purpose of education. Benjamin Franklin said “An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.” [1]  This definitely falls into education equals earning power camp. You may protest that interpretation saying that the founding fathers were noble seekers of freedom. However, you need to realize the Thomas Jefferson had considered using pursuit of “property” rather than “happiness” in the declaration of independence.  What did our first president George Washington say about education? He thanked to his mother for teaching him all that she did. [2]

Abraham Lincoln noted that “The philosophy of the school room in one generation will be the philosophy of government in the next.” [3] Although this president did not provide a lot of insight into what he thought should be the philosophy taught in the school room, he did make an astute observation. Philosophy is taught in school, even if there are no more philosophy majors. Text book writers, teachers, coaches professors all present morals and values as they instruct, and these do not all agree. If we think that can teaching without teaching beliefs we leave students awash with detailed minutia of facts and no coherence. However philosophy is often presented by behavior rather than the words we say, which makes me cringe every time I see someone in education getting arrested. This does affect how the next generation of leaders will lead. It is interesting that both Washington and Lincoln praised their mothers for teaching them.

However, my favorite presidential quote about education has to be the words of Theodore Roosevelt. He grew up in the gilded age, when the industrial age brought opportunity for men to make more of themselves, even if it meant building big business at the expense of others. Roosevelt said “A man who has never gone to school may steal from a freight car; but if he has a university education, he may steal the whole railroad.”[4] Looks like we really need to figure out the purpose of education, including college education, before we start encouraging everyone to get one.


[1] http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/b/benjaminfr141119.html
[2] http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/g/georgewash146830.html
[3] http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/a/abrahamlin133687.html
[4] http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/t/theodorero101963.html




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1 Response to What is the purpose of education?

  1. knlistman says:

    Reblogged this on Write about what? and commented:

    With teacher strikes in California making the news, I thought it would be good to review what the goal of education is.

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