I recently wrote, as much in anger as in consternation, about the Education Select Committee's newly launched inquiry into the purpose of education. Here, I return to the theme for a calmer exposition of the philosophical impasse, political cynicism and ethical abhorrence that this event represents. (I also offer some thoughts on ensuring such antics once and for all stop desecrating our great profession.)
The Education Select Committee (ESC) wishes to know what the purpose of education is. They are evidently not alone. A Google search for the exact phrase "what is education for" returns 152,000 results. Remove the quotation marks and you will be offered 2.6 billion pages to choose from, including Ted Talks, 'Great Education Debates' and Forbes articles. Answering the question is a veritable industry, and this industrialisation of our purpose is destroying the public service that is our profession. It is all the more shocking in that the purpose of education is clear, and always has been.
In Aristotelian terms, to ask what education is for is a perverse sort of deliberation, for it is either one about ends themselves, or one about means without ends. Let us explore each and what they say about our society.
The first possibility, that we are 'deliberating about ends', debating our very goals, results in a shocking indictment of our society. It hasn't a clue where it's headed or why it does the things it does. Imagine asking what medicine is for? Quickly, you imagine a world without medicine and the answer is clear: Medicine is to avoid that at all costs. What is law for? Imagine a world without the imposition of rules. What is education for? You know as well as I: to avoid a world full of ESC member types perennially asking stupid questions (and wasting taxpayer funds doing it). Why! We could make a fortune marketising that.
The second possibility is that we are deliberating our means, as is proper, but that our means have no ends, which is preposterous. To expose the nonsensical nature of this proposition, we need only replace the term education in the ESC's question with any other process, activity or intervention, like so:
- What is walking for?
- What is the purpose of baking?
- What is typing for?
- What is the purpose of sex?
You may add as many to this list as will drive you to tears of laughter or frustration, but the possible answers fall into only two categories according to nothing other than your mood and predisposition to engage with your interlocutor: the 'it depends' category, where the purpose of the activity is loosely encompassed by the enumeration of a number of contexts in which it might be carried out, and the 'look the word up' category, where the purpose of the activity is deemed to be sufficiently carried by its definition to buy you some peace.
Logically, then, it is senseless to ask what education is for, though perhaps enlightening to explore what education is and some of the contexts in which it happens. A far more meaningful exploration of purpose would be directed at the institution of school itself. It is not a mere semantic trick but a fundamental shift in the debate to ask instead: What is school for? Education is a defining, permanent feature of the human condition. School, by contrast, is a social institution imbued with value-laden objectives as changeable as the conditions of human cohabitation are varied.
The language of education speaks to universality; it is philosophical; it is a leveller and those who speak it too often do so in order to find in it justifications for their agenda to control schools. Anyone can speak of education and, by the use of this language, affect shifts in government policy and school practices. But the levelling of the discourse allows entry to privileged voices: the loudest, the best funded, and the ones closest to the ears of decision-makers. Seldom, if ever, is that the voice of teachers.
Ironically, seldom is it the ESC either (and then only on relatively small matters).
Compounding the disempowering effect of this discourse, the use of the word education interchangeably with the school system devolves everyone but teachers from the responsibility of carrying out this vital social role. In so doing, it justifies to society at large a system of ever increasing measurement of inputs and outcomes, a climate of managerialism, and thereby a continued deprofessionalisation of schools' workforce.
I hope here to have made a persuasive case that the language of educational purpose is simply illogical, and that its use as a rhetorical device facilitates, justifies and reinforces power structures best served by a culture of anti-professionalism.
Further, I will propose an Aristotelian definition of education, show how such a definition might set a clear context for debating the purpose of school today, and how such a debate properly carried out could only be led by a true profession of teachers.
Click on the picture below to access the second instalment, to take back Ctrl of our profession, Shift the terms of the debate, and Esc the top-down model of the Task Manager in our school systems.