America Needs to Define the Purpose of Education

A former student of mine recently shared this video with me that raises questions about our current education system here in the US. The speaker argues that his generation “will not let exam results decide their fate.” I like it. Yet this claim and the reasoning presented in the video to support it come back to a central question about the education system in the US: What is the purpose of education?

The closest thing I’ve found is the mission statement on the Common Core State Standards Initiative website. According to the statement, the standards are “what students are expected to learn” and are “relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers” so that “our communities will be best positioned to compete successfully in the global economy.”

This statement, along with the standards themselves, seem to advocate that the goal of education is simply skills-acquisition. Phrases like “success in college and careers” and “compete successfully in the global economy” only show one side of what education can do, and should be a product of a much more important goal. Sadly, though, we haven’t identified this important goal.

Because education is a product of society, the US education system is founded on meritocracy and the skills dictated by the business world. While we can find evidence in our history of education advancing religious and patriotic values, what seems to be driving policy in the 20th and 21st centuries is based on what Raymond Callahan coined the “cult of efficiency,” which demands the skills and goals of business procedures. This helps us justify why we label students with grades, and why learning has become a variable in a cost benefit analysis.

As a teacher, nothing bothers me more than to see a kid play the grade-game: Is this for a grade? Will this be on the test? It shows that I’ve failed in conveying the true meaning of my English class. If they walk away thinking they got nothing from reading Hemingway other than a grade, then somewhere along the way I didn’t make it clear to all my students the deeper understanding of the world around them that is offered in the Nick Adams stories. If I hold myself to this standard, why can’t America’s educational system?

Education makes you a better person, a better citizen. It allows you to empathize, to understand different perspectives without agreeing, and to have humility without shame. A good education requires you to question your world, your society, and to seek the truth even if it challenges what you’ve always believed or thought you knew. (And a life lived unchallenged isn’t worth living, in my opinion.) When you place these goals of education first, then the skills that the business world are touting will surely be acquired simply in an effort to achieve them. 

If teaching has taught me anything, it’s that students love learning, but they hate school. They don’t see a need for it unless they  see a direct correlation to their long term goals, whatever those might be. Students are not seeing education for what it really is, and that’s our fault for not identifying it.  We always say to students,  “You need an education because…” Instead, our society should simply argue, “You need an education.” Maybe if we conveyed goals that reflected the true intent of education, then students would love school as much as they love learning.

However, the message we send kids is that education is what you make on a test, and a passing grade will get you a good job. I’m glad to see kids are smart enough to know that a test doesn’t determine their fate. I’m glad to see our kids want more out of education than just grades. It would be nice if the policy wonks on Capitol Hill were on the same page.

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