Learning in Mind

Rethinking the Purpose of Education

The Meaning and Purpose of Education

Note: This article was originally written for teachers. However, the ideas are important to anyone interested in why public education is in its present conflict and what might need to happen to insure the future of free and appropriate public education.


ome time ago, a university professor wrote a letter to the editor of the local newspaper. He commented that people shouldn't put too much weight on the recently released trends in SRA scores of the state's high school students. The professor went on to describe some of the unanswered questions about the nature and value of assessment. He mentioned that one of the problems with assessment was the ongoing disagreement on the very purpose of education.

A few days later, the paper printed a scathing response from a community member who questioned whether the University really wanted someone on their staff who didn't even know the purpose of education. Clearly, this person assumed that his definition of education was shared by all. Is that true? What is the purpose of education? Is it contained in the dictionary definition of the word "education"—or is it something more?

Webster defines education as "the process of educating or teaching." Hmmm. Not particularly useful, is it? The word educate is further defined as "to develop the knowledge, skill, or character of…" Thus, from these definitions, we might assume that education means to develop the knowledge, skill, or character of students. But this definition requires that we further define words such as develop, knowledge, and character.

What is knowledge? Objectivists see knowledge as a body of information that exists "out there"—the results or products of human thought processes that have taken on a life of their own. In this view, Knowledge…with a capitol K…is the sum total of facts, truths, laws, principles, and ideas that man has produced. Human history is also considered Knowledge, although the accepted version varies from culture to culture, or from winner to loser! Codified in language, this Knowledge has been accumulated in books and other storage devices over the ages. 

If we look at the proliferating standards and benchmarks that were developed by many states after the introduction of No Child Left Behind—or at E. D. Hirsch's list of information one needs to be "culturally literate"(1), we realize how robust this definition of Knowledge is. Using this definition, "developing the Knowledge of the student" is conceptualized as "giving" learners vast quantities of these facts, truths, laws, principles, ideas, and history. This type of Knowledge—removed form the process that created it—is grist for the test mill because its "factual" nature lends itself to multiple choice questions with one right answer! This definition still prevails despite an impressive body of research demonstrating that knowledge is not "out there," but is constructed in the mind of each individual as that person interacts with the world.

This is hardly a new argument. In ancient Greece, Socrates argued that education was about drawing out what was already within the student. "I cannot teach anybody anything, I can only make them think." (As many of you know, the word education comes from the Latin e-ducere meaning "to lead out.") At the same time, the Sophists, a group of itinerant teachers, promised to give students the necessary knowledge and skills to gain positions with the city-state.

So what is the meaning/purpose of education…really???

One Word…Many Meanings


here is a dangerous tendency to assume that when people use the same words to describe a a concept or a situation, they perceive that situation in the same way. This is rarely the case. Once we get beyond a dictionary definition that is often of little practical value, the meaning we assign to a word, such as education, is largely an expression of a belief, not an absolute fact. Here are a couple of examples.

"The central task of education is to implant a will and facility for learning; it should produce not learned, but learning people. The truly human society is a learning society, where grandparents, parents, and children are students together."
~ Eric Hoffer
"No one has yet realized the wealth of sympathy, the kindness and generosity hidden in the soul of a child. The effort of every true education should be to unlock that treasure."
~ Emma Goldman
"The only purpose of education is to teach a student how to live his life—by developing his mind and equipping him to deal with reality. The training he needs is theoretical, i.e., conceptual. He has to be taught to think, to understand, to integrate, to prove. He has to be taught the essentials of the knowledge discovered in the past—and he has to be equipped to acquire further knowledge by his own effort."
~ Ayn Rand
"The aim of education should be to teach us rather how to think, than what to think—rather to improve our minds, so as to enable us to think for ourselves, than to load the memory with the thoughts of other men."
~ Bill Beattie
"The one real object of education is to leave a man in the condition of continually asking questions."
~ Bishop Creighton
"The central job of schools is to maximize the capacity of each student."
~ Carol Ann Tomlinson

These quotations demonstrate the diversity of beliefs about the meaning and purpose of education. How would you complete the statement, "The purpose of education is…"? If you ask five other people, including parents and teachers, to complete that sentence without hearing other people's answers, it is likely that you'll have five different statements. Some will place the focus on knowledge, some on learning, some on the teacher, some on the jobs, and others on the growth and development of each student. So what, you may ask? Why is it so important how we define the word? It is important because the definition arises from the person's beliefs. People's beliefs about the purpose of education are the foundation of their perceptions and behaviors! Today's public schools operate under the belief that the purpose of education is to "give" students an externally-defined body of knowledge and skills adults deem necessary for the student to "succeed." (whatever that means…)

The unhappy truth is that there is no purpose of education that is agreed upon by all, or even most, educators. The meanings they attach to the word are complex beliefs arising from their own values and experiences. To the extent that those beliefs differ, how likely is it that we can "standardize" what and how students learn? Worse, many educators (or educational policy makers) have never been asked to state their beliefs—or even to reflect on what they believe. At the very least, shouldn't people who play such as huge role in the mental, emotional, and social development of our children owe it to our young people to bring their beliefs into consciousness and examine them for validity.

Purposes and Functions


o make matters more complicated, theorists have made a distinction between the purpose of education and the functions of education. A purpose is the fundamental goal of the process—an end to be achieved. Functions are other outcomes that may occur as a natural result of the process—by-products or consequences of schooling. For example, many educators believe that the transmission of knowledge is the primary purpose of education, while the transfer of knowledge from school to the real world is something that happens largely without effort as a consequence of possessing that knowledge—a function of education.(2)

Because a purpose is an expressed goal, more effort is put into achieving it. It becomes a part of the explicit and official curriculum. On the other hand, because functions are assumed to occur without directed effort, they are often ignored during instruction, particularly when time is an issue. For this reason, it is critical to determine which outcomes you consider a fundamental purpose of education and which can be left to chance. Which of the following would you include as a purpose of education?

The list could, of course, be longer. This is but a first step in recognizing what you believe education "should" be accomplishing. But as Tom Peters reminds us, "What gets measured, gets done." And in today's one-size-fits-all standardized schools, what gets measured is "the acquisition of information."

How often, in today's public schools, are students given the opportunity to clarify their personal values? How is the capacity/ability to think creatively fostered in today's schools? How often are students encouraged to actually use the knowledge they've been forced to acquire to solve real problems? To what extent is the typical student recognized and given respect? How often are students given the opportunity to recognize and evaluate different points of view when multiple choice tests require a single 'correct' answer? What is a "good citizen" and how does one develop the ability to be one? And perhaps the most telling question of all—how often are students given the opportunity to choose what, when, and how they will learn? How can a child develop self-esteem and a sense of self-efficacy when they are rarely if ever given the opportunity and responsibility to manage and reflect on their choices?

Those who hold a more humanistic view of the purpose of education often experience stress because the purpose they assign to education differs greatly from the purpose assigned by their institution or policy makers. It's clear in listening to the rhetoric of education that its current primary focus is on the students' acquisition of externally-determined and largely context-free "facts," as well as the ability of the teacher to facilitate that acquisition—even though many have questioned whether this constitutes meaningful learning! In short, students are expected to conform to schools rather than schools serving the needs of students.

Many assume that we must prioritize the items on the list because, after all, there's only so much time. But must we really choose? What if we looked at the "acquisition of information" in a different way? Today, reading, writing, and math are set apart as things that everyone must "know and be able to do" BEFORE they can actually solve a problem. What if the process of "acquiring" informaton were embedded in real world issues that students could explore in depth? In other words, children learn by doing, rather than by memorizing. They learn what they need when they need it. As you run down the list of purposes/functions, think about how each of the statements might come into play if learning "the basics" occurred in the context of students' interests, or authentic problem solving.

Taking time to identify and agree upon a fundamental purpose or purposes of education is rare. Yet how can one judge the "success" of "failure" of a school if there is no clear statement of what that school is supposed to accomplish? One sees nebulous statements in school mission statements, but they are often of the "Mom, baseball, and apple pie" variety—glittering generalities that offer little substance on which to build a school culture. Creating meaningful and lasting change in education cannot occur unless and until the historical purpose of public education is re-evaluated in the light of current research on learning and changing priorities.

It is time for the focus of education to shift from what's "out there"—the curriculum, standards, assessments, classroom arrangement, books, technology—to the fundamental assumptions about education held by educators and policymakers. NASA did not send men to the moon by building on the chassis of a model T. Similarly, education cannot hope to move beyond its present state on the chassis of 19th century education.

  1. Hirsch, E. D. Jr. (1987). Cultural Literacy. Houghton Mifflin
  2. Callaway, R. (1979) Teachers' Beliefs Concerning Values and the Functions and Purposes of Schooling, Eric Document Reproduction Service No. ED 177 110

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