In this first chapter I set out what I consider to be the three most commonly stated purposes given to the endeavour of educating the young:
- Socialisation – in this view, education is primarily a tool of the state, employed to make its citizens more productive. Children should be both prepared for work and to become loyal and enthusiastic participants in the activities of the state.
- Enculturation – the notion that the towering achievements of our culture should be passed along, like the Olympic torch, from one generation to the next to allow young people to fully participate in the intellectual and cultural life of their society.
- Personal development – the view that education ought to address ‘the whole child’ and aim to make children flourish in as broad a sense as possible. This includes the belief that education should be both therapeutic and concerned with developing character.
I summarise what I think each of these approaches gets right and wrong. For instance, character education has worthy goals, but maybe these are not directly teachable but rather a byproduct of being held to account for high expectations of good behaviour and hard work.
The aim of preparing children for an uncertain future by teaching them generic, transferable skills is also worthy, but equally misguided. As wonderful as it is to be creative, critical and to solve problems, we have to think about something. Unless children are taught to think about ideas they might not otherwise encounter, if the content of education is arbitrary, then the likely upshot is the young people will be less rather than better prepared for whatever occurs in the coming decades. No one knows which disciplines a child might want to specialise in, so all children need a broad and rich curriculum within which to find the areas to which they might – one day – contribute.
What about the notion that education promotes economic growth? Although it’s true that more educated countries are more prosperous, but this might be to mistake cause for effect. Maybe education is an effect of prosperity rather than a cause. Clearly, education benefits individuals and education is unlikely to happen without schools. But beyond the need to make sure that children become numerate and literate, the purpose of education cannot be economic.
The aims of enculturation may seem noble, but are they perhaps too rarefied? The idea that education should be the ‘study of perfection’ sounds not a little elitist. Wouldn’t they be better off exploring their interior lives, reflecting on their thoughts and feelings and striving to become fully rounded human beings? I’m all for children achieving personal growth, but I’m sceptical that the answers are within. The balance to be struck here is to concentrate on passing on what gives children most power to think and choose, to consider what could be improved.
It’s possible to espouse aspects of each of these beliefs while simultaneously denigrating others. We can, for instance, claim that it is more important to enrich certain aspects of a child than others; that wisdom is more important than intelligence. We can earnestly applaud efforts to make children easier to govern while raising an outcry against the pragmatic ideal of fitting children to jobs. But whatever you believe, the arguments that I go on to make in the following chapters build to the conclusion that if the purpose of education is to make children cleverer we will get far more of what we want and value.