What is the True Purpose of Education?

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It is commonly accepted in our society that we go to school in order to get a job. I remember when I was growing up, my dad was emphatic that, after high school, I should go on to earn a bachelor’s degree in some productive field (he probably didn’t mean art history) because, in his experience, that was the first thing employers looked for. Do you have a college education? It was important for me to go to school and provide proof that I had done so with a diploma from a reputable university. This would ensure that I made enough money in adulthood to live a “good life.”

Of course, I knew that my original choice of major – journalism – wouldn’t necessarily be a huge money-maker while my fellow class of 1999 grads pursued MBAs and degrees in finance. And when I later changed it to graphic design, I remember my stepmother asking if I really wanted to do that as it probably wouldn’t make me much money. Even in my idealism, however, of pursuing a less-lucrative degree, I still knew that I had to keep going to school so I could get a job in my chosen field.

And while my view has changed somewhat since I spent my days in lecture halls, I do accept the fact that education is part of the job-qualification process. We endure 16+ years of lectures, textbooks, pop quizzes, tests, term papers, and final exams in order to get a piece of paper that proves to a potential employer that we know something about something. Obviously, we need some kind of learning to do a job properly. But I want to suggest that maybe getting a job isn’t the only purpose of education.

…the people themselves begin to understand and to clamour for an education which shall qualify their children for life rather than for earning a living.

Charlotte Mason, Philosphy of Education

I started to re-think this education-is-only-for-a-job theory when I began looking into homeschooling and, more specifically, when I read more about Charlotte Mason. As I watched my tiny son begin to figure out his letters and numbers and see the world with brand-new eyes, I decided that I didn’t want his education to be simply about getting a good job someday.

…utilitarian education is profoundly immoral, in that it defrauds a child of the associations which should give him intellectual atmosphere.

Charlotte Mason, Formation of Character

When we reduce education to being just about getting a job, we also diminish ourselves. We become mere cogs that are cut out and fitted into a system, only deriving value from the service that we provide to a company or a society, rather than the thinking, living, breathing beings that we are with varied interests and delights.

I wanted more than the cog experience for my kids.

No, here is a most mischievous fallacy, an assertion that a child is to be brought up for the uses of society only and not for his own uses. Here we get the answer to the repeated question that suggested itself in a survey of our education condition. We launch children upon too arid and confined a life. Now personal delight, joy in living, is a chief object of education; Socrates conceived that knowledge is for pleasure, in the sense, not that knowledge is one source, but is the source of pleasure.

Charlotte Mason, Philosphy of Education

I wanted my kids to develop a lifelong love of learning and understand that they didn’t pursue education just to get a good job but because they also found aspects of the world they were born into fascinating. And I wanted to encourage them to pursue those interests regardless of how helpful they might be on a future resume or job application.

…the function of education is not to give technical skill but to develop a person; the more of a person, the better the work of whatever kind…

Charlotte Mason, Philosphy of Education

And, of course, education is about developing character as well. Some might argue that this is actually the chief goal of education. After all, Ms. Mason wrote an entire book on this topic alone. When we look at education as merely a means to an end, we remove this side – the human side – of it. As there has been a rise in the demand for and salaries of those in the STEM fields, schools have responded to this by offering more classes geared toward this line of work. As a result, the other educational disciplines are disappearing rapidly to the detriment of the human side of education. There are fewer opportunities for and less emphasis on reading about great people in history and learning from their triumphs and mistakes. There are even fewer chances to be exposed to inspiring art or hear uplifting music because these aren’t considered necessary for a lucrative vocation. And while there is nothing wrong with learning about STEM subjects, this is only true if that learning is not to the exclusion of other subjects. To offer our children true ways to build character and discover the areas in which they are fascinated, they need a wide and varied education.

Education is the art of relations.

Charlotte Mason

Ultimately, I want to teach my children that education is not necessarily about them getting a job someday but is more about them developing relationships with the world around them right now. About them coming to know these things as friends. With God. With butterflies. With history. With paintings. With geometry. With rocks. With hobbits. With folksongs. With universal laws. With operas. With clouds. I want them to know that learning doesn’t simply stop when they achieve that piece of paper that says they know something about something. Learning is a lifelong process and a source of joy that will always be open to them if they know how to tap into it. My hope is that their education will allow them to do just that.

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  1. Thanks for this reminder!

  2. What a refreshing reminder. I find myself often seeking this alignment with the purpose of education when I feel like I’m losing sight of it ?

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