The Purpose of School

When the school year ends in the next few weeks, more than a handful of students (and teachers?) will look back and think: “What was the point of all that?”

For some, it only takes a glimpse of life outside the classroom to start questioning the purpose of school. Especially when all the fun seems to happen beyond the academic calendar.

Of course, parental pressure aside, most students stay in school because they realize an education will help them sustain a career they (hopefully) enjoy, affording them a comfortable, satisfying lifestyle. And some students simply like to learn.

But, as a society, are these the only reasons we have school?

Seth Godin thinks there are at least 27 purposes for school. Things like:

6. Pasteurize out the dangerous ideas
7. Give kids something to do while parents work
12. Generate future scientists who will advance medicine and technology
25. Decrease crime by teaching civics and ethics
27. Make sure the sports teams have enough players

Perhaps most compelling is reason #1: “Become an informed citizen”.

Democratic societies give equal power (well, voting rights) to every citizen, and depend on an informed citizenry to make wise decisions. Critics of democracy say that voters will always be irrational to a certain extent, but no one doubts that education is a step in the right direction. What voters know (or think they know) helps determine their vote.

Education also plays a major role in what you care about. For instance, knowing that one billion people do not have access to clean water probably makes you more likely to pressure your congressman to support international relief efforts. And this influences the political trends of the nation as a whole.

A Rand-McNally Grammar School Geography book from 1897 puts it this way:

The republican form of government is the form consistent with the highest degree of civilization. It is a government of the people, by themselves, for their own benefit. As the sovereignty is vested in the whole people, the vote of the poorest, humblest, and most ignorant citizen is as potent as that of the wealthiest, greatest, and most learned.

The danger attending such a government is that ignorant citizens may so far outnumber wise men that, when misled by those who are designing and unprincipled, laws may be enacted that are hurtful to society.

As guard against this danger, republican governments establish systems of public education designed to give to all their citizens such knowledge and mental discipline as will enable them to act with intelligence and judgment in the exercise of sovereignty.

I love it. It’s exciting to think of education as more than job preparation. It’s a contribution to the success of our nation, and people everywhere.

And in addition to “mental discipline”, I think democracy most benefits when educators help students discover the intersection of their passions and skills. Competent workers, doing what they love, inspiring others to achieve more….sounds like a pretty nice place to live.