Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Purpose of Education

So earlier I wrote a post briefly musing on what I took education to be.  This post is on what the purpose of education is supposed to be.

The kind of education I have in mind here is what I call "institutionalized education."  This is the sort of education that occurs in publicly and privately funded schools from pre-kindergarten to graduate studies.  Institutionalized education is typically what first comes to mind among most individuals when they consider the meaning of the term, "education."

What is the purpose and function of institutionalized education?  There seem to me two general answers to the question: one is scholarly, the other is economic.

The scholarly purpose of education might be for the acquisition of knowledge for its own sake.  Under this guidelines, schools would train its students to acquire new knowledge as effectively as possible.  This typically entails training students in the methodologies of various fields, like the scientific method, probability/statistics, formal logic, hermeneutics, etc.

The economic purpose of education treats education as instrumental in nature.  Education is the means to which one can achieve a certain socio-economic status in life.  How is this so?  Society has used education as a filtering mechanism for its work force.  I guess the idea is that getting a degree, whether high school, college, or graduate school, is somehow supposed to indicate some kind of success in the workforce, that would be harder to attain without the degree.  Education along these lines typically entails teaching methods and informational content that would considered assets in the job market.

Either purpose is fine when considered independently.  The problems arise when educational institutions are charged to do both.  At least at the collegiate level, institutions regard themselves as being charged with the purpose of scholarly education.  However, education costs money.  It costs money to build classrooms, pay teachers, and procure lab equipment or teaching tools.  So, while many colleges would like to be viewed as institutions of scholarly education, economic realities often dictate that the pursue education along economic lines.  People view education as the means by which individuals and families can obtain economic stability.  This view influences the public funding of education, as well as the enrollment and alumni giving at private schools.

When schools view themselves as providing both scholarly and economic types of education, tensions can arise as to how to distribute limited resources.  When money's tight, do you cut back on departmental budgets uniformly?  Or do certain departments experience greater setbacks?

Here are a few things that I wonder about.  Is it true that most colleges and universities are trending towards a more economic view of education?  If so, is this a good, bad, or neutral thing?  More generally, is education only instrumentally viable, or is the pursuit of knowledge valuable for its own sake?  If we believe the latter, why?

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