What Should The Aims And Purpose Of Education Be?

Ways of understanding and engaging with the world are inherently intertwined with our relationships to others. From our earliest interactions with family members and caregivers to our engagements within broader social, cultural, and educational contexts, the connections we form with others shape our perspectives, values, and interpretations of the world around us. Our human qualities arise from our relations to others; a human developing in complete isolation wouldn’t acquire a language or a culture, as these are given through relationships with others.

From a utilitarian perspective, education aims to provide an individual with the knowledge and skills to become a contributing member of society. A school or college curriculum is often mandated to achieve these objectives, which prepare students to be part of a workforce through discipline, standardisation, authority, and time management.

A worthy education provides something more. While it has to conform to the external pressures of society, government, and the economy, education can also inspire and provide the path for an individual to reach their aspirations. A rich education unlocks the doors of culture, art, philosophy, entrepreneurship, and the ability to assert our will onto the world. It provides a framework that helps us interpret the world and imprint our meaning onto the world, which I would argue is necessary for a healthy and fulfilling life.

In the film “Dead Poets Society,” (Weir, 1989) there’s a significant scene where the character John Keating, played by Robin Williams, asks his students to rip out the introduction of the poetry textbook due to its dry analysis and categorisation of poetry. He believes that poetry is something that should be experienced and felt, not continuously analysed. After this dramatic scene, Keating transcends merely being a teacher and becomes a mentor, encouraging the students to think for themselves and pursue their passions.

Biesta (2021, p.1) criticises the “global educational measurement industry” and how they override educational policies. The Programme For International Student Assessment (PISA) has been measuring the proficiency of 15-year-olds across the world, in the subjects of reading, mathematics, and science literacy. The data from PISA, and similar organisations act as a yardstick which politicians and policymakers use to inform their decisions. Biesta (2021, p.2) argues that this conception of education creates a cycle of competition “producing an ongoing increase in student test scores or securing constant student progress along predetermined trajectories”. For Biesta, educational measurements may have their uses, but they are abstractions that have neglected to see the individual student, and their existence within the natural, social, and world context.

He states that “trying to get curriculum content into children and monitor retention and reproduction, without any concern for who they are and for what they might do with all the content they are acquiring, misses the existential point of education”. (2021, p.3) He posits that educators have the role of encouraging the student to “take up their subject-ness”. (2021, p.2) Educators are mediators that draw out what is within the student, to give them a fair chance as subjects in the world. Instead of assessing a student’s success from our own ideals in an “age of measurement”, Biesta (2021, p.8) thinks we should move away from qualifications and learning objectives and instead focus on developing students who are skilful and knowledgeable in their own right, in an environment where teachers know when to act intentionally and when to deliberately not act, instead allowing space for the students to act on their own intuition and develop the capacity for agency that is needed in the world, and not always produced in its pure form in the current educational paradigm that we have inherited and shaped through our obsession with measurement. (2021, p.4)

Instilling a sense of agency should be a key aim of education. According to Brock (2020, p.165) students with special needs have fewer opportunities to practice agency. Wolfensberger’s theory of social role valorisation (Wolfensberger, 2011, as cited in Brock, M, 2020, p.165), states unless students with special needs have access to valued social roles, they will remain on the periphery of society. At Ruskin Mill College, there is an emphasis on promoting agency through the structure of sessions, as well as through craft and land work, which are inherently meaningful activities while also fulfilling valuable social roles, such as growing vegetables to be sold at the farm shop or creating a piece of art for a public exhibition.

In the conventional classroom setting, students with special needs have limited opportunities to engage with their peers on a level that would allow them to interact and build social connections with them. Brock argues that assigning extra adult support may have unintended consequences, as support staff may overextend their role, making decisions on behalf of a student, thereby atrophying their power of agency and leading to “learned helplessness”, in which the student no longer seeks control over their environment or advocates for themselves (Horn & Kang, 2012, as cited in Brock, M, 2020, p. 166). Many students require a lot of support in order to make decisions and access the curriculum. Through experience, training, and intuition, many support workers are able to apply the correct amount of support at any given time, knowing when to provide strong support and when to give the student space. Over time, through a well-considered support plan, it is hoped that the student will be able to reduce their need for support. The staff working with each student should be able to assess the student’s progress and adjust their level of support accordingly. The alternative model of support that Brock writes about doesn’t strike me as alternative, as this is the model that is practiced at Ruskin Mill. Training and staff development are constantly required to share this understanding of how to promote agency for students with special needs.

For many students, barriers to a good education prominently arise due to inequality in society, resulting in a lack of resources for many schools and colleges. Noddings reflects on the common belief that focusing educational resources on the “better endowed” (Noddings, 2018, p.180) will over time raise the long-term expectations of the least advantaged. This belief mirrors the concept of trickle-down economics, where each trickle is generational, and often all the trickles defy the law of gravity and find their way back to the top of the economic hierarchy. Should society regard education from this abstract economic point of view? If we neglect to educate everyone in society, are we then withholding a gift from them that we have no right to keep from them? An education, as Rawls points out (Rawls, 2012, as cited in Noddings, 2018, p. 181), enables a person “to enjoy the culture of his society and take part in its affairs”, which gives an individual a sense of worth through their agency in the world.

There are inequalities in society, these inequalities also find their way into the education system, symptomatic of society. In the educational landscape of the UK, where public and private schools coexist, education must serve as a tool to provide young people with access to positive relationships, regardless of whether they receive such support at home. As Noddings writes (Noddings, 2018,p.185), “Students need to see that the possibilities advertised as inherent in education are real possibilities for their own futures.” Through the building of trust, appreciation, and care from the teacher, the student has the opportunity to seek meaning in the world and lay the path for their future, which may have been blocked to them due to disadvantages in their initial circumstances.

I would argue that promoting agency through meaningful relationships should be the key aim of education. This theme is evident in the writings of Noddings, Biesta, and Brock, as well as in the plot of the film I have cited, which was ahead of its time. When teaching students with special needs, fostering agency becomes the desired outcome—a self-generated, conscious action. Once students have gained agency, the aims and purposes of any future education they pursue take on a very different meaning. They have enacted their agency on the world, and education pursued thereafter takes on new characteristics beyond the scope of this essay. In the first instance, promoting agency is the aim of education, standing upon a bedrock of understanding, enthusiasm, inspiration, and attention, which is found through relationships.

List of References

Biesta, G. (2021). World-Centred Education: A View for the Present. Taylor & Francis Group.

Brock, M. et al. (2020). “Self-determination and Agency for All: Supporting Students with Severe Disabilities.” Theory Into Practice. Taylor & Francis Group.

Noddings, N. (2018). The Philosophy of Education. London: Routledge.

Weir, P. (Director). (1989). Dead Poets Society [Film]. Touchstone Pictures.

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