What Is The Purpose Of Education?

Shutterstock / Aaron Rutten
Shutterstock / Aaron Rutten

My Monday mornings followed a strict routine last spring. I woke up with the sun, scarfed an energy bar, and took the Broad Street Line to North Philadelphia. My destination was an uncomfortably small room on a university campus. Crammed next to a dozen other students, I sat for three hours and listened to a short, tan man with tall, white hair lecture on the works of Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Hegel. His class was titled “On the Sublime.”

A college campus surrounded by urban blight seemed like an unlikely, even irreverent, location to rehearse theories of sublimity. After all, what good are treatises on elevated experience and beauty when the immediate world is full of dread and decay? I felt uneasy parsing the difference between ‘agreeable’ and ‘good’ when neither word seemed applicable to my friends and family living under the shadow of ever-increasing debt. I was beginning to feel the anxiety that comes from entering an academic discipline detached from real-world concerns.

Fortunately, my graduate student responsibilities included teaching a writing course immediately following my early morning class. The existential angst I experienced while discussing dead white men was attenuated by young people who were alive in every sense of the word. They spoke in tones that conveyed both enthusiasm and conviction. Their ideas were fluid enough that they could cover highbrow theory and popular culture within the same breath.

My students made a habit of speaking words that were on the tip of my tongue and our trains of thought often ran parallel. But class conversation occasionally took intellectual detours that I could not anticipate. My students offered electrifying ideas that never occurred to me during my lesson preparation. These moments were, if my former professor can excuse my loose use of the word, sublime.

The clearest example I have of this student-directed learning came at the height of my academic distress. Our class discussion began as a critique of films that portray teachers as zealous missionaries, but quickly dovetailed into an inquiry about the nature of education itself. I asked my students the question that had been at the forefront of my mind for several months: what is the purpose of education?

The expected responses came first. One student asserted that the primary goal of education is to “help students get jobs.” Another seemed to complete that thought by explaining how college leads to professional connections. One after another, student comments confirmed my fear that the educational system merely churns out young workers as a Detroit factory produces cars. To them, learning was a means to a material end. I was starting to become disheartened by our conversation until a young man in the back of the class raised his hand:

“Education is determining what’s important.”

I was stunned by this pithy reply. The 18-year old sage explained that daily life offers so many perspectives and so much information that the ultimate goal of education is to separate the meaningful nuggets of data from the detritus. He described education as a growth process.

This sentiment was familiar to me. Like many of my students, my original goal was to pursue a job that brought fame and fortune. Exposure to literature and philosophy changed these priorities. I decided that questions about love and aesthetics matter, especially during times of economic and social upheaval. I reasoned that even if humanity finds a cure for every known illness and develops an economic system that satisfies everyone, the big questions about life, love, and happiness will remain unresolved. My education became focused on the value of the humanities.

My student set off a maelstrom in my head. Yes, contemporary culture is full of howls and headlines heralding economic and ecological disaster. But the best way to combat these crises is to cultivate diverse disciplines where people are free to define and pursue meaning. The world’s woes are as complicated as its people. We need mindfulness from David Foster Wallace as much as we need macroeconomics from John Maynard Keynes.

Meaning is determined by careful consideration and reflection, not public consensus. A young man reminded me of this lesson. With his insight in mind, I tell my students to be fearless and to embrace the diversity of human experience. I encourage them to take classes outside of their intended academic path and discover where their true passions lie. I remind my students that the world and its problems are miniscule compared to the power of human reason and imagination. Kant may have popularized that last claim, but my students are the ones that convinced me it is true. TC mark

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  • http://gravatar.com/nishantjn nishantjn

    Well written and very true. As a student of engineering myself, my colleagues and I also often discuss literature and films and poetry. At the end of these discussions, we feel a bit of remorse that arts students in turn cannot discuss the things we study and do. A well-rounded education and insight into fields other than your chosen one are seriously important.

    • http://bienvenuee.tumblr.com/ Robert Sweet

      I think there is a proclivity to the latter since not everyone is capable of exploring classes in engineering. Everyone is perfectly capable of reading literature and poetry, but not everyone is capable of fitting an engineering class into their schedule. One is capable of being a dilettante in literature, poetry, art, and philosophy, but not necessarily engineering. I understand where you are coming from and I admire what you engineers do, but, as a philosophy major with a minor in linguistics, I just do not have the time to attempt engineering. Also, you should take into consideration about how the Universities are structured. I attend one of the best engineering schools in the country, but they hardly allow humanities, social sciences, nor even life science majors to take engineering classes.

  • http://bienvenuee.tumblr.com/ Robert Sweet

    Great article! Your writing is lucidly engaging. I am looking forward to more articles from you.

  • https://abandontv.wordpress.com/ Abandon TV

    “…..The expected responses came first. One student asserted that the primary goal of education is to “help students get jobs.” …”

    Wow. Such an inspiring answer! ;)

    I think the term ‘education’ needs to be defined more precisely. Are we talking specifically about state funded (and state controlled) education? If so then the purpose of it was conceived many decades ago by the Prussians, who pretty much invented the schooling system we know and love today.

    My favourite (mis)quote about education……”Education should be lighting a fire, not filling a bucket”

    I forget who said it though! (I obviously wasn’t paying attention….)

  • maybeemily

    lol hegel.

    just study math instead.

  • Dennis

    Oh, i used vocabulary to look up many words from this article

  • http://candycoatedpringle.wordpress.com candycoatedpringle

    Reblogged this on The Diva Diaries and commented:
    My answer to the question would go along those lines. Perfection.

  • http://www.surrealpixelstudio.com Aaron Rutten

    Thanks for using my artwork in your article!

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    […] In lieu with what’s on FB now: https://thoughtcatalog.com/2012/what-is-the-purpose-of-education/ […]

  • http://www.facebook.com/arraymac Randy A MacDonald

    When you downplay public consensus, perhaps you are addressing the Manufactured Consensus that too often passes for it.

    I would feel better saying education helps determine what’s _un_important, since not negating can still keep you in the rat race, having bought into the “importance” of success.

  • http://jadorepeacecorps.wordpress.com jadorepeacecorps

    Michael, I don’t know if you have time for outside reading, but I think you would really appreciate the book “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” by Paolo Freire. It discusses the concept of education as a form of human experience, that the process of learning is more than just memorizing concepts, but is in fact a way to fully humanize oneself with a really big emphasis on the process. You can find it online, it’s only four chapters, here’s the first one: http://www.webster.edu/~corbetre/philosophy/education/freire/freire-1.html

    Anyway, good luck!

    • Michael Blancato

      Couldn’t agree more. Thank you for the link.

  • http://inkdropspublishing.wordpress.com Dropped Ink

    Reblogged this on Drops Of Ink and commented:
    This was a really great post that says so much about finding the purpose in life and it not necessarily being about money, fame, and things. Very reflective.

  • http://inkdropspublishing.wordpress.com Dropped Ink

    This was a really good post, it really touched on the idea that life is about more than just money, fame, and things. This is a particularly great post that offers thought provoking relevance in a society that is obsessed with fame. I personally reflect on this daily as I struggle to find my footing in purpose. Thank you for sharing.

  • http://bleachedpeace.wordpress.com bleachedpeace

    As a high school math teacher and a graduate student myself, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. Thank you.

  • digthisnotthat

    “Meaning is determined by careful consideration and reflection, not public consensus.”

    <3

  • joelfirenze

    Reblogged this on an active mind.

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