What is education actually for?

Among readers of this blog, I’m confident that there is a consensus on what education is not for: namely, it is not exclusively for job preparation. While working is part of life and education has to contribute to that, I doubt that anyone here is willing to say that education should be geared solely toward work.

That said, then, what is it actually for? I’m not sure that we really have an answer to that other than something like “personal enrichment” — which someone in a cynical mood could translate into economic terms by saying that we’re insisting that education contribute to leisure time as well as work time. If that’s the narrative, then I think we’re doomed to lose the argument, because then the non-work-oriented education becomes a bona fide luxury that is not going to be “worth the investment” for most people. Who’s going to be willing to spend tens of thousands of dollars for the promise of having more nuanced political opinions and reading books after school and watching different movies and TV shows than most people?

As I’ve been teaching Plato and Aristotle, I’m struck by how impoverished our best other answer — “responsible citizenship” — is than the classical ideal. For us, it seems that we’re thinking that people won’t be easily hoodwinked by politicians and will vote more “correctly” (presumably for Democrats). For them, education for citizenship meant being able to step in and govern, and that necessarily meant having a broad enough range of interest that governing wasn’t considered an end in itself (something I was reminded of by tweets from @FuckTheory yesterday).

If you think about what a legislator actually has to do (at least ideally), it seems that the kind of education we associate with the “liberal arts” is really crucial. You need to be able to assimilate new bodies of knowledge quickly, think creatively about problems, have a strong “bullshit detector,” etc. Even in running for city council in a small town, you’d have to suddenly be able to make responsible decisions about land use, water distribution, and a wide range of other problems that most people in their everyday life do not and should not have to think about. Aside from the “content,” you’d also have to be good at reading people and mediating conflicts.

When we compare this ideal legislator with the depressing reality of our political and economic elites, who are completely unimaginative, driven by empty slogans rather than anything resembling reality, etc., I think we can see what education in this sense could do for society — and on the other side, how education that enables people to be efficient cogs in the machine might actively destroy the possibility of good and responsible government. We tend to fetishize “informed voting” to a degree that is disproportionate to the reality that there are only two options which are pretty well known quantities at this point (I don’t need to scour campaign websites and know each individual candidate’s “stand on the issues” to know that Republicans are never going to be a good fit for me). But I wonder how different things might be if people educated in the “liberal arts” took it for granted that they would participate in government in some way during the course of their life, even if only something like the school board?

22 thoughts on “What is education actually for?

  1. How about if our political and economic elites are driven by a lust for power, which disguises itself in empty slogans while taking on infinite, imaginative subtleties in their rich inner worlds? Or, the premise of every fiction about political elites ever.

  2. This might just be a variation on your “personal enrichment” option, but I’d say we (or at least I) study philosophy because it’s interesting: it doesn’t necessarily make me a better person or contribute to my sophistication and culturedness, but it’s damned fun to read and write and puzzle over.

    As for your objection that, if this our answer, how are we going to convince people to fund us and attend liberal arts colleges, why do we have to say that this is the basic reason for a liberal arts education? Tell them it makes us better citizens, or contributes to our marketability, or whatever. As long as we attract some people who can see the value in reading Kant, why should it matter we’re not telling the whole truth?

  3. I think one of the most complicated things about this issue is that, in the end, we need (and ask for) multiple things from education: training for a craft or profession, an introduction to democratic social life, the kind of quality of life improvements that come with the ability to manage information, that “internal” sense of fulfillment that we can only gain through intellectual highs… and there’s more that I’m not even mentioning here. The problem is that, I think, as educators (especially in the humanities), we’re asked to distill all of these down into one, clear justification that will somehow provide the magic bullet that will convince the public that the enterprise we’re involved with is valuable. This distillation is always going to be a reduction, and it’s not usually going to sound entirely “right.” Educational institutions are an imperfect inheritance that serve numerous crucial functions in the public life that we’ve been introduced to. At least, that’s what I think.

  4. While education (K-College) is not necessarily for “job preparation,” I’m convinced that K-12 public education is to create a better workforce for the national economy. Workers who know their multiplication tables will be more efficient than workers who don’t in many sectors of the economy, etc. But this is not merely a capitalist endeavor, for even for Marx in the Manifesto, public education is one of the 10 “suggestions” for the new Communist society.

  5. This is true. One could chalk that off to its belonging to the public sector, and thus many voices are continuously molding it. Yet. if we took away public education, as some radical libertarian voices have suggested, the workforce and the economy would crumble. Which is why the government not only funds pubic education, but also sets minimum standards, so that our economy can continue to be competitive with other developed nations… which we’re not doing well.

  6. I’m not sure if you’re really responding to what I wrote. No one is suggesting that economic factors or job readiness be excluded from education, and it seems obvious that those purposes are the primary factors driving public spending on higher ed. I’m arguing, though, that there are greater public goods served (at least potentially) by education — and now that you bring up the topic, I think those goods should be served also by lower levels of education, a conviction that current practice reflects (albeit less so as time goes on). I’d even say that limiting education to economic concerns is the surest way to make school suck even more than it already does, and hence make students hate it more, and hence undercut the economic effectiveness itself.

  7. This is explicit in the founding philosophy of my curious alma mater, where Friday nights were given over to self-government meetings run under Robert’s Rules of Order. Its body of alumni have not produced much of a leadership caste, but consider that there are only about 800 of them alive.

  8. Up until about the turn of the 20th century, the purpose of schools was to pass on cultural ideals. In the West, that meant passing on Western civilization. That was what the Greeks, the Romans, and all European and American schools did until about the early 20th century. If you go back to any good school before the end of the 19th century, you will find them teaching the great books in the original languages. They taught Latin and Greek primarily and mathematics secondarily–and the liberal arts in general (which was basically training in language (the trivium) and mathematics (the quadrivium)).

    By 1920, progressivism (which basically amounts to social reform) has taken over, with pragmatism (vocationalism) coming to displace it in the 40s and 50s in the “Life adjustment” movement. Some combination of the two have ruled the education roost ever since. European countries have kept the classical emphasis on transmitting cultural ideals longer than America has, but they’re slowly abandoning it as well. In fact, most educational institutions not only don’t see it as their job to pass on a culture, but are engaged in actively undermining it.

    I happen to be writing a book on this right now. It’s refreshing to see someone ask this question.

  9. This is a very interesting post, assuming that we really do have an expansive definition of “work” and “government.” For instance, let’s take Quentin Skinner’s reading of Tacitus, Sallust, Livy, and the “democratical gentlemen” of early modern England on the dangers of absolutism. The absolutist ruler will never receive honest advice. Everyone under him or her will live in debilitating fear and uncertainty and eventually become “dispirited, discouraged, disheartened, and finally dejected and debased.” Obviously, this can happen under a Charles I, but we can also imagine it occurring in a small business, place of worship, labor union, school board, or even something like a Bengali Association (to provide only a few examples). Thus, reading Quentin Skinner would seem to be generally useful, because nearly everyone will do something like “governance.” And there is always something like “governance” in “work,” even if you are managing a local grocery store.

    The difficulty is that college students are at the point in their lives at which they participate in less organizations and institutions than they ever will. Furthermore, I gather that they generally aren’t exposed to this sort of “governance” in their earlier education or through the media.

  10. Education is actually for the reproduction of the social order – I think Althusser, Bowles & Gintis, and Bourdieu were right about this. But I take it that Adam is also implicitly asking what education should be for, not just what it is actually for.

  11. Martin,

    You’re using words and concepts that are themselves highly freighted – notice, for one thing, that the very word culture is a highly philosophic construct (in this case, it’s a term largely invented by nineteenth century German philosophers for their own particular philosophic purposes). Since, for example, Plato and Aristotle did not use the term “culture”, it is not clear at all that they agree that education is passing on cultural ideals – indeed, in some sense, Plato demolishes the practice of passing on the cultural ideals of the traditional Athenian education of his time (usually focused on Homer’s poetry) – witness that he simply calls the poets liars in the Republic and undermines Alcibiades’ confidence in his own education in the First Alcibiades.

  12. Isn’t “reproduction of the social order” one of those things that purports to illuminate everything but actually tells us very little?

    But that will all depend both upon one’s understanding of what the social order is, and how best to reproduce it. While such things might initially appear obvious – “the university under capitalism will reproduce capitalism” – that doesn’t tell us enough: there can be any number of disagreements (sometimes extreme) about what capitalism really is and how best to reproduce it, even limiting discussion to the most dedicated capitalists solely.

  13. Hi burritoboy,

    My rather cryptic comment about “reproduction of the social order” is cryptic, but it points to a wealth of literature that works out in great philosophical, sociological, and statistical detail what it means for the educational system to reproduce the social order. A few classics in this genre:

    1. Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatus.” http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/althusser/1970/ideology.htm

    2. Bowles, Samuel and Gintis, Herbert. Schooling in Capitalist America. 1976. New York: Basic Books.

    3. Bourdieu, Pierre and Passeron, Jean-Claude. Reproduction in Education, Society, and Culture. 1990. London: SAGE Publications.

    I do not think that there is that much substantive disagreement about what capitalism is: it is the conduct of business for the sake of private profit through market exchange. Whatever Weber, Marx, and other economists disagree about, I think we can safely say that the aforementioned definition is uncontroversial.

  14. Phenomonenologist,

    Several different issues:

    1. In fact, there is substantial disagreement as to almost every concept within “capitalism”. For example, there are many different definitions of private profit and many major theorists (even restricting our analysis solely to supporters of capitalism) strongly disagree: there are multiple definitions preferred by economists, others preferred by accountants and still others preferred by other actors and theorists. What seems to be a simple and uncontroversial concept is in fact a minefield – it is common to have an earnings announcement where investment analysts tell the announcing company that their presentation of the earnings is incomplete or unsatisfactory or that the company is highlighting only those definitions of profit that make the company look good.

    2. Similar things are true of multiple of your terms: market, exchange, business are all arenas of contending understandings even within the supporters of capitalism. For example, Keynes explicitly challenges Pareto’s market theory. (In the actual events of history, this was the angry clash between Keynes and Pigou in the 1930s).

    3. Even among the capitalists, the clashes over the meanings of capitalism are among the most fundamental political / economic clashes. Think about the battle between the New Dealers and the Neoclassical economists in the 1930s and 1940s, for instance, which was probably THE most important political debate of that time.

  15. As regards education as a reproduction of the existing social order (i.e. political economy), the critique of Ivan Illich (a pioneer even among Phenomenologist’s authors) must also be counted and remembered. His “anarchical” interventions (both theoretical and practical) were more radical than most, in that he wanted learning to be decoupled from schooling AS SUCH (NOT just public schools). Presumably this INCLUDES home schooling. At the same time, his remedy for a “convivial” lifelong learning, inspired as it was by the Medieval guilds (more than university, of which he was an astute student), people’s/open universities, communitarian thinking and emerging networked sociality, seems deeply ambiguous in its application. It could be a libertarian or liberatory practice (or mixed), depending on context and invested desires. At minimum, he insisted on a delinking from dominant modes and habits of education, and an element of (meta)autodidacticism in a relationally negotiated dynamic.

    Implicitly Illich was urging his readers to revisit the glossary of “education,” which in Latin meant upbringing, as reflected in the Bildung (formation, upbringing) that Illich himself underwent (and which Werner Jaeger apotheosized in his exposition of ancient paideia) in Austria as a young man, and the higher istruzione (from in-strewing or inculcating in Latin) he pursued in postwar Italy. Educatio was not, however, what the Romans called “education.” Quintilian influentially called it institutio (oratoria), hence the erecting, perforce, of an orator – the main sort of liberal education there was. Augustine’s Christian inflection of it (after Clement and Origen) in De doctrina christiana was directed at the Christianization of theory and oratory, a new lex orandi amounting to preaching from a hermeneutics of the written Word. The long run of this notion of traditio (teaching as transmission) was reversed and revised in Early Modernity (in favor of a largely detheologized traditio), only to compete and jostle with the new requirements of science (which had an anti-traditional thrust), class identity (now rewired), and capitalized nationalism and imperialism. Centuries later, we are still embroiled in this evolving struggle, now networked and enlarged to a global scale. The critical work of Illich and Phenomenologist’s authors represent a notable, recent intervention in this unfolding tale, but require still intensive aggiornamento. The two ways of construing Adam’s “actually” point up the double duty of this effort: analysis and proposal.

    In a way, the seeds of the problematic of education as we have it can be seen in the debates of Plato’s time. The twin curriculum (though not yet “schooling”) of gymnastike and mousike for the freeborn that Plato inherited were indeed exercised in service of a techne kybernetike (Plato’s coinage) or art of governing in the context of the Athenian polis. Yet the “Socratic” exclusion of rhetoric as a proper techne in the Gorgias underlines the dispute over what should dominate in the education of the free, and the relegation of oratory to the banausic (artisanal) strongly suggests Plato was after a new kind of nobility (arete) that would govern without the benefit of democratic (as opposed to technocratic) process. Accordingly, education (paideia, or “childing”) of the many should not be the same as for the few, and for the former amounts to what he called philosophia, something which, unlike Isocrates’ use of the term, did not include rhetoric. This is borne out both in the purport of The Republic and The Laws. For Plato this nobility is grounded transcendentally, but for Aristotle more charismatically (he was after all beholden to Philip and Alexander). Yet what must not be forgotten in this review is the shift of scale of governance. Plato was thinking, somewhat nostalgically, of a local regime with perhaps a few satellites. Aristotle came to settle on the future virtue of Empire (with its ethnocentric division of Greek and barbarian), and reposited his dreams in his student Alexander. In between by preferred scale was the panhellenism of Isocrates, who wished to “call Greek those who share our paideusis (manner of training the young, hence education, cultural reproduction)” (4.50), and conceived that paideusis on the basis of Attic practice as well as a fusion of cultural identity and polity under Athenian hegemony. Implied in these diverse views are the cultural and sociohistorical contingency of education, and the imbrication of the educative with the political.

    Thus it may be true that education may (though not necessarily) have something to do with “citizenship” or governance, but it is another question what constitution of citizenship and what sort of governance – and for what or whom. Surprisingly, A. N. Whitehead opined a century ago that the “essence of education is that it be religious” (The Aims of Education, 14). He then goes on to specify that a “religious education is an education which inculcates duty and reverence. Duty arises from our potential control over the course of events. Where attainable knowledge could have changed the issue, ignorance has the guilt of vice. And the foundation of reverence is this perception, that the present holds within itself the complete sum of existence, backward and forwards, that whole amplitude of time, which is eternity.”

    Whether Whitehead knew of Florensky and Bergson, he certainly strove to view things sub specie aeternitatis, an eternity he also telescoped (perhaps under the crushing weight of the Great War) into an immanentized apocalyptic. It seems to me that his notion of education (for him implying schooling), at once familiar and discomfiting, offers a more compelling provocation to our discussion than the standard notions of vocational preparation, enrichment or citizenship, and may go some way to refract (though not satisfy) Beatrice’s and Adam’s concerns. “Religious education,” as enunciated by Whitehead, could very well perform different functions – and for different people at different times. It may also help drive and govern events not only from the top, but from the bottom. After all, the rudder of the gubernum and kubernion is set at the bottom of the vessel’s stern, not prow or bow.

Comments are closed.