What is Education For?

A fresh look at why we provide school education

2020 has witnessed huge impacts on education with schools having to radically change their mode of learning. As a result, it has caused educators, and others, around the world to go back to asking the question, "What exactly is education for?"

Cultural critic and educational commentator, Neil Postman in his book, ‘The End of Education’ (2011, pg10) suggested that,

“At its best, schooling can be about how to make a life, which is quite different from how to make a living.” 

Like Postman, I do not believe education is about preparing children for a job. I am sorry if you have your child at school because you think teachers will help them to get a good job. I believe that we educate in order to equip children to be able to be successful at the training they require to do a job or profession well. That is, we set them up to be able to do the training to get a job. This means we focus on knowledge and skills, a deep understanding of those, and how to acquire and use them; and we teach them to apply that knowledge in wise ways. 

However, we cannot do this without also touching on their character and challenging them to think about how they are going to use their newfound knowledge and skills in useful and productive ways. Traditionally, going back as far as the Greeks, academic education was thought to be about shaping a person for living well, not about teaching them how to make a living (as per Postman above). This explains why parents may sometimes be surprised when teachers seem more interested in a student’s character, and their behaviour and their social skills, than in their grades.

It is not that teachers are not interested in grades – we are. But grades are simply a means to an end, not an end in themselves. 

Grades cannot tell us about someone’s character with even a very bad person able to get good grades. A person with good character, however, will strive for good grades simply because they always desire to do their best.

Today, we seem to have lost this idea about the real end or purpose of education. A quality school will work on recovering what education is really for. The result of this shift in focus will be a community of students that work hard at their studies because that is what good character leads to. Furthermore, having a worthwhile goal is much more satisfying than striving for something that, in the end, is short-lived and misguided.
Telling students to work hard at school in order to get a good job holds much less appeal than working hard to develop good character, in order to live a satisfying and flourishing life.

As you set expectations for your child make sure the top of the list is not a particular job. Instead, focus on a good character that will help them achieve more in life that you can imagine, and be much more satisfying for them. Keep the purpose of education clear – to equip them to be a person who is ready and able to be trained for a useful role in society.

Phillip Nash serves as the Principal at Green Point Christian College. Phillip has a Masters in Educational Leadership, a Bachelor of Arts in History and English, a Diploma of Teaching, and has just begun a PhD program. He has been teaching for over 30 years and has served in senior school leadership in New Zealand, Australia and Indonesia.