What Are Schools For?

I often find it helpful to look at fundamental questions – it forces us to keep our bearings when thinking about public policy.  So, for one of my favorite topics – educational policy – I’d like to ask the question:

What are schools for?

Partly, this question was prompted from me watching Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk about how schools kill creativity.  It is the most favorited video currently at TED and I certainly enjoyed it.

Although, I’m not sure I entirely agreed with its premises.  But he does make some great points along the way.  Robinson argues that since we don’t even know what the world will look like in 5 years, it is futile to try to educate children for specific industries that may not be there when they finish schooling. From that he argues that it is necessary to promote creativity in schools (fully agree).  Also, he’s certainly right that instilling the idea that making a mistake is the worst possible thing isn’t conducive to creativity.

Despite what Robinson claims, do our schools crush creativity?  At least compared to Japan’s schools, America seems to be in much better shape. I don’t think that creativity is necessary going to be best promoted by focusing more on art and dance in schools (for the record: I loved my theatre and music classes) – at least it might not be the proper role of a school.  We have to recognize that schools can’t teach everything.

But no matter how valuable a subject may be, there are only twenty-four hours in a day, and a decision to teach one subject is also a decision not to teach another one. The question is not whether trigonometry is important, but whether it is more important than statistics; not whether an educated person should know the classics, but whether it is more important for an educated person to know the classics than to know elementary economics. In a world whose complexities are constantly challenging our intuitions, these tradeoffs cannot responsibly be avoided.

I’ve referenced this before but Steven Pinker also makes that enlightening argument that schools should promote subjects that are unintuitive to humans.

The goal of education should be to provide students with the cognitive tools that are most important for grasping the modern world and that are most unlike the cognitive tools they are born with.

Those subjects might be more necessary for schools to step in and teach since students aren’t likely to learn them without special instruction, but need them to better navigate our modern world.  Subjects like economics, finance, and statistics aren’t likely to become obsolete either as Robinson worries about other areas of study. In order to determine what schools are for do we need to just list the subjects of highest priority?  Highest priority for what?  It seems that is straying a bit away from my original question.  Bertrand Russell can help get back to the core issue, he writes in his essay, “The Aims of Education:”

Before considering how to educate, it is well to be clear as to the sort of result which we wish to achieve.  Dr Arnold wanted ‘humbleness of mind’, a quality not possessed by Aristotle’s ‘magnanimous man’. Neitzche’s ideal is not that of Christianity. No more is Kant’s: for while Christ enjoins love, Kant teaches that no action of which love is the motive can be truly virtuous. And even people who agree as to the ingredients of a good character may differ as to their relative importance. One man will emphasize courage, another learning, another kindliness, and another rectitude. One man, like the elder Brutus, will put duty to the State above family affection; another, like Confucious, will put family affection first. All these divergences will produce differences as to education. We must have some concept of the kind of person we wish to produce, before we can have any definite opinion as to the education which we consider best.

So school’s purpose is derived from what we want our students to become as people. Further in the essay, Russell argues that students should be looked at as ends, not means.  It seems important to educate not for the sake of creating citizens that can serve the state, for example, but to give them the tools necessary to live their lives how they as individuals see fit.  After all, as I learn from wikipedia

Etymologically the word education contains educarae (latin) “bring up” which is related to educere “bring out”, “bring forth what is within”, “bring out potential” and ducere “to lead”.

Yet, clearly if we think of education as a public good, we want some sort of specific “means” goals from students, don’t we?  Providing them with a proper finance and economic background clearly helps them as individuals, but the additional externalities on society aren’t insignificant.  The question isn’t easily answered.  I’ll be sure to follow up on this topic in the future.  Feel free to offer your answer to the question: What are schools for?

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