The Purposes of Education
Especially in the current educational climate of No Child Left Behind and high stakes testing, education has become myopic and ahistorical. We have forgotten why we educate our youth and we have become monomaniacally devoted to schools as college preparatory institutions, even elementary schools. Well I have news for you…education has multiple purposes and academic learning is only one of them.
Dating back to the classic Greeks, it was recognized that a self-governing society cannot endure if its citizens are not virtuous. This was repeatedly and resoundingly reinforced by the shapers of our great experiment in democracy: Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, James Monroe, etc. They knew that the survival of the United States of America depended on the nature of its citizens and they further recognized that education was a critical force in shaping that nature. Finally, productive citizens are not simply smart people who know lots of facts and can reason in abstract and impressive ways. They also have the skills and dispositions of democratic citizenship; in other words, they have civic character. This includes a commitment to the common good, a willingness to enter the public sphere and debate political and ethical issues, and the skills necessary for accessing, intellectually digesting, and responding publicly to societal issues and challenges.
So schools at least are supposed to promote academic learning and promote civic character. But that is still not all. The characteristics of civic character, as important as they are, are not all that makes one a good person. All societies ultimately rise or fall on the character of their citizens. The complete character of their citizens. And the job of socializing all citizens first must begin in childhood and second is the responsibility of all societal institutions including the schools. So a third and related purpose of education is the general moral and character development of students.
You may be tempted to prioritize the three purposes of academics, civic character, and moral character. Well if you are, let me give you something to ponder. Samuel Johnson once wrote that “Integrity without knowledge is weak and useless, and knowledge without integrity is dangerous and dreadful.” In fact, if you had to choose between living in a world of ignorant but caring, ethical people and world of educated and brilliant but selfish and antisocial people, which would you choose? I think it is a no-brainer. As Johnson noted, it is dangerous to educate people without a moral compass, or as former President Teddy Roosevelt once said, “to educate a person in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society.”
As we watch terrorists proliferate around the world slaughtering innocent people, we need to think deeply about the kind of people we raise and educate. We need to recognize that there are multiple purposes of education and that educating for character is paramount among them. After all, there is no future without children but no moral future without children of character. And it is up to schools to contribute to this critical mission. Character education is both inevitable and necessary. It is not an option. The only option is how deliberately and effectively to do it.
Trackback from your site.