Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Purpose of Education?

I've been catching up on reading the edublogs in my newsreader, which has led to an interesting juxtaposition of articles for me.

The first is Wolin, Democracy and The Math Wars by Michael Paul Goldenberg. I found the following quote Michael gives from Wolin's book resonates very strongly with me:
"The new education is severely functional, proto-professional, and priority-conscious in an economic sense. It is also notable for the conspicuous place given to achieving social discipline through education.
It is as though social planners, both public and private, had suddenly realized that education forms a system in which persons of an impressionable age are “stuff” that can be molded to the desired social form..."

While Wolin is talking about the US in particular, this is consistent with what is also an emerging trend here in Australia, where governments readily tout education as an economic mechanism, but discussion of education as a means for personal discovery and development is thin on the ground.

Craig Emerson, the Federal Minister for Small Business , has made his view very clear:
"Market democrats harness the power of the market for the public good," he said. "They dedicate themselves to remedying social disadvantage out of prosperity by giving every child the opportunity of a quality education through excellence in teaching and high-quality school facilities." [as quoted by Ross Gittins in the Sydney Morning Herald]

I agree with Gittins' response: "the primary cause of inequality of opportunity isn't education, it's inheritance - of brains, social status, social skills and money." [link]

Hard on the heels of reading Goldenberg's article, I came upon this offering from Tom Hoffman.

After reading through William Deresiewicz's article and then visiting the Teach For America website, I found myself wondering if I was missing something, if perhaps I had failed to fully appreciate the full extent of the socio-economic impact of education.

But after re-reading all of the articles again, and taking some time to reflect on them, my response to all of it is as follows:
  • My own view of education, while it allows for the idea that improved levels of education may lead to opportunities for students to improve their socio-economic status, is grounded in the idea that the student be given the opportunity for self-actualisation. Consequently, I object to views of education that seek to reduce education to little more than a social or economic mechanism. This sort of utilitarianism devalues education as a whole - it dismisses as unimportant subjects like Visual Arts and Music in the first instance, but ultimately devalues all subjects by narrowing the curriculum to fit the desires of business and industry.
  • William Deresiewicz's "holes" are not in his education - or more specifically, not in his schooling. His attitudes, his self-professed inability to talk to people not like him and false self-worth are the products of the social environment he grew up in, not his education. (What does the fact that he now wants to point the blame at his schooling rather than his social upbringing say?)
  • Programs like TFA are actually doing good things, but there is a real risk that governments, bent on driving their particular socio-economic (read myopic) views of education, may hijack their agendas.
But that's only my view things, which no doubt someone will regard as the by-product of my 1970s/80s education and Gen-X mindset. Or possibly my working-class upbringing or maybe the fact that I now teach in a non-denominational non-government school.

Whatever. I just wish there was a way to keep politicians at arm's length from education.