Purpose of Education

Asha’s mission statement reads “TO CATALYZE SOCIO-ECONOMIC CHANGE IN INDIA THROUGH THE EDUCATION OF UNDERPRIVILEGED CHILDREN”. I fully subscribe to this faith in the ability of basic education to eventually create a social transformation. Any other direct engagement to try and create social transformation of whatever kind (eg. gender equality) will falter without basic education.

Before I go too far defending this position, let me clarify what I mean by basic education. Basic education is essentially the 3-Rs of education (Reading, wRiting and aRithmetic). This is essentially basic language and Maths skills with understanding (i.e. not just Rote Learning). These provide the tools a person uses to comprehend and make sense of the world around us. At a certain stage science comes in to help understand the physical world and social sciences help understand the human world. This is the kind of education that a good schooling system should deliver to a child by the age of 13 to 15. I firmly believe any social transformation, progress however defined cannot happen without a society made up of people who are literate and can comprehend the world. While basic education may not in itself be sufficient to produce the desired social changes, it is an essential prerequisite.

Scepticism about Basic Education

I often see people who used to believe in the power of basic education who have begun having doubts regarding that. There are also some who never believed in the power of basic education. You hear objections to basic education from various quarters. What is the point in educating someone if …

  • they cannot get a job after that?
  • they do not learn the right values? The definition of right values on the conservative side would be things like not stealing, respecting the rules of the society, respecting the elders, following the traditions of the religion/social group etc. On the liberal side the right values would include things like respecting equality across gender, caste, class, religion etc. Orthogonal to the conservative – liberal divide you have the green value of treating the environment with care which these days is becoming more and more urgent.
  • the process of education takes away their freedom.

All these questions go to the fundamental question of what is the purpose of education? There are many ways to think about purpose of education. I believe each of these are important and in and off of themselves provide justification for education. The problem is that people think only one among these provide the justification and refuse to consider the others.

Broadly we can think about purpose of education in terms of the individual child that is getting educated or in terms of the society which in various ways “educates” the child. Both these perspectives are extremely important. Without a meaningful purpose why should a parent educate the child? Without a meaningful purpose why should a society build all the infrastructure required (schools, books, languages, numerical systems etc.) to educate the people?

Why should a child be educated?

A child going through the education system often does not have the opportunity to exercise a choice in whether he/she wishes to get educated. Parents make that choice for the child. At later stages in their lives individuals will choose the kind of education they obtain in various ways. Here are some strong reasons to educate a child.

Utilitarian

Education benefits the individual by increasing their “value” to the society. While the connection between basic education and the value they derive from it over their lifetime of employment is difficult to comprehend, there have been studies that have shown just this connection. Abhjit Bannerjee and Esther Duflo, in their “Poor Economics” book, talk about studies that show that incremental education at every level contributes to an increase in lifetime earnings. This increase is even higher at the level of basic education.

Evolutionary or Genetic

Through generations of natural selection and survival human beings have evolved sufficiently complex linguistic skills and numeric skills to enable us to be the dominant species of this planet. These basic linguistic and numeric skills are transmitted across generations through education. Children have evolved an innate sense of curiosity to seek and understand this world. This clearly adds to their chances of survival. For a child to explore and learn are as fundamental as eating food, breathing air and growing. You can clearly see this in the curiosity every child exhibits about their environment. This is fundamental to our existence as a species.

Existential

One of the unconquered frontiers in science is an explanation of the nature of our consciousness. Since there is no single accepted theory, allow me the luxury of pontificating my own theory. I believe the following: Development of consciousness is not incidental to the existence of this universe but fundamental to it.

I do not want to go too far elaborating this theory which is quite tangential to the purpose of this article. If you think of a 4 dimensional egg (with space and time) that contains the entire history of the universe, that egg clearly contains consciousness. I do not think such a 4 dimensional egg of Universe could have existed without that consciousness inside it. Beyond that anything else I say about how that consciousness really plays out in the natural laws of universe would become very speculative. May be something like the Neils Bohr’s Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics where conscious perception reduces the probability cloud to a single event/object OR may be consciousness through free will or intent enables efficient cause which creates the arrow of time OR …

If consciousness is fundamental to the universe, acquiring the intelligence required to perceive and understand the universe is like the extended phenotype of that consciousness and clearly has something to do with the nature of the universe itself. In this loop, our intelligence and education through which that intelligence has grown to understand the Universe are critical to our very existence and the existence of the Universe! I know this is a stretch and if you feel it is too big a stretch, stick to the other reasons I have given.

Expanding Freedom of Thought

At a basic level education expands your choice. It expands your choice in terms of the nature of your employment. It expands your choice in terms of developing your own opinions. It provides you the tools to go beyond blindly accepting what everyone else in your community believes in and instead develop your own thoughts. The basic education paves the way for such a freedom of thought.

But this doesn’t come without caveats. What if the education is completely rote based that only stresses on memorization of facts and that too facts that are not necessarily true but are just convenient for the society’s set of biases? I have to say I am an optimist in this regard. I loved the movie “Truman Show” for this very reason. Even when the entire society is constructed for the express purpose of convincing this person of a false reality, he through great pains reasons out the true nature of his reality. In a way the movie is a parable for basic education, reason and freedom. Even in its most wretched rote form, education does provide the tools for a child to break away from the false structures of thought that the society fills their head with.

Why should the society educate an individual?

People often think about the benefits that accrue to an individual by getting educated and since society is made up of individuals society also indirectly benefits. But society is not just a sum of its parts. Education is a social exercise and it would be useful to understand why societies have evolved ways to educate its young. Some of these reasons are below.

Utilitarian

When the members of the society are educated the strength of the community as a whole increases. It becomes more capable of resisting external shocks from other human groups as well as nature. By equipping the people with a common language and mathematical language to talk, it enables higher discoveries. Human societies have progressed from small hunter-gatherer tribes to larger agricultural settlements to the techno-industrial society that spans the whole world thanks only to education. Even the problems that we have created through this “progress” (like the climate crisis) can also be addressed only through the education of its members.

Mimesis

Society needs its members to mimic the same actions and thought patterns in order to survive and grow. While people think of grand things like belief in equality or free trade, this is exhibited the most thoroughly in much more basic things. Every society develops a common language and common mathematical abstractions to communicate. We all use a common vocabulary and grammar to talk. These days we all use a decimal number system with place-value and with abstract notions like addition and subtraction which we all agree upon. We all understand what 27 means and what 3 + 2 means and remarkably we all understand it in pretty much the same way! This is the mimesis that the society critically needs to survive. Society uses education to brain-wash all the children to start using these structures of thoughts in their own thinking.

At a certain level you can see that this social purpose of mimesis is the very opposite of the individual purpose of freedom of thought. Shared language, mathematical abstractions and structures of thought are great accelerators in pushing our own thoughts and higher level reasoning further. However children should also retain the basic skepticism that these are abstractions of thought and only partially reflect the reality outside. A balance needs to struck between these two in providing basic education. After all it is in society’s own best interest to allow the individuals to push the boundaries of thoughts.

In Conclusion

Individuals benefit from basic education by expanding their opportunities for work and living, by expanding their freedom of thought, etc. Society requires education to create abstractions of language and mathematics to help develop the society further as well as better the society in simple material ways.

The objections mentioned earlier that I often encounter from various people, are not sufficient reasons to question basic education itself. Yes education may be creating a lot of educated unemployed people. Yes education may not really be equipping the average child to question the bad traditions of the society. Yes education may only be turning the person into a more qualified thief in some cases. Yes education may be imposed on the child and take away its natural freedom and sense of exploration in some cases. These are reasons for continuing to improve the basic education system in place and not one for questioning its need.

3 thoughts on “Purpose of Education

  1. It is nice to read your thought on education. In this whole article i could able to relate with many points. Except the following Statement.

    ” I firmly believe any social transformation, progress however defined cannot happen without a society made up of people who are literate and can comprehend the world”

    I believe that there are two different ways to look at it. The literates and People who have ability to comprehend the world make mess in broader way than a person who is illiterate. The mistakes that illiterate make affect in smaller ways than a literate

    Does literacy gives enough tools to deal with a complexities in a intelligent way? There are so many literate people in the world,who cause so much of destruction. Hitlar, Mao and stalin were literate. In my opinion They have been more harmful to human society than any illiterate person. Is literacy such an important tool for transformation

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    1. I agree with you that some of the worst social transformations in the world have been brought about by literate leaders. However I would like to clarify some points.

      1. I wasn’t talking about literate leaders. Most leaders (good or bad) are literate. I was talking about society without whose support and acquiescence the social transformation will not take place. But your argument will still apply to Germany as it was probably one of the most educated/literate societies in the World in the 1930s. In contrast the grand experiment of Sathyagraha was carried out by a largely illiterate society in India under the leadership of Gandhi.

      2. In the article I was careful to mention that a literate society is a prerequisite for any “good” social transformation and that it was not in itself sufficient.

      3. Germany in its defence was also able to grow out of fascism and became a world leader in liberal thought because of the literacy of its society. But much harm was already committed before that awakening. And would that awakening even have taken place had Germany won?

      4. While I started the article talking about social transformation, the purposes of basic education are broader as detailed in the rest of the article.

      Coming back to your original point, I do agree with your concerns about literacy and social transformation. Literacy gives one the tools to evaluate claims by leaders but it doesn’t necessarily provide the inclination for such an evaluation. Literate and educated people often show no inclination for such an evaluation and very willingly submit their beliefs to the propaganda of leaders as we are seeing now in India today. To me that is a failure of basic education. But some philosophical underpinning may be required in addition to the basic education to orient the people to actually evaluate the opinions they submit themselves to.

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  2. I think the ability to think for oneself, to see through all the opinions create an understanding of the world around is an important skill that we need to impart in schools, apart from the basic Rs. Can education bring about freedom from the fear of the society? Can children be allowed to question and enquire ?

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