Monday, August 3, 2015

What's the purpose of an education?

What's the purpose of an education?  Several of my neighbors – each with lots of kids :) – have a passionate interest in education.  Of course, their interest is primarily on behalf of their kids.  Since this is also a topic I'm interested in, this has led to quite a few interesting conversations.

Speaking with one mom, it dawned on me partway through our conversation that she had a big question about what the purpose of an education actually was.  She graduated from a liberal arts institution, where the idea was pounded into her that the only important purpose of an education was to prepare her to think on her own, and to learn on her own.  But now, as a mom, she wished something else for her kids: the education she didn't get, one that would have prepared her to contribute in a meaningful way to human society.  She's open about what that contribution might be – it could be a productive job, but it also could be some charitable venture or even a religious vocation.  But she's torn about her own feelings, as they conflict with what she was taught was right and proper.

I was just stunned to see a mom feeling guilty about wanting her kids to get an education that directly prepared them to make a living.

The idea of a “liberal education” (which is not the same as being politically liberal!) made a lot more sense before the early 20th century, when the vast majority of ways to earn money really didn't require much more than a functioning brain and sufficient brawn (depending on the nature of the job).  Almost any job could be reasonably learned through a bit of on-the-job training, by almost anyone.  Even today we have many such jobs.  However, for the past hundred years or so an increasing proportion of jobs require a significant amount of knowledge to perform them.  For instance, one cannot reasonably start designing aircraft (at least, not any that I would want to fly in!) after a few months of on-the-job training.  There are simply too many things one has to know before you can do that.  The same thing is true of many other jobs, and that is increasingly the case.  My agonizing neighbor hasn't really internalized that change, and the need for an education to directly prepare the student to perform well in their chosen field.  I think she has also not internalized the fact that simply training one's mind is insufficient.  When I was hiring software and hardware engineers, I would never have considered an applicant who had excelled in a liberal arts school, but had zero education or experience in software or hardware engineering.  Wouldn't have happened. 

I wonder how prevalent my neighbor's angst is?  How much does that drive our educational institutions?

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