The purpose of education is to enable people to understand, navigate, contribute to, challenge and change the world.

To many children and young people, adults seem distinguishable by their finishedness, their completeness. We have ‘grown up’. We have become inflexible, we have ceased to play, to imagine; our appetite for adventure has been diminished, not increased, by our understanding of the world; our wild and even gentle ambitions have been curtailed by the demands of making a living, of ‘the real world’. Instead of growing in confidence and maturity enough to hazard risk, to be wrong, to change our minds, the adult world seems very often to promote an infantile belief in the benefits and possibility of absolute certainty, mastery, fixedness. The assumption of due respect for this completedness is easy to recognise as often framing and establishing authority and providing boundaries within formal education: I am the one who knows, and you are the one who is in the process of knowing, of becoming the possessor of knowledge, of completion.

For me then, a fundamental purpose of education should be to acknowledge the inevitability of change, to celebrate the value of life as a thing in process, and to promote an awareness of other possibilities, other ways of doing things – of discoveries yet to be made and solutions yet to be invented. Change is, of course, not always positive. It can be unwelcome and damaging. It can be extremely difficult to come to terms with. Even positive changes – for example, changes in how people deal with and think about terrible things that have affected them, while they might free us up and make us happier people, or at least allow us to live our lives less painfully, are extremely difficult to go though. But the alternatives to change, if there are any, are entropy, denial and death.

Education should critically ensure children, young people and adults are equipped to be unsettled, to be confronted by difference, to be changed, and to effect change. Education is a conduit to different cultures, different places, different times – to different ways of thinking about things and doing things. Education provides us with an introduction to things unimagined and unencountered. It should provide the critical challenge to examine our beliefs, interpretations and horizons, the ability to reexamining ourselves in new contexts, to develop new interests, to review the ways in which we understand ourselves and our place in the world. The purpose of education should be to expand expectations, not to confine them – to support our learners in understanding the impact they can and do have on their world. We cannot expect education built upon, and educators who model, a fixation with certainty and inflexibility to meet the urgent and ongoing needs of pressing social, economic and political change.



11 thoughts on “Purpos/ed

  1. Thanks Josie! I certainly feel this with my four year old and it’s something that I never want him to let go of. It’s a stereotype, for sure, but the ‘why’ questions should never leave us (that’s one of the reasons I studied Philosophy as an undergrad).
    As Bertrand Russell famously said, “What men really want is not knowledge but certainty.” This leads almost to a ‘hegemony of certainty’ with people looking for a story to believe in. The trouble is that, as has been widely identified, those in control of education tend to be those who have been successful in the existing system.
    We need to change that. 🙂

  2. What a challenging and inspiring Purpos/ed post. You pose important questions for us all: as educators are we willing to be vulnerable, to be challenged, to change and to be changed? Thanks for expressing this so beautifully — I think that your post captures the purpose of parenthood as well as the purpose of education. 🙂

  3. What a wonderfully inspiring post. Our education systems today constrict and confine whereas we should encourage discovery and openness.

  4. Thanks Jo. There’s a direct correlation between opportunity and risk, and I’m very keen on organisational models which understand this and address it head on. Thanks for picking up on the celebratory aspects.
    Eugene – thanks for identifying my pro-epistemology argument. This originally started out as a rather dour post focusing on education as an ideological apparatus and prefaced with my favourite passage from Hard Times: “You are to be in all things regulated and governed,” said the gentleman, “by fact. We hope to have, before long, a board of fact, composed of commissioners of fact, who will force the people to be a people of fact, and of nothing but fact.” Lucky fr everyone I was feeling a bit more cheerful when I finished it up 🙂
    Doug, thanks for your thoughtful comments. I think there is a real psychological need for children and young people to have structure and stability. The problem is that too often this is confused with sucking the uncertainty out of the world, and very often along with it, the fun.
    Thanks Catherine & Kevin! I really appreciate the lovely compliments.

  5. I can’t see why we should be preoccupied with equipping children for change. That is what they are most ready for. That is what it means to be young: to be a change in the world. We should be giving them the best of the things that don’t change, the things that need preserving from one generation to the next.

  6. 🙂 you should write a post on that George…
    Hi oldandrew. I think we are risking stereotyping children and young people, not to mention investing them with more autonomy and power than they actually have, if we presume that their existence is itself a guarantee of change. Young people very rarely get to effect widespread social change, although they they are often subject to it. Their relative power is very often why they are open to change – they may not have a choice. And of course, children are all different. Some of them really don’t like change.
    My argument focuses on how we support and frame learning. I would argue that if we think about education as the transmission of a static order and knowledge base we are ignoring the existence of social change, development and context and not preparing our learners for real world challenges.
    What is on your list of ‘the best of things that don’t change’? I’d probably argue that there is little that isn’t subject to change. Our interpretations and understandings of things aren’t neutral or static. Childhood, and the ways in which we understand what that category means, is an obvious example here.

  7. Morning, Josie. Just want to let you know that I posted one of your quotes from this post in the 3×5 campaign. Hope you are OK with that.
    Yours was one of the #purposed posts that has stayed with me. As an educator and a mother, I think it is so important to think of education not as a means of reproducing what we already know, what “is”, but to prepare ourselves and our children to accept (embrace!) and deal with uncertainty and change, particularly social change.

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