The purpose of school

I’ve alluded to this in the past, but never quite gotten around to fleshing out my argument on this one.

What is the purpose of school? Erm – I don’t think anyone really knows, which makes it awfully difficult to make a judgement over whether it’s working or not. The possible purposes are wide and varied, and the reality is likely to involve a combination of these factors, or, even more likely, to be different things to different people, resulting in conflicts of opinion about just how the school system is doing.

What is education?

The most obvious answer to the original question is “Why, to educate children, of course!” accompanied by a look of mystification at the idea that such a question was ever asked. But what is education, how do you know if you’re achieving it, what are we educating our children towards (or, I suppose, away from), and is school the best way to go about it anyway?

Most children don’t really know what they want from their education – not because they’re incapable of forming opinions on the subject, but because no-one ever gives their opinion much weight or credence, so it’s not really worth their trouble in thrashing an opinion out for themselves. The closest they get is to come up with an answer to the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I suspect that in lots of cases, that answer stems more from a desire to give an answer – any answer – and gain adult approval, than a real opinion on the subject.

Most parents, from what I can gather, want school to equip their children to make money. Some parents want their children equipped to make as much money as is humanly possible – others are content with enough money to maintain a comfortable, middle-class lifestyle. But really, that’s the point. It’s about the treadmill of SATs, and GCSEs, and A Levels, and University, and a job at the end of it all. I find that terribly depressing (hence my use of the not-loaded-at-all term, “treadmill”). It makes me feel like an inanimate object, being churned out of a machine in a factory. Not a new metaphor, I know, but there it is. The older I get, the more I find myself rebelling against the idea that adult life is about work – that work is boring and tedious, takes up most of your waking life, has to be paid for to count as work at all, and is relentlessly, mind-numbingly, non-negotiably present until the day you die – unless you’re lucky enough to live to 106, and be allowed to actually retire. Surely, there is more to life than that? Surely, there’s something more fulfilling, more purposeful than generating income, to pay for the food, clothes and rent that it takes to enable you to go to work?

Of course, the people whose opinions really count, on the subject of school, are those who pay for it. Ultimately, that’s me and you, the tax-payers, but we are severely separated from state-sponsored education by the fact that our money goes through a middle-man. And what Government thinks is the purpose of school, is really not at all clear.

School as childcare

From what I can tell, the first and primary role of school, to the government, is to provide universal childcare. Now, it seems to me, that that isn’t an educational purpose at all. It’s an economic exigency. School professionalises childcare to the point that one or two adults can take care of a group of thirty children at a time, thereby freeing the parents of those children to get into the workforce and start being economically productive. And economic productivity is the number one concern of governments. They are only casually interested in education, health care, defense, social services, law and order, speed limits, and the host of other things that they witter about on a daily basis. What they actually care about is money. They care that the economy continues to grow, that people feel rich, that taxes get paid, that consumers consume, creating more jobs, and more taxes, and so on, and so on, ad infinitum.

There are one or two problems with this.

Firstly, nothing can grow indefinitely. The constant growth is fuelled, ultimately, by the ransacking of the planet’s resources. The oil is running out. The rainforests are shrinking. We can’t carry on treating the planet as in indefatigable resource. And with that reality comes the further truth that constantly buying New Stuff is not sustainable, either ecologically, or economically. The system saturates. The bottom drops out of the market, we get recession, and poverty. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. It’s inescapable. Anyone who tells you it’s not is selling something. “Gone are the days of boom and bust economics”? I think not.

Secondly, modern industrial and post-industrial economics are anti-family. Whether they are consciously, or unconsciously so rather depends on how prone you are to conspiracy theories. My own opinion fluctuates according to how I feel, so I’m not able to make a clear statement on the subject. However, intentionally or otherwise, the effect of modern economics is the split up family units. 300 years ago we were all living and working together as families, in farms and cottage industries, passing the skills and resources down through the family group, and spending stacks of time together, building close bonds, trust, and proper relationships (and dying of plague, admittedly, but that’s a different discussion). Now, we are expected to run our family life between 6pm and 8.30pm at night, between collecting the children from the childcare, and putting them to bed in time to get up for school the next day, whilst simultaneously making sure they get some food and do their homework. Is it any wonder that people worry about children and teens being uncontrollable? I mean, I’m sure there’s a massive amount of paranoia going on there, too, but in amongst it is a generation of children who aren’t being brought up by their parents, but by a series of childcare solutions. Children need love, not “quality, affordable childcare”. All the economic growth in the world won’t replace that, and actually, without it, achieving economic growth itself gets tricky – mental health issues, a lack of social stability and belonging – these things make it very difficult to hold down a job anyway.

Training the workers of the future

The other governmental purpose for school, and this is quite a long way down the priority list, is the creation of the next generation’s economic growth.  When they start talking about what children should actually do in school all day, they get terribly tied up with phrases like “preparing for the world of work” and “keyskills” and “a suitable workforce for employers”, and it makes me want to scream.  That isn’t education.  If the role of school is to churn out young adults perfectly primed to do some job or other, to enable them to continue the never-ending push for economic growth, then that’s not education – it’s training, at best, and training is something you can do to a monkey.

Education is about thought, about analysis, about taking other people’s ideas and turning them into something new, something that’s uniquely yours.  It’s about advancing the extent of human understanding, about stretching your intelligence, about intellectual challenge for it’s own sake.  If, during that process, you stumble across something that turns out to be useful, then hurrah and huzzah, congratulations!  If not, then it doesn’t matter, because that was never the point. Only funding “useful” research is to destroy our capacity to think, and without that, we’ll never achieve anything, economically or in any other sense.

Most people have a requirement for money.  Food and rent need to be paid for, regardless. But the economic model currently being pushed by the powers that be is fundamentally flawed.  It involves far too much working for someone else, being paid for your time rather than your productivity, and being pushed into the belief that you can never actually have enough money.  It involves being party to a system of constantly pushing up the price of the things you need, so that it takes more and more work to pay for it.  And surely, surely there’s a point where you can rest.  Surely there’s a time when you are fed and clothed, and can stop the grind.

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