On the purpose of education

My contribution to this year’s Purpos/Ed #500 words project.

This is something that has mattered to me for all my teaching career. When training, I took Terry McLoughlin’s optional philosophy of education module; this was the best bit of the course, certainly the one that had the most lasting effect on me as an educator. After three years of a maths degree to sit in seminars where students took responsibility for introducing each week’s topics seemed revolutionary then. We talked and thought about what education was for, something we find a little time for now in my own lectures at Roehampton. The idea that captivated me then, and remains the touchstone for me still, is that of rational autonomy.

I see this in terms of learners’ capacity to think and act for themselves. This demands a degree of criticality, of understanding, a willingness to question the assumptions behind what learners read and are told. It also demands that they have agency, that the decisions they make can be put into action, that they’re not merely the victims of the circumstances in which they find themselves.

This isn’t simply about each learner ‘fulfilling their potential’ or some such. I think there has to be a moral purpose to education: thinking and acting for oneself are fine, but these should be so that others’ lives too are improved. Acting for one’s own gain, without wishing similar for others, departs from any morality which might claim rational justification.

So, at its heart, the purpose of education is to nurture curiosity, confidence and character.

R S Peters put it rather well, explaining that the aim of education is to develop educated people, and that

Our concept of an educated person is of someone who is capabale of delighting in a variety of pursuits and projects for their own sake and whose pursuit of them and general conduct of life is transformed by some degree of all round understanding and sensitivity1

With this in mind, I don’t see school (or indeed university) as the only locus of education. Our 17-month old daughter has seemingly innate curiosity and confidence. So much of my education, such as it was, took place beyond the confines of the institution: encouraged by my parents, gifted teachers and, later, my fellow learners. Libraries are important. The web is empowering. The principle responsibility for education lies first with parents and then with the learner themselves.

That said, there’s so much which we as educators can do to support and promote this sort of education. Part of this is by modelling these characteristics ourselves, by thinking things through, by questioning, and children, teachers and schools that ask questions matter:

The questions we ask are often more important than the answers we search for… Change the question and whole new horizons open up to us.2

But it’s not enough to question things: schools and teachers should also act; they should be courageous. If learners are to ask questions, act autonomously and do what’s right, then so, surely, should their teachers and their schools.


1 Peters, R. S. (1970) Education and the Educated Man—Some Further Reflections, Journal of Philosophy of Education, 4.1, pp. 5–20.

2 Robinson, K. (2011) Out of our minds: learning to be creative (2nd ed.), Capstone.