The Purpose of School

I will not reduce public education to an economic institution.

It has become popular over the last few decades with the growth of the 21st
Century Initiative to talk as though school is primarily a preparation for work.
That idea is demeaning and dehumanizing.

When Thomas Jefferson envisioned universal education in America, he saw its
purpose as the equipping of leadership for the nation’s meritocracy. That idea never
really worked because the best and the brightest have generally used their
education to pursue personal goals (often in the business world) instead of in
public service. In America, they have that right. But I point out Jefferson’s
views to show that we seem to have come full circle – from education being about
producing good people who could service society to education being about a
student’s personal preparation for work.

I’ve talked elsewhere
about the purpose of school. Our school system provides a huge number of
safeguards for society – starting with ensuring that all our kids have had the
polio vaccine and been inoculated against measles by the age of four or five.
Having lived in the Third World for a few years, I don’t take that lightly.

The motto of my school is that we are a place committed to creating lifelong
learners. That’s an elementary school motto. And when I look at the
pre-K kids standing in the bus line at the end of the day, I hope that as a
faculty we’ve managed to whet their intellectual appetites that day enough to
make them want more tomorrow.

I hope that when I contribute to a math class for third graders or discuss
figurative language and poetry with fifth graders that I find a way to peak
their curiosity, to help them enjoy learning, and to equip them with the tools
they will need later in life to make learning itself an enjoyable activity.

I’m concerned with the jobs my students get – especially with the jobs my
special education students get. But I’m more concerned with the sort of people
they become. And what of the minimalist approach that looks at children and
teenagers and thinks first (or only) about their place in society’s economy? I
find it insulting to core. It makes me want to heckle public speakers and defend
the values I imbibed as a student of the liberal arts.

What place does the world of work have for Hemingway for the average
American? Is there a reason related to future employment to take kids to the Barter? What happens to Monet and Yo-Yo Ma in a school system
that thinks primarily about your future job?

I’ll leave you with this thought: Education is not the filling of a pail, but
the lighting of a fire. The words belong to William Butler

Greg Cruey, Guest Blogger

7 Responses to “The Purpose of School”

  1. As a person who came from the business world into education, I have a couple of opinions on this.

    1) Students don’t “get” jobs, they earn them. They earn them every day to keep them. Jobs aren’t gotten any more and the reason we’re having problems in the United States particularly is that we do not have labor pools who know how to do the jobs that are here in the states OR need to be here in the states!

    2) Education is not pRIMARILY to prepare students for future jobs but their future lives … and a job SHOULD be part of that equation. The attitude of work ethic and knowing that each of us has something to contribute to society is important. Looking at the future employment of a student is not demeaning, it is important and I try to look at all of my students and give them ideas of things they are good at.

    3) Jobs AREN’T the only thing in life. I enjoy life because of the arts, music, learning, spiritual life, and hobbies I do on my own and my love for these things was spawned by great teachers and access to the arts at a young age. Creating Renaissance youth who are good at things and contributors to their professional career is important. And I believe that work should be fun… we should be so well prepared that we have a choice of what to do.

    4) Education and business can be friends. As a business person it bothered me greatly that I had to pay to retrain my employees… they had no decoding ability for new vocabulary so I had to send them to a class to teach them new words unique to my industry. Additionally, they didn’t learn to show up to school on time and so they weren’t ready to show up to work on time. The whole accountability/ entitlement thing was a mess in their minds and as the employer, I often left my sessions with some employees feeling like I owed them something, when in fact, I was giving them a job and a paycheck. Right now businesses are typically critical of education because education as a whole is falling short with a large majority of students.

    So, I’m not saying that education’s job is only to prepare for a future job, but that is part of it. And having a job is not demeaning, it is empowering and freeing. It is the students who haven’t been prepared who are stuck in jobs beneath their intellectual capacity who are demeaned!

    Business and education can be friends and our great country, the United States, is not entitled to its position on the world stage, it must continue to earn it every day. As our education system goes, so do we and we must begin to realize that things like digital citizenship, digital storytelling, digital fluency and competence as well as a work ethic of doing things that are sometimes hard and unpleasant are important parts of the education of our students. Life can be tough and our students must be prepared.

  2. I have just started reading the book Unencorporating Education by Dr. William J Cook. His argument is, in fact, that education is already an economic institution. (See more below and on my post at

    Already provocative and engaging in the first few chapters, I haven’t made up my mind yet. The thesis of the book as found on the inside flap and on the website reads,

    “The thesis of this book is simple: the nation’s fundamental institutions, by intent or by default, have abandoned the historical Western idea of education and thus have opened the door for a hostile takeover by corporate America. The result is an educational system, if it may be so called, that has been robbed of its essential human nature (educare) and turned into a rationalized process designed to produce profitable workers, according to industry specifications. The individual is diminished to servitude; true democracy rendered impossible.

    There is no correcting the existing system. It cannot be reformed, reinvented, restructured, or salvaged. It must be utterly destroyed and new systems of learning and teachings created -systems worthy of human beings. The suggestions offered here are an attempt to begin the action.”

    It’s a compelling, unsettling, and uncomfortable premise to be sure. To borrow from Malcolm Gladwell and his book, Blink, my initial “thin slice” is one of resonance with a measure of caution thrown in.

    • The ‘western ideals’ has become a dream to excel in economic prosperity. What about schools with the ideal to develop the spiritual identity and purpose of learners? Our highest calling in life is to understand what it means to live meaningfully, what makes us happy, what gives us purpose. My suggestion as a student is not to dismiss the biblical value of living but to bring it into education as a way to get away from the economic driven agenda.

  3. Love your post. I live in a town that is very segregated by class. The local geniuses on the school board are beginning discussions about turning one of the local urban high schools into a vocational school. I find it rather disgusting that because students at this school are poor and largely minority that their future is being mandated as that of factory workers. Don’t get me wrong there is nothing inhuman or ignoble about working in a factory. It is however a sad state of our society when we look at a group of children and say that you are limited to only these choices.

  4. Lorraine Partridge Reply April 7, 2008 at 1:38 pm

    This response is primariy for VIcki: I must share this post with my students, all of whom are African-American and most of whom are low SES. My motto is that I am trying to empower them by making them able to make CHOICES! I am all for vocational education, even though I am a foreign-language teacher primarily concerned with college-prep students.

    In most other countries, students are required to earn their education and they have more choices if they do, including early enrollment in professional courses (what we would call vo-tech). They earn professional certificates or diplomas that entitle them to compete for jobs in the workforce. It is fascinating to see the choices that students have. I have spoken with craftsmen, salespeople, tour guides, factory guides, and a host of others who all had trained from the age of 15 to do their jobs. You can become a cognac taster, a perfume crafter, a chef, hotelier, advertising specialist, etc., all without having to attend university.

    It seems to me that we empower the country when we prepare young people to have more choices. Many of my students don’t want to have to choose. They just want to be passed on without any effort and given jobs. These are the employees you described who act as if you owe them a paycheck. I am reminded of a forum where a gentleman advocated a “work or starve” program similar to what existed before welfare. When one kind lady suggested that surely he wouldn’t let the children starve, he vehemently disagreed. If parents had to watch their children starve because they couldn’t afford to feed them, he maintained, perhaps they would cease to have children they could not afford!

    It is very difficult to prepare children for their adult lives, which should include work, when they have all their primary needs satisfied by government agencies, leaving them the choice of spending their small amount of disposable income on phones, clothes, accessories, and entertainment. “Why should I pay for my health care myself,” one student asked me, “if the government is willing to pay it for me?” No one in the class could understand the concepts of honor and self-sufficiency. It is as if we have created a generation of pets who don’t understand that everything they enjoy is provided through the work of others.

    While I do agree with the premise of the book that Rick is reading, (and in fact believe that NCLB is a government-corporate conspiracy on a number of levels), I have to put the primary responsibility for education on the students themselves. It is virtually impossible, in today’s society, not to notice that many people are functioning at a very high level. They should realize that they can too.

    No matter how bad your school is, as Bill O’Reilly said after Katrina, it has a library. There are public libraries. Students should get out, use the resources available, and empower themselves. Let the rest become fodder for the minimum-wage/welfare roles that await those who choose not to choose.

    I like your point that people EARN jobs every day. I hope to be able to get that point over to my students. I want them to choose.

  5. Rick, I’ve never heard of Dr. William J Cook but I know of John Taylor Gatto who has an experience in the public school system for over 30 years and received 2 New York State Teacher of the year awards.

    He researched a lot on this topic and based his evidence on the data he found compared to what most people base their evidence of (compared the man who owns this blog – no offense, but it’s really hard to research into all this topic, all people offer different answers for the purpose of school).

    So, for the person who owns this blog, I recommend you take a look at John Taylor Gatto’s book “The underground history of american education” available for free online on his site This guy talked in front of many audiences and published dozens book. He really changed my perspective when it comes to public schooling.

    By the way, I also sent similar message to Seth Godin and he replied that he found some interesting information froM Gatto’s articles and website.

    Best wishes,

  6. Schools mainly develop learners to an end of becoming useful economic agents, instead of preparing learners to live meaningfully in the world. The contemporary educational system works to separate between the prosperity of the rich and poor, instead of empowering learners to transcend these social and political boundaries. The outcome of genuine education is to transform the life in the learner in such a way that they have the freedom to pursue personal happiness, instead of being limited in a system that coerces them to fulfill an economic end. Unfortunately, schools are driven by the political agenda to prosper economic entities through labor, instead of developing learners to reach their full potential. The challenge is to refocus education so that it does not center on the motifs of social, economic or political agendas, but on the authentic values of existential learning. This model of schooling places the supreme value on the complete development of the learner. Returning to a more essential form of learning is based on the platonic and Aristotelian ideal that learning is there to enlighten the learner in such a way that they can live a fulfilled life of wisdom and virtue through always growing in a personal direction.

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