purpos/ed: It's not about the purpose of education. It's about whether we want people to learn at all.
One of the biggest issues in discussing the purpose of education in this borderless forum is revealed in our original challenge: we're preparing a discussion for "the election" (in Westminster, England) in three years' time when, for the five million of us who share the same island, the elections that really matter for education happen in 90 days. If you're in the US, you've barely got two years. In Canada… In Egypt… In India… In China…
In Scotland, education is managed by our own Parliament, not by those sitting 400 miles away in Westminster. And over the past year, after taking some of the ingredients suggested by this blogger, the SNP’s Government created Engage for Ed, a now burgeoning series of blog posts, provocations and discussions between ministers, parents, interest groups, teachers, students from our youth parliament and others from that amorphous glob we call The General Public. Has it had a tumultuous effect on policy? It's hard to say. University remains free to attend for Scottish students. The nearly new Curriculum for Excellence has had some more time, effort and money spent on it to heighten its potential impact in creating a 3-18 curriculum of student-led, passion-based learning. As all the parties sharpen the instruments in their manifesto toolbox we'll see how much the opinions and ideas of those online contribute to their vision for the purpose of education.
Government policy-making, cash injections and tinkering with frameworks of schooling can only have a limited impact on how teachers, parents and pupils perceive "what education is for". Ultimately, these three vital groups make up their minds based on what they see in the classroom and what they see in the connection (or lack of it) between what goes In School and what happens everywhere else in the community: the way students interact with their community on the walk home; the way they dive into working on personal projects that actually matter to them or argue with their parents over homework whose value no-one in this triangle of learning is particularly sure.
The desire to learn is woven into the concept of contentment and that, for me at least, is the basic purpose of any education system. Contentment can flourish into happiness, riches, recognition or any other myriad of emotional and material gain. But without a content society, with an ambition to continually discover and question the world around them throughout life, we end up with society's biggest enemies: complacency, stagnancy, apathy and ambivalence.
In the UK, we have the world's least happy children. In the US, the number prescribed Ritalin is growing to frightening rates, and correlates to standardised testing. In Finland, home of Western Europe's ‘best’ education system, we see its highest suicide rate (note the ranking of South Korea & Japan, too).
We have an ongoing contentment problem, and the answer to it lies in helping young people discover what their passions are, giving up the artificial reins we as teachers, parents and governments use to strangle those passions and the creativity that lends itself to their growth.