Purpose of education
In the following, from the Weekend Australian, I argue that the current utilitarian and pragmatic approach to education undervalues what should be most important - a conservative view of the purpose of education.
THE commentary in response to Julia Gillard's Gonski-inspired school funding model and her National Plan for School Improvement focuses on finances and the need to improve results.
Ignored is the more important question: What do we define as the purpose of education?
The commonwealth government's approach is that education must concentrate on preparing students for the 21st century and scenarios that are impossible to predict. Students are defined as digital natives and teachers become guides by the side.
Coupled with this is the belief that learning is about strengthening the economy, making Australia Asia-centric and developing a more productive workforce.
This utilitarian approach exists alongside a child-centred view of learning that restricts education to the world of the student, a world where learning is local, contemporary and relevant.
As a result, teacher authority is undervalued and the traditional academic curriculum becomes secondary to an inquiry-based model of learning, one that privileges process over content.
Students leave school with gaps in the knowledge needed to live a fulfilling and productive life and to be effective citizens.
Take the example of cultural literacy - every day in conversations, newspapers and journals, listening to the news and accessing the internet we come across historical references to people, events, movements and ideas.
Failing to understand or to identify what is being referred to denies one the opportunity to contribute to the public debate.
Recognising sayings such as "it's her Achilles heel", "they opened a Pandora's box", "be a good Samaritan" and "to err is human; to forgive divine" do not happen intuitively. They have to be taught. Those championing the internet and sites such as Wikipedia also fail to understand that information is not knowledge and understanding should never be confused with wisdom.
A utilitarian view confuses education with training and ignores the fact that what is most worthwhile in education may not be immediately useful. Equally as valuable as a utilitarian approach is a conservative view of education, one that defines education, to use Matthew Arnold's expression, as dealing with the best that has been thought and said.
This view of education, while acknowledging the need to be contemporary, stresses the need to respect the past. Stretching back to ancient Greece and Rome, the various disciplines of knowledge have established themselves and constitute the principal way we understand the world.
Such disciplines, while drawing on diverse cultures and histories, are also associated with the rise of Western civilisation and the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution and the impact of modernity.
A conservative view of education, drawing on Judeo-Christian values, is also inherently moral. A central aspect of education is to instil values such as civility, reciprocity, humility, truth-telling and a commitment to the common good.
A conservative view of education also accepts that human understanding is fallible, that there are limits to what we can master and that there are truths that are absolute and unchanging. Best illustrated by Plato's parable of the cave, where the prisoners confuse the shadows projected on a wall in front of them with reality and only realise their mistake when freed to walk outside, much of what we know about the world is misguided.
It's also the case that laws of physics are unchanging. Those familiar with Greek tragedies or Shakespeare will also appreciate that human nature is unchanging.
A conservative view of education should not be confused with training. Much of what now is defined as education is directed towards practical, utilitarian ends such as gaining a qualification for a profession or trade. In contrast, the more traditional view argues education might not be of any immediate practical use.
A conservative education is also based on the premise that not all students have the same ability or desire for a university education. During primary school and the first years of secondary school there should be a common curriculum, but after that students must be allowed to follow different pathways, as they do in European countries such as Finland - a leader in education tests.
A conservative view of education is elitist. Mastering difficult subject matter requires effort, application, concentration and the ability to postpone immediate gratification.
State-controlled schools are a relatively recent phenomenon and the fact that so many Australian parents are choosing independent and Catholic schools demonstrates that not all believe that governments and their bureaucracies should control schools. The commonwealth government justifies its new funding model by arguing Australia must be in the top five nations in international tests by 2025. It ignores that what is most valuable in education cannot be measured.
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