Does education have a purpose?
Prompted in part by discussions that have taken place in this blog, I recently asked a group of final year undergraduate students what they believed the purpose of a university education was. There were some variations in the responses, but most of them converged on the idea of purpose: universities were there to provide students with knowledge and skills that equip them for their careers. The students valued critical analysis and intellectual integrity, but they placed it firmly in the context of formation for their professional lives.
In fact, it is my belief that students on the whole are much closer to the view often put forward by governments – that education should be connected with specific national priorities and needs – than the more traditional view of education as an end in itself. But if there is a battleground of ideas in higher education policy, this is it: is there a purpose to education other than just education?
There are by now plenty of belligerents in this battle. The Guardian newspaper has recently set out the views of some of these, and what struck me in particular was the reported statement by Stefan Collini, Professor of English Literature and Intellectual History at the University of Cambridge. Here’s what he is reported as having said:
‘For Collini, “one way to begin to think about their distinctiveness is to see [universities] as institutions primarily devoted to extending and deepening human understanding”. This, he suggests “is a pretty outrageous idea: no other institutions have this as their primary purpose”. He wants to discuss their role “in more fruitful terms than the cliches about ‘contributing to economic growth’ which currently dominate public debate on the topic”.’
What do I make of that? Well, I have genuine respect for Professor Collini, who has made some extremely valuable contributions to the debate on education. But with all due respect, the idea of ‘extending and deepening human understanding’ is as much a cliché as ‘contributing to economic growth’. As I have mentioned here before, I have a huge problem with the argument that education is some sort of aesthetic construct which we admire because it looks beautiful, rather than a framework that provides tangible benefits to society because of the things it does. Of course what it does is something more than, and sometimes something different from, economic development. Of course education cannot just be an instrument of government. But its impact on quite functional things like social cohesion, cultural regeneration, employment and economic growth is vital, and if these don’t define the purpose of education entirely they do pretty much determine the extent to which education is supported and resourced.
It seems to me that there are considerable dangers in a view of education that seemingly disconnects it from society. The key liberal policy statements of the post-War period did not avoid making the link between education and social and economic purpose. Not every way of expressing this link in political action is equally good, but then again not every attempt to place it into the context of such purpose is bad. Education, including higher education, does have a purpose, and it is something more important than the (to me) still vacuous concept of ‘learning for its own sake’.
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