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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12 Comments on “Does education have a purpose?”


  1. I’d make two points, first that it isn’t helpful to talk about ‘the’ purpose of education. People have different purposes in developing their education.

    Secondly, the social and economic purposes of education are not all openly admitted to, progressive or (from a liberal and/or soft left perspective) positive. Education plays important roles in preserving class distinctions and increasing inequality, for example. We need to attend to these outcomes, as well as the arguments. Institutions like Collini’s play a big role in entrenching inequality under the cover of their commitment to ‘human understanding’.

  2. Jacco Says:

    It seems to me that whether a university education promotes learning per se or economic goals, the skill set that students have to acquire is quite similar. My worry is that an instrumentalist approach to university education, accompanied by metrics fo success create the wrong invcentives for educators in providing support for student development of those skills. It already seems to have happened at secondary level: in my experience, for example, the problem solving skills of students coming in has been eroded (both in Ireland and the UK). An increased focus of universities on NSS results etc might not make things any better. Am I being too pessimistic?

  3. Vincent Says:

    Last year I went and bought myself an acoustic guitar. Today I can make it produce about thirty pieces of music; recognisable as music. So why am I putting myself through torture -less aural these days but still- in my mid forties. Well, there are a number of reasons, mostly centering around curiosity. But no one ever undertakes the learning process for the sake of that process. That would be like saying one would enjoy racking oneself. You might come out with that tripe a few years down the road.
    Just a tincy wency Q. Are you not being a bit chauvinistic given the vast majority of university students are doing undergrad work with about as much use in the outside world as a sharp Nile pen.

  4. Ernie Ball Says:

    Ferdinand, once again you demonstrate that you are truly a deep thinker, rivaled in this regard only by the great Lysenko!

    Who was Lysenko? Now why on earth would anyone need to know that? It certainly isn’t going to help anyone get a job. . .


    • For those not familiar with Lysenko, let me just explain that Ernie’s typing finger was dipped in an inkwell of sarcasm before he wrote.

      But Ernie, it’s a completely irrelevant (and erroneous) point. No one will be more or less likely to learn about Lysenko if we see education as having a purpose. Actually I’m wrong, it would be much more likely. The impact of government science policy and its implementation is an immensely practical topic. Lysenko was discredited when the implications for agricultural production became overwhelmingly obvious. If we had just been admiring the theory he might have managed to hang on longer.

  5. Anna Notaro Says:

    When Collini characterizes as an outrageous idea thinking of universities as ‘primarily devoted to extending and deepening human understanding’ is offering a conceptual paradox, in other words what used to be the traditional (cliche as you say) mission of universities becomes an outrageous idea at a time when the predominant narrative (the new cliche) is the one about ‘contributing to economic growth’. As I might have expressed in previous comments radicalizing the discussion about the purposes (and I stress the plural) of education and educational institutions does not get us very far, nor does sarcasm. Social and economic purposes are two sides of the same medal and it would be inexplicable for any critique of current educational policies stemming from a leftish tradition to ignore such an obviety and, ultimately, its own ideological roots.


  6. I’m not at all sure that education’s capacity for “extending and deepening human understanding” is at odds with its contribution to social or economic benefit. To drum up another cliche, surely it’s a false dichotomy: the former is the precursor to the latter. Perhaps it’s simpler to say that education creates opportunities through both its research and teaching missions for people to engage in practices of investigative thinking whose ultimate contribution might not yet be apparent. It’s a process of imagination, optimism and patience.

    So saying that education is speculative and driven by curiosity isn’t the same as saying that it’s setting out to achieve self-indulgent aesthetic goals only, that should be quarantined from scrutiny. This is just the nature of inquiry: sometimes the questions don’t lead anywhere for the time being. Collini seems to be suggesting that this in itself is not the waste of time it might appear, especially in a climate that appears hostile to speculative thinking in other institutional contexts. So it’s not the opposite of accountability–far from it–but it does offer a critical lens on the contraction of vision to short term gains, whether pursued by government or first year students.

    • anna notaro Says:

      Music, I could not agree more with you that this is a false dichotomy, that is what I had in mind when I was arguing against the futility of radicalizing what should instead be complementary views..

  7. Al Says:

    Each to their own purpose.
    But speculative claims about the purpose and achievements of education need to be justified.


    • Is it possible that justification is itself has become the dimension of hubris in our regimes of accountability? Here in Australia we’re very used to justifying the speculative dimension to research in terms of national benefit, for example. This almost always requires strategic overestimation of the project’s capacity. Even when we can justify what we do in the short term, this doesn’t foreclose on adaptive reuse in the future, so why not extend this consideration of open-ended benefit more widely?

      Otherwise, aren’t we trapped by the logic of justification into the proposition that knowing more about something has no benefit until we can see exactly how those benefits will be operationalised?

      • Al Says:

        Whoah.
        will try one question at a time.
        1 possibly true, but this may be a by product of the democratisation of student population, in that university is no longer just and experience for an all ready established ruling class?
        2 I am not sure about, but in terms of funds isn’t it always a question of judgement. What about a case where choices have to be made in either or situations for projects?
        3 I don’t think so, but again, who makes the claim is of importance? Wave my Nobel!
        I am not sure if I am on your wavelength on this? Am I?
        Midnight here!

  8. Norman Wyse Says:

    Well, to state the obvious, the university is far older than market capitalism. So clearly it had an original purpose. It’s just a case of how far we want to subvert this purpose to the needs of the economy. It’s a pity ‘university’ wasn’t reserved for the original ‘enrichment of mankind’ type purposes, and another form of institution allowed to expand and develop to serve industry.

    In any case, since when are students, deemed to be ripe for all manner of socialisation, suddenly experts? ‘Education can also improve job prospects’ has simply had the ‘can also’ dropped, with first couple of waves of first time students in families. Suits government and industry.


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