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A philosophy of the classroom

What is the true purpose of an education? There is no one answer—and that’s the point
September 6, 2023

In August, a team of scientists succeeded in reconstructing a muddy distortion of a Pink Floyd song by analysing the brainwaves of people listening to it. It is notable that they chose the first part of “Another Brick in the Wall” rather than the second, with its famous line, “We don’t need no education”. Without education, their feat of mind reading would never have been possible.

When we ask what the purpose of education is, attention-grabbing scientific breakthroughs like this come to mind. Education fuels innovation: spending on learning is investment in the future, without which society would stagnate. This is the instrumental view of education. But if education is for the betterment of society, we have to ask: better for whom? 

Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters was following in the footsteps of Marxist philosophers when he wrote his famous lyrics. These thinkers have argued that education in western democracies primarily serves the interests of the capitalist class. Schools are one of the key “ideological state apparatuses”—alongside the family, the media and the church—which inculcate the values that make us compliant managers, workers and consumers.

Of course, when we send our children to school or attend an evening class ourselves, we don’t think we’re perpetuating the capitalist system. But as the French Marxist Louis Althusser would have argued, ideology has done its work when we don’t notice it. Many now accept as given the idea that education succeeds to the extent that it prepares students to become productive economic actors. The argument for the expansion of higher education under New Labour was based on the fact that graduates earn more than non-graduates. Today, people are openly arguing in favour of cutting courses that do not provide their holders with a net boost to income. 

Many of us would push back against such an extreme instrumental view as that, but you don’t have to be a capitalist shill to believe that education should do something to drive innovation and prepare young people for the world of work. The key point is that these things should not be its only functions.

A good general principle is that education does many things, and when we prioritise one to the exclusion of others, the whole becomes distorted by an over-sized part. Schools are also important for socialisation, teaching children respect for (sometimes very different) others. We might also think education is important for its own sake, because deepening our understanding makes life richer, even when there are no practical benefits. 

The function of education that causes the most headaches in liberal societies is its role in the formation of the good citizen. The American thinker John Dewey argued in the early 20th century that education should be conceived as “the process of forming fundamental dispositions, intellectual and emotional, toward nature and fellow men”. He believed that democracy, in its fullest sense, is the non-coercive management of the conflicts that emerge in communal life; a process in which citizens engage equally on the basis of knowledge and lived experience. Education needs to model these cooperative, democratic practices.

More recently, the eminent contemporary philosopher Martha Nussbaum has argued that a society is not truly free unless its citizens “can call their minds their own”. A humanistic education should develop the capacity for independent thought. This “imparts to them a dignity that is far beyond the outer dignity of class and rank”. The fact that authoritarian regimes make sure their schools do not promote free thinking serves as a kind of proof of its power.

Liberals today may feel queasy at talk of shaping children to be good democratic citizens, worrying about “indoctrination”. But education inevitably develops character; the only question is what kind. Conservatives want it to inculcate respect for faith and flag. Dictators want it to create obedience and belief in their distorted versions of history. Liberals want it to produce respect for enlightened values, without imposing what John Rawls called their own “comprehensive doctrine”,  which sets out too prescriptive a picture of our moral duties.

There is no escaping the value-laden nature of education, and any attempt to do so would simply result in a covert imposition of values, since to retreat from morality would be to endorse a kind of moral free-for-all. Citizens will have different ideas about which moral values should be taught and which of education’s functions should be given precedence. It is always going to be a compromise. But such compromise is the defining feature of democracy. A good education needs to pass on this spirit of cooperation, exemplifying what it is helping society to achieve.

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Each month Prospect offers a philosophical view on current events. The idea for this month’s column was submitted by Ben Breen. 

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