The function of education

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Last week I took you on a venture into the world of “meta” education, that is, an excursion into theoretical education. In so doing, I compared practical and broad-based purposes of education.

In the process I posited the following question with an eye toward attempting a resolution in identifying the defining purpose of education: What should an education be doing for its society, its culture, and its individual constituents?

As is my custom after I complete a column, and long after the editors unleash their piranha-like instincts on my precious missals, I review and research the topic again in the hopes of enhancing the under-pinning of my proffered position.

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This past week has been no exception.

Because I am so imbued with education as a theoretical process and as a function of the ever developing capabilities of the mental and intellectual activity of the human condition, I researched a rather extensive database looking for other views on the function of education.

Needless to say, this venture produced another epiphany-like episode in my ever-meandering sense of wonder. And for me, this is so because I truly believe that wonderment is the beginning of all understanding!

It was the drum-roll conclusion to my last column which prompted a continued search, and to reiterate that position, I posited that “as we plot the course of our educational institutions, I think it is vital that while we educate to learn for pragmatic purposes such as careers, it is crucial that we develop creative, analytical, and thinking individuals for the preservation of that we love the most – our freedom.”

While I still firmly hold to that position, there were no less than seven education theorists whom I encountered in my search during the week which expanded my horizons as to the viability and efficacy of education as a societal product and process.

So I am requesting your indulgence here as I share some of their observations with you this week.

If we accept the premise that our Founders instinctively knew that education had to be the cornerstone of the American Republic, then the first quotation uttered by Henry Peter, a Scottish Whig politician, in 1828 serves as a clear articulation of that belief: “Education makes a people easy to lead, but difficult to drive; easy to govern but impossible to enslave.” The application of this notion could not be any clearer.

As we add to the notion of developing an informed electorate, we can see that Twentieth Century psychologist and educator, Jerome S. Bruner, extends the function of an education for an informed electorate when he wrote in 1961, “Education must, then, be not only a transmission of culture but also a provider of alternative views of the world and a strengthener of the will to explore them.”

Hence, education becomes a kind of liberator, in this sense.

As for the process of education, Eighteenth Century German playwright Gotthold Lessing observed, “What education is to the individual man, revelation is to the human race. Education is revelation coming to the individual man, and revelation is education that has come, and is still coming to the human race.”

Education as constant and renewing revelation is vital to the continuity of the human condition.

As if this were not impacting enough, look at what U.S. educator Laurent Daloz posited in 1986. “A good education ought to help people to become both more receptive to and more discriminating about the world: seeing, feeling, and understanding more, yet sorting the pertinent from the irrelevant with an ever finer touch, increasingly able to integrate what they see and to make meaning of it in ways that enhance their ability to go on growing.”

The added ability to analytically appraise is seen as a crucial effect of education.

Now, add to this what the legendary Maria Montessori charged in her landmark work The Absorbent Mind published in 1949. “If education is always to be conceived along the same antiquated lines of a mere transmission of knowledge, there is little to be hoped from it in the bettering of man’s future. For what is the use of transmitting knowledge if the individual’s total development lags behind?”

Considering American education without some observation from Ralph Waldo Emerson would be akin to playing football without wearing a helmet, and in the following quotation, Emerson seems to tie together the essence of what an American philosophy of education might look like. “The great object of Education should be commensurate with the object of life. It should be a moral one; to teach self-trust: to inspire the youthful man with an interest in himself; with a curiosity touching his own nature; to acquaint him with the resources of his mind, and to teach him that there is all his strength, and to inflame him with a piety towards the Grand Mind in which he lives. Thus would education conspire with the Divine Providence.”

But for me, the highest ideal of education both as process and as practice is summed up in the following quotation from noted Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget.

Piaget clearly and concisely states what education’s function must be: “The principle goal of education in the schools should be creating men and women who are capable of doing new things, not simply repeating what other generations have done; men and women who are creative, inventive and discoverers, who can be critical and verify, and not accept, everything they are offered.”

Should our Nation’s Founders have had the opportunity to encounter any of these quotations, it is my suspicion that they would be quite pleased with their belief in the function of education in the development and preservation of our American Republic.

Dr. Arthur G. Ogden is the Demopolis Campus Director of Alabama Southern Community College.

All his degrees are in philosophy.

He can be reached at