What is the purpose of education?


RECENTLY, I was asked to moderate a session by a group of volunteer teachers on this topic. They were responding to the Royal Address at the National Day where education was called out for its failure to update to the needs of the new century and the changing times. The panelists were some of the best minds from the Bhutanese society.

I was curious by the question and so, as a researcher, I did a small survey where I randomly primed ten people from my contact list and asked them the question: According to you, what is the purpose of education.

I got seven different answers (see Annex).

Two things are certain when it comes to the purpose in education: first, there does not seem to be a clear understanding; and second, there is no consensus on the matter. How do we then judge, or how does the system implement, something the purpose of which we are not sure of, or agree to. This, perhaps, is the basis of why public education is in dilemma today all over the world and not just in Bhutan.

In the last two decades, though, as more people moved away from the traditional occupation of farming, the public discourse on the purpose of education in Bhutan has focussed on “preparing for the job market”. Thus, words such as “mismatch”, and phrases such as “21st century skills”, have been loosely tossed around.

But does getting a job, suffice as the purpose of education? If so, then we just need a few trade and technical schools where people can spend a maximum 2 years to learn something and then a job is secured. Some jobs can be learnt in less than a week – like sweeping or mopping the floor. Why do we need to invest in 16 years of education, taking some 20% of the State budget every year?  

If you dig into a bit of history…

The oldest formalized learning model recorded in the western world comes from Ancient Greece, which focused on developing soldiers, public servants, statesmen and well-informed citizens. Students learned from a hired tutor in a master-student environment. It was an individualised curriculum. Socrates argued that education was about drawing out what was already within the student. The word education, in fact, comes from two Latin words, educere meaning “to lead out” and educare – which means to “to culture” or “to groom” a well-rounded person.

Few often cite that we have  an education system, as old as the one from Ancient Greece, from some 2500 years ago: the monastic Sangha. Buddhism was actually an education system that aimed at seeking wisdom – and not just knowledge or information. The ultimate aim was to attain enlightenment. One of my favorite quotes, which I try to live by, is from Sakya Pandita, Kuenga Gyeltshen, who said: “Even if you are going to die tomorrow, it is still worth learning something new today”. Definitely getting a job was, then, not the purpose of education.

Diametrically opposite to the Buddhist perspective of education was the Pragmatist view enunciated by various scholars, such as the Late 19th Century American philosopher and linguist, Charles Sander Pierce. Education is to be pursued to only serve a practical purpose, like getting a job. This fitted well and further justified the Factory model of public education – the education system that became widely available following the Industrial Revolution. Hierarchy of disciplines came into existence, as science and mathematics took over art, music and philosophy.

The fourth, and the last perspective I will mention is, from John Dewey, another American philosopher-educationist from the early 20th Century, who believed that education served a greater purpose than just landing a job. He was convinced that education was an end in itself and a means – in that children became fully developed because of it. The economic goal, like landing a job, was just one of the by-products of being educated.

Which of these perspectives serve to re-define the purpose of our education system in Bhutan. 

Unless this question is answered, I expect the discussion on the New Education Reform to become either a Dilli Haat where every person is shouting and trying to sell his or her wares, or we will have another Blue Print or Master Plan that lacks in basic coherence like a link between the vision and the strategy. 




Annex: Purpose of education : result of the small survey

  1.     To get better life (2 respondents)
  2.     Prepare them for job market (2 respondents)
  3.     To make productive citizens
  4.     Give them skills to function in the 21st Century
  5.     Locally and globally competent
  6.     Create lifelong learner
  7.     To read and write

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