Published in Education Review..
7th December 2009

Published in Education Review, November 2009

In the midst of measurement mania, have we lost sight of the purpose of education?

On reading the official documents setting the agenda for state and territory schools over the next 5 to 8 years, prepared by the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) and the Ministerial Council on Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs (MCEETYA), it is obvious what governments and bureaucrats see as the purpose of education.

The consensus is that education is about making Australia more productive and internationally competitive.  In an increasingly challenging global environment, Australia needs a workforce that is multi-skilled, adaptable and futures oriented.  
As stated in a National Curriculum Board background paper, “It (schooling) should build strong foundations for future national prosperity, helping to make Australia productive and internationally competitive in the global economy”.

According to this utilitarian view, schools are the key to the nation’s future prosperity and success, as is a curriculum embodying work-based competencies and generic skills.  Closely allied to the push for productivity is imposing a restrictive and inflexible accountability regime on schools, one where tests like NAPLAN define educational success.

It should not surprise that on being interviewed after her appointment as Minister for Education, Social Inclusion and Deputy-Leader, Julia Gillard, stated, “So while my portfolio can be a mouthful, I’ll be happy to be referred to simply as the Minister for Productivity”.

There is an alternative.  Education in its fullest sense, what some term a liberal education, is concerned with introducing students to what Matthew Arnold termed “the best which has been thought and said”.  Subjects like music, art, literature and drama might not be of immediate practical use but, without them, we are less than human. 

Such subjects, and also history, science and mathematics, have evolved over hundreds of years and represent a vast reservoir of inherited learning that the English philosopher, Michael Oakeshott, describes as a conversation.

For Oakseshott, education involves “an initiation into the skill and partnership of this conversation in which we learn to recognise the voices, to distinguish the proper occasions of utterance, and in which we acquire the intellectual and moral habits appropriate to conversation”.

In opposition to the current fetish for testing and measurement, the reality is that much of this conversation cannot be reduced to standardised, multiple choice questions or be revealed in box and whisper diagrams where every student is neatly measured and placed.

English cannot be limited to basic skills or defined as vacuous generic competencies like communication skills.  Literature is paramount, especially those myths, legends and fables that deal with enduring archetypes and elemental emotions.  The musical, dramatic and poetic qualities of language are also central to the subject.

Whether studying history, mathematics or science, it is also the case that much of the intellectual pleasure and joy of learning should be savoured for its own sake and not for what it can produce in terms of employability skills or increasing the nation’s competitive edge.

Instead of education being restricted to economic and financial benefits, it is vital to recognise and respect its broader, more humanising and creative purposes.  As such, schools have a central role to play in the moral, spiritual and cultural formation of students.

Brian Crittenden, one time Professor of Education at La Trobe University, describes this view of education as follows, “It is, in effect, a systematic and sustained introduction to those public forms of meaning in which the standards of human excellence in the intellectual, moral and aesthetic domains are expressed and critically investigated”.

A liberal view of education has much to offer, based as it is on inculcating habits of mind and character like rationality, civility, morality and humility.  While such a view of education might seem old-fashioned in a time of instant global communication and new technology, the reality is that human nature is the same now as it was thousands of years ago.

Watching Greek tragedies like Oedipus or Medea and reading stories like the Iliad and the Odyssey remind us that emotions like love, ambition, courage, greed, hubris and self-sacrifice are ever present and help define what is means to be human.

Music, dance and art are also inherently worthwhile and while they should be appreciated and enjoyed for their own sake, such pursuits and activities also play an important role in the moral and cultural education of students.

If students are to be resilient, confident and able to deal with life’s challenges and predicaments, then they must have something more substantial and more lasting to draw on and enrich their lives than the basics, represented by tests like NAPLAN, and generic skills like working in teams and being technologically aware.

Unfortunately, in the rush to hold schools accountable and to be seen to take action to raise standards and to ensure education is tied to increased productivity and wealth creation, the broader, more important purpose of education is being lost.

Dr Kevin Donnelly is author of the recently released Australia’s Education Revolution: How Kevin Rudd Won and Lost the Education Wars and Director of the Education Standards Institute


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7th December 2009

Published in Education Review, November 2009In the midst of measurement mania, have we lost sight of the purpose of education?On reading the official documents setting the agenda for state and terri...
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