Purpose of education
12th May 2013

In the following, from the Weekend Australian, I argue that the current utilitarian and pragmatic approach to education undervalues what should be most important - a conservative view of the purpose of education.

THE commentary in response to Julia Gillard's Gonski-inspired school funding model and her National Plan for School Improvement focuses on finances and the need to improve results.

Ignored is the more important question: What do we define as the purpose of education?

The commonwealth government's approach is that education must concentrate on preparing students for the 21st century and scenarios that are impossible to predict. Students are defined as digital natives and teachers become guides by the side.

Coupled with this is the belief that learning is about strengthening the economy, making Australia Asia-centric and developing a more productive workforce.

This utilitarian approach exists alongside a child-centred view of learning that restricts education to the world of the student, a world where learning is local, contemporary and relevant.

As a result, teacher authority is undervalued and the traditional academic curriculum becomes secondary to an inquiry-based model of learning, one that privileges process over content.

Students leave school with gaps in the knowledge needed to live a fulfilling and productive life and to be effective citizens.

Take the example of cultural literacy - every day in conversations, newspapers and journals, listening to the news and accessing the internet we come across historical references to people, events, movements and ideas.

Failing to understand or to identify what is being referred to denies one the opportunity to contribute to the public debate.

Recognising sayings such as "it's her Achilles heel", "they opened a Pandora's box", "be a good Samaritan" and "to err is human; to forgive divine" do not happen intuitively. They have to be taught. Those championing the internet and sites such as Wikipedia also fail to understand that information is not knowledge and understanding should never be confused with wisdom.

A utilitarian view confuses education with training and ignores the fact that what is most worthwhile in education may not be immediately useful. Equally as valuable as a utilitarian approach is a conservative view of education, one that defines education, to use Matthew Arnold's expression, as dealing with the best that has been thought and said.

This view of education, while acknowledging the need to be contemporary, stresses the need to respect the past. Stretching back to ancient Greece and Rome, the various disciplines of knowledge have established themselves and constitute the principal way we understand the world.

Such disciplines, while drawing on diverse cultures and histories, are also associated with the rise of Western civilisation and the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution and the impact of modernity.

A conservative view of education, drawing on Judeo-Christian values, is also inherently moral. A central aspect of education is to instil values such as civility, reciprocity, humility, truth-telling and a commitment to the common good.

A conservative view of education also accepts that human understanding is fallible, that there are limits to what we can master and that there are truths that are absolute and unchanging. Best illustrated by Plato's parable of the cave, where the prisoners confuse the shadows projected on a wall in front of them with reality and only realise their mistake when freed to walk outside, much of what we know about the world is misguided.

It's also the case that laws of physics are unchanging. Those familiar with Greek tragedies or Shakespeare will also appreciate that human nature is unchanging.

A conservative view of education should not be confused with training. Much of what now is defined as education is directed towards practical, utilitarian ends such as gaining a qualification for a profession or trade. In contrast, the more traditional view argues education might not be of any immediate practical use.

A conservative education is also based on the premise that not all students have the same ability or desire for a university education. During primary school and the first years of secondary school there should be a common curriculum, but after that students must be allowed to follow different pathways, as they do in European countries such as Finland - a leader in education tests.

A conservative view of education is elitist. Mastering difficult subject matter requires effort, application, concentration and the ability to postpone immediate gratification.

State-controlled schools are a relatively recent phenomenon and the fact that so many Australian parents are choosing independent and Catholic schools demonstrates that not all believe that governments and their bureaucracies should control schools. The commonwealth government justifies its new funding model by arguing Australia must be in the top five nations in international tests by 2025. It ignores that what is most valuable in education cannot be measured. 


Responses to this Post

Local culture and commitment have been forgotten in the current debate about funding.

What has happened in secondary teaching? I vaguely recall that there was a triangular relationship that needed to function in order to achieve desired educational goals -- it had something to do with parents, students and teachers working together in a reinforcing relationship. Alas, now, the parent is removed from the relationship so long as it pertains to learning (other than social and money raising objectives). 

My children do not receive any marked tests back -- in Maths this is impermissible because tests might be copied and need to be redeveloped for the next year group! I have argue a case to have access to the test, and then for a a short period only. No marked essays are returned to students, no projects are returned either.I never see a teacher's marked comments throughout a writing piece or a project giving support, encouragement and importantly, guidance on skill development.

There are no continuous assessments over a terms in which a student's strengths and weakness are identified over time. 

So all those critical interactions that leverage off a student\\\'s efforts have gone. Results are indicated in reports and interviews, but not through regular interactions between a teacher, the student and the parents. I wish I could suggests that this had some pedagogical foundation. It does not. It is just a teacher-centric system designed to reduce workloads,and it has struck at the critical hot zone in which the learning takes place...the detailed feedback in response to discretionary effort which informs the next effort, and the next.

This is the key area where the educational service delivery operates at optimal effectiveness. But it has gone.  

The schools have all the information technology necessary to foster direct communication with parents and build the feedback loop, but they do not use it for that purpose - IT is for sports and politico-social event celebrations -and self-promotion.

What an abysmal development in all.  


 John Heininger says:

What we need in Australia is quality education based on balance and freedom of information, NOT leftist indoctrination and suppression of all information relating to theism and the Judeo-Christian worldview 

John Heininger

Director AEAS 

Angi Eirene Bennett says:

Dr. Kevin Donnelly's article in the Weekend Australian June 22-23, Inquirer

Page 18, is brilliant in its clarity, logic, reasoning and presentation.

This article should be sent to every member of Federal and State Parliaments, Front and Back Bench, Every Principal of every School in Australia, and anyone who wields any influence at any level in the field of Education!

AT LAST an academic who is not afraid nor intimidated to speak the whole truth about this apology of an Education Bill that is shameless in its obvious purpose, which has nothing whatsoever to do with raising the standard of Education in Australia.

THANK YOU Dr. Donnelly.  Sincerely

Angi Eirene Bennett 

Morayfield, QLD 



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12th May 2013

In the following, from the Weekend Australian, I argue that the current utilitarian and pragmatic approach to education undervalues what should be most important - a conservative view of the purpo...
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