07/18/2012 11:42 am ET | Updated Sep 17, 2012

Education Has No Purpose

I spent several years and thousands of dollars studying the philosophy of education. Historically, this niche field's core research question has been:

What is the purpose of education?

So I'm excited to kick off a series of posts regarding the purpose of education (The Question, if you will).

The first problem with The Question (or, more precisely, with respondents) is that people have developed a pernicious tendency to equate "education" with formal schooling. Hopefully obviously, a ton of learning (and teaching) takes place outside of school walls and without credits or credentials attached.

But even if we carefully keep in mind the wide range of formal and informal activities that comprise "education," the question regarding its purpose still misleads. The Question implicitly assumes that education does, in fact, have a purpose.

I believe, to the contrary, that adult people choose seemingly educational activities for themselves and their children with such a diversity of intentions that we should doubt whether education has "a purpose" at all.

The "purpose" of something is just the role that someone had hoped and planned for a tool, object, experience, activity, etc to fulfill. A knife's purpose is to cut stuff, a leash's purpose is to keep your dog within reach, etc.

Importantly, claims about a thing's purpose can be true or false. Their accuracy depends on what intentional agents actually had in mind when, or before, they acted.

Sometimes students and parents (especially wealthy ones) claim that they are after a "liberal education," and maybe most people have good reason to want this for themselves. But in fact people often engage in educational activities for some combination of other, less lofty reasons: Because they want to improve their income and/or social status, or because those activities are fun, or even because they need something to fill their time (as when unemployed, or retired).

Philosophers can claim that the "purpose of education" is to make people cosmopolitan, open-minded, tolerant, multicultural, or even happy all day long, but that doesn't make it true.

Each of these conditions may be an effect of education, even a likely and foreseeable effect, but education's purposes are just what students and their parents in fact had in mind.

Tell Me:

What purposes did you have in mind when you made educational decisions for yourself or your children?

Am I wrong? Do you think education *does* have One True Purpose?

Pamela J. Stubbart is an educator and philosopher based in Manhattan. Visit her tutoring and consulting practice here: Cognitive Catering, LLC.