08/03/2011 05:25 pm ET Updated Oct 03, 2011

Why Education?

Why do we have education? What is the rationale behind schooling? Is it just to transfer content knowledge or is that just a part of a larger picture? Why do we subject our children to 12, 14, 18, or even 20 years of education? If we don't know, if we don't have an answer bursting to come out, then why do it?

Too often we recite or regurgitate What we do or How we do it without considering Why we do it. And it's Why we do things that gives meaning and purpose (if you haven't seen it watch Simon Sinek's TED talk).

We debate endlessly, and often furiously, the How and the What -- language arts versus science; physical education compared to music; extra study time or recess; play or instruction; seat time against project-based learning; standardized testing in competition with portfolios; scripted curriculum or differentiated instruction; common core or site-level control, and so forth, and so forth.

But all these debates, arguments, and shoutfests are meaningless -- or, at best, dysfunctional -- unless we first determine Why we have education. From this Why, all other vehicles, processes, subjects, themes, curricula, and techniques--all the Whats and Hows -- can be sorted.

So Why? Why education? What do we want to achieve via an education system?

What is the purpose of education? This question agitates scholars, teachers, statesmen, every group, in fact, of thoughtful men and women. The conventional answer is the acquisition of knowledge, the reading of books, and the learning of facts. Perhaps because there are so many books and the branches of knowledge in which we can learn facts are so multitudinous today, we begin to hear more frequently that the function of education is to give children a desire to learn and to teach them how to use their minds and where to go to acquire facts when their curiosity is aroused. Even more all-embracing than this is the statement made not long ago, before a group of English headmasters, by the Archbishop of York, that "the true purpose of education is to produce citizens."

--Eleanor Roosevelt, "Good Citizenship: The Purpose of Education," Pictorial Review, April 1930, archived in Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education, October 2008.

The purpose of education has always been to every one, in essence, the same--to give the young, the things they need in order to develop if an orderly, sequential way into members of society.

--John Dewey, "Individual Psychology and Education," The Philosopher, Volume XII, 1934.

[E]ducation has a two-fold function to perform in the life of man and in society: the one is utility and the other is culture. Education must enable a man to become more efficient, to achieve with increasing facility the legitimate goals of his life.

--Martin Luther King Jr., "The Purpose of Education," Maroon Tiger, January-February 1947.

If we follow this lead, the purpose for education is not solely to transfer content knowledge but to enable the individual's successful entrance into society. It's somewhat bigger than making sure that everyone can pass Algebra I or write a paragraph, even though those two items may be part of the process. It's more about developing whole individuals, whole children, to be ready for the world in which they exist and prepared for the future.

So if that is the goal -- the Why -- then the questions needs to be the How and the What. But these discussions need to be taken in context with, and always as a reflection of, the Why. What does a person ready for society look like? What should they have achieved? What is key to be learned? And then, How do we achieve that via schooling?

We should work backward from the goal -- successful entrance into society and beyond -- and then explain, describe, and outline what is needed for that outcome to occur.

Is it enough to focus only on the academic or even only on the cognitive? Is it not just as important to focus on the social, emotional, physical, and mental development, too? Are these not worthy, and, in fact, necessary areas to be developed?

Is it acceptable that we allow students leave school without a sound understanding of what it means to be physically, socially, emotionally, or mentally healthy? Are we justified in focusing the vast majority of our time and effort on memorization and academics as we simultaneously shortchange students in areas we know are required for success beyond formal schooling?

Is it not time for us to redefine what it means for a student to be successful? Is it not time for us to redefine "a successful learner from one whose achievement is measured solely by academic tests, to one who is knowledgeable, emotionally and physically healthy, civically inspired, engaged in the arts, prepared for work and economic self-sufficiency, and ready for the world beyond formal schooling"? (ASCD, The Learning Compact Redefined, 2007)