What Is The Purpose Of School?

What Is The Purpose Of School?

by Terry Heick

What is the purpose of school?

The idea of “work” is present in most modern educational discussion almost entirely under the terms “career readiness.” This itself is an interesting failure, as it implies that the purpose of schooling is to prepare a person for “a job.”

And to many, this is head-slapping obvious, following the familiar pattern of going to school, getting a job, and paying the rent. Broadly, this is true. Much like any human that has ever lived, life is about survival, and survival requires work of almost everyone.

But if we zoom in a bit, we can quickly see moving parts that hint that it’s not so simple.

See also: The Characteristics Of A Good School

School vs Learning

By calling it “school” (rather than learning), and “a job” (rather than work), we’re unwittingly creating a tone of drudgery and compliance that centers the institutions and their processes (grades, academic success and performance), and de-centers the end result (skills–>understanding–>wisdom).

This is a real problem for several reasons, and creates a convenient pathway from “doing good in school” to “getting a good job” rather than “seeking wisdom to improve self-knowledge and interdependence” to “do good work.”

I can already sense how easy it is to dismiss this as some awful and colorful collision of hippies, philosophy, and semantics, but next time you walk into a school, pay attention to how much joy you see while learning. Not in the hallways, playgrounds, or favorite group activities, but in the learning process itself.

This shouldn’t imply that learning means giggling and chaos–joy comes in many forms, and high-pressure academic learning that pursues proficiency rarely produces it.

While only an opinion not worth much more than the energy it took to send it from my keyboard to your screen, I genuinely believe that the vast majority of social ills that plague us–as a planet, not just in one country–stem from a surplus of bad work. They tempt us with regular paychecks, which allow a mortgage and a car payment, and soon we’re seemingly stuck; life moves quickly downhill at that point.

(Read Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman or Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis.)

And because we’ve all had jobs that sucked, it’s easy to shrug it off as a necessary evil in life.

But it’s not.

Work that demeans, dehumanizes, mechanizes, and depersonalizes individuals also, by design, demean, dehumanize, mechanize, and depersonalize society at large, and telling people to “be thankful they have a job” is an antiquated response that misses the point. People do need to be thankful for work, but that has nothing to do with efforts to improve the nature of the work itself.

The curse of social conditioning and norm-referencing here is also at play: we see it on sitcoms, read about it on facebook, and see it when we’re at a fast-food restaurant, called by a telemarketer, or spammed in our email. It becomes easy to accept, but bad work is crippling. Work can be the intersection of passion, talent, training, and opportunity, or it can be a 65 year trudge that changes who you are.


Finding Purpose In Life

In a post about “preparing students for good work,” I quoted Wendell Berry in a letter he wrote responding to the idea of a “work-life” balance. Berry wrote,

“The old and honorable idea of “vocation” is simply that we each are called, by God, or by our gifts, or by our preference, to a kind of good work for which we are particularly fitted. Implicit in this idea is the evidently startling possibility that we might work willingly, and that there is no necessary contradiction between work and happiness or satisfaction.

Only in the absence of any viable idea of vocation or good work can one make the distinction implied in such phrases as “less work, more life” or “work-life balance,” as if one commutes daily from life here to work there.

But aren’t we living even when we are most miserably and harmfully at work?

And isn’t that exactly why we object (when we do object) to bad work?

And if you are called to music or farming or carpentry or healing, if you make your living by your calling, if you use your skills well and to a good purpose and therefore are happy or satisfied in your work, why should you necessarily do less of it?

More important, why should you think of your life as distinct from it?

And why should you not be affronted by some official decree that you should do less of it?

A useful discourse on the subject of work would raise a number of questions that (the author) has neglected to ask:

What work are we talking about?

Did you choose your work, or are you doing it under compulsion as the way to earn money?

How much of your intelligence, your affection, your skill, and your pride is employed in your work?

Do you respect the product or the service that is the result of your work?

For whom do you work: a manager, a boss, or yourself?

What are the ecological and social costs of your work?

If such questions are not asked, then we have no way of seeing or proceeding beyond the assumptions of (the author) and his work-life experts: that all work is bad work; that all workers are unhappily and even helplessly dependent on employers; that work and life are irreconcilable; and that the only solution to bad work is to shorten the workweek and thus divide the badness among more people.”

Animation Project

The Purpose Of School

Whether or not this is the “responsibility” of the schools or the family seems like an appropriate question, but that also misses the point: no matter what sort of values a family promotes, the learning process, by design, changes a person. Whatever learning experiences a person has, then, are everything. The Awl recently published a post that underscored this idea.

“Let’s put ourselves in the undergraduate student’s position. Someone eighteen years old, embarking on an academic career, might well ask: Will this world welcome me, welcome my potential abilities? Or am I being trained for a life on a hamster wheel? Is my value simply the value of a hamster that can run, a bioform for the Matrix to plug into and extract my essence for the benefit of a larger machine? Is this world full of possibilities, is it asking me to contribute, welcoming my contribution, valuing me for the things known and unknown that I may one day be able to contribute? Or am I being wronged from the start, treated as a “customer,” which all too often means, alas, someone to fleece?

Is the world full of smart and welcoming adults who are interested in what I have to say, encouraging me to work hard and learn and try things, or is it full of thieves and charlatans who are out to rip me off and saddle me with debt and enslave me before I even get a chance to start my adult life?

Let’s consider this from the educator’s point of view, as well. Doesn’t the quality of a culture rely in part on a deep, dynamic interaction between those who are adults now, and those who will be soon?”

And in that intersection sits education.

This makes the concept of good work critical to consider not just in a unit essential question or a dry academic standard, but by evolving schools the same way so many progressive organizations seek to behave today: not as financial entrepreneurs, but social entrepreneurs. This happens not by standards and accountability, but thinking differently about the purpose of school.

Good work is a shared core of both school and social improvement. I’m not entirely sure what this means for education on a practical level, but I keep having the idea of diverse learning forms embedded in authentic local communities as a kind of first response. Without good work to greet them when they “finish school,” what exactly are they graduating to?

The purpose of school, then, may begin with helping each student answer that question for themselves.

What Is The Purpose Of School?